An Underwater Photographer Documents a Meditative World
Looking at Michaela Skovranova’s work, it’s easy to perceive instinctively the dreamlike sensation of being submerged. You can almost feel enveloped by cool water, and the movement in its expanse within the growing silence. Underwater, every sense is altered — visuals become magnified or dulled, acoustics shift with pressure and a sense of touch is amplified by both the odd weightlessness and the resistance of surrounding water, not to mention the temperature. It is an atmospheric, at times almost alien, world.
The sea, she said, “unlocked something that I haven’t been able to in other places.”
Given the nature of most of her work, Ms. Skovranova found herself in an unusual situation in January 2016. She had traveled to Antarctica to photograph underwater wildlife when an algae bloom disrupted these plans. Visibility was so poor that — though she was in the water every day — Ms. Skovranova also ventured above the waves, capturing two sides of a vast, frozen world. Her photos reveal enormous structures of ice and rock — above and below the surface — against a backdrop in which sea and sky are almost indistinguishable. The looming figures, too, can be shadowy and indistinct — is that a form of ice jutting toward us, or a whale’s head?
Her images have none of the hyper-Technicolor intensity of some underwater photography displaying the electric, vivid hues of corals and tropical fish. Instead, they convey a poetic sense of quiet and vastness, and the urge to embrace a different frame of mind when confronted with the beauty of these depths.
Some photos evoke the impression of swimming in the sky: “I forgot all about the stars as I found my own under the sea,” Ms. Skovranova wrote about the project, which is called “The End of the World” and was sponsored by Olympus Australia.
This sensation is one thing that has drawn Ms. Skovranova to photograph the underwater world. “The headspace it creates for me — I think I am able to connect to the environment better,” she said. “I stop thinking so much and I’m very much in the moment.”
In Antarctica, she said the days were so long that it was easy to lose all sense of time, and the enormous spaces added to the otherworldly setting. “It honestly just felt like I got plucked out of my real life.”
Ms. Skovranova started photographing because of her family. Her father had owned a travel business and used to do nature photography in Slovakia, where her family lived before moving to Australia when she was 13. A few years later, she was inspired by her older sister to start taking pictures.
“Photography was like a really nice way to communicate and connect to people, so I started using that as a tool to bring myself closer to people,” she said. “I get to experience a hundred different lives in one life just by having the camera.”
Being in Australia was the first time she had lived near a huge body of water, and the marine world drew her in. She recalled seeing the creatures swimming around in the Sydney Aquarium — including a particularly lively seal that would swim through a bubble stream when she was near — and knew she had to see them in their natural environment. She got her scuba certification in 2009, and started photographing underwater in 2015, having previously done some graphic design and freelance photography.
Documenting the aquatic world allowed Ms. Skovranova to express a feeling unlike any experienced elsewhere. “We kind of have an evolutionary reaction to the water, as well, which automatically causes more of a meditative state,” she said, referring to the mammalian diving reflex, a response that restricts blood from the limbs to preserve oxygen for the heart and brain when immersed in water.
“It’s almost as if I didn’t have a choice, and this is what resonated the most out of everything,” she said. “Of all the photography I’ve ever tried, this produced so far the most authentic results for me.”
With that passion she explores different aspects of the undersea, both in personal projects and assignments, capturing the abstract beauty of water movements alongside the massive grace of humpback whales and swiftness of sea lions.
Though ocean-bound for now, she is receptive to expanding the focus of her work to other horizons as she continues to document and explore the environment.
“I love to highlight the beauty and the unique things in this world.”