‘I wish to build an underwater studio’: Underwater photographer and cinematographer Sumer Verma
Around two decades ago, Sumer Verma along with a bunch of friends decided to pursue a diving course. When he went inside the water, he fell in love with the beautiful aquatic life, so much so that he decided to pursue it as a career. Today, he is considered as India’s first underwater photographer and cinematographer. A pioneer in the world of underwater, he is the man behind shooting Sameera Reddy’s maternity shoot as well as the underwater sequence of The Sky Is Pink. Known for capturing wildlife and fashion besides being a scuba diving instructor and running a diving school in Lakshadweep, Verma brings along a very rich experience. As he shares his experience at the ongoing Diving & Resort Travel Expo, we trace his journey so far and ask him about the challenges of shooting underwater, tips for those who want to pursue underwater photography, the crisis the underwater life is facing at the moment and his dream project. Excerpts:
Q: What made you explore the underwater world? Do you remember your very first scuba diving experience? It has been around two decades since then, what keeps you going?
Actually I along with a bunch of friends decided to do a diving course and that’s all. There was nothing more in my head at that point. I remember my first dive as if it were yesterday - that weightless feeling, that silence and all those mesmerising fish are still etched on my mind. And, years later, the joy of diving in me hasn’t died even a bit and so, I am happy to do it as much as I can and the desire of capturing more footage and pictures from under the ocean keeps me going... there is still so much that I need to see and capture.
Q: Presently the underwater world has become one of the main attractions with water sports becoming so popular. But, how was it when you had started?
When we started diving at Lacadives around 1995, it was very different. Not many people knew what diving was let alone all the magic that exists under the sea. We just felt privileged to be able to do what we were doing and to be able to live in Lakshadweep Island.
Q: How did photography begin? Was it challenging, especially buying equipments and educating yourself? Take us through the journey.
Photography began soon after diving, it emerged from the desire to share this beautiful world with as many people as I can. Yes, there were many struggles regarding equipments and knowledge in the beginning and zillions of trials and errors and a lot of patience have brought me here today.
Q: And, how did cinematography begin? What was your first project? What are the challenges of shooting underwater?
I wanted to do it! I believed I was a good underwater cameraman and also knew that there was a dearth of such talent and expertise in the film industry.
Shooting for films is a completely different kettle of fish as compared to underwater wildlife photography. One of the biggest challenges is the lighting. Then we also have to make sure that the actors are well trained to do what they need to. It’s super challenging and enjoyable. My first project was for the film Mariyaan, starring Dhanush. It was directed by the legend Bharat Bala. I will always be grateful that he believed in me and trusted me with such an important part of his film.
Q: You have also shot Sameera Reddy. Are underwater pregnancy shoots the latest trends?
Shooting maternity pictures underwater with Sameera was a first for me as well. I have always believed that anything and anyone can be shot underwater and it adds an element to the image, making it extraordinary. I think shooting underwater, whether it’s maternity, portrait, wedding or anything else, will continue to grow into more than just a trend.
Q: You also dived in Ecuador, which has sharks! What made you do that and how was your experience? Tell us about your most memorable diving experience.
Diving in the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador was like a dream come true for me. I wanted to dive there ever since I saw the Blue Planet series, I wanted to capture that immense beauty and feel the rush of being surrounded by hundreds of sharks. And, it happened in a much better way then I imagined, so much so that I shall visit the Mecca of the sharks many more times.
My most memorable experience is definitely diving in the strong currents and cold waters of the Pacific and witnessing mind-numbing sights of the wall of sharks swimming past us.
Q: In the years since you begin, did you see marine life going through a change because of global warming? What according to you is the solution? Another challenge that our water bodies face is pollution and consumption of these materials, especially plastic. How can we work on this problem?
The oceans are taking a serious battering from all sides and I am truly and deeply concerned about the state of the planet today, more so of the powers that allow it to continue. Be it global warming which is killing the coral, or the catastrophic levels of plastic pollution, the sheer weight of human greed and demand which leads to unsustainable practices like trawling, whaling, etc, the planet is truly at a tipping point. There is no easy solution, but as always, awareness is the key. We need to make smart choices as a consumer, eradicate single-use plastic from our lives and put more pressure on our governments to act is the need of the hour.
Q: What brought you on board for India Dive Expo? What do you plan to address?
I have first visited a DRT show in the Philippines and was very impressed by it and needless to say was delighted when DRT was coming to India as it shows how the Indian market for diving is growing since I have been a part of the Indian diving industry for many years. I was flattered and honoured when I was asked to be an ambassador for the event and talk about my photography as well as what better way to share my love for the ocean and underwater photography with all of you
Q: Lastly, tell us about your upcoming projects?
I am working on a couple of interesting projects including a still shoot in the ocean for a big brand and an underwater sequence for a Telugu film. Besides, I have just shot something special for a leading fashion magazine which shall be in print very soon so I excited to see that out as well. Apart from these, I am working on a dream project of mine which is to build my own temperature-controlled swimming pool/underwater studio where I intend to shoot a lot more and also hold workshops for all others who are interested to learn more about both underwater photography and filmmaking
1. Your most memorable photo:
Shooting Rajan the swimming elephant. It was surreal to swim alongside a fully grown elephant with huge tusks in the Bay of Bengal.
2. Must-have gadgets (in budget) for underwater photography for beginners:
Any basic point and shoot camera with a simple housing, or a go pro. These days even your iPhone in housing make for a good starting point. The Nikon cool pix goes underwater to 20 metres even without a housing. The second important instrument is a strobe so you can get some light and thereby colour back into your images
3. A tip you give to divers:
Don’t be in a hurry to do anything. Always be safe, learn to master your skills, comfort and buoyancy in the water before you think about picking up a camera. Diving is a beautiful sport and it must be appreciated and mastered first before one gets all crazy about capturing images.
Sumer Verma is speaking at the ongoing Diving and Resort Travel Expo, which is being held at World Trade Centre