Waiting to Inhale

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The man was amazing.
We were standing in water up to our necks. I’d say something like “One, two, three” and we’d both go underwater, me lying flat on the bottom of the pool, him in a classic track-and-field starter’s crouch, and I’d make 2 or three frames, then stand up again to take a breath. I was wearing a weight belt to keep me down; he was just standing in the starting blocks.

hargis_090329_9584-Edit-2Pictured above is Aaron Thigpen (2007 World Silver Medalist, 100-meters). Aaron had agreed to model for me, for free, in exchange for what I described hopefully (and enthusiastically) as “a portrait that you’ve never seen before.” The other models were Lache Bailey, Jeff Laynes, and Kristal Buluran, all of whom are also competitive track-and-field athletes.

The other models had to wave their arms and more or less swim down into position and I’d have to time the shot for the moment they were there. And with the delay that comes with a point-and-shoot camera (see below), that was challenging, to say the least. But Aaron would simply bend at the waist, let his fingertips touch the bottom of the pool, and freeze there. I’d make my photos, and stand up gasping, and he’d still be down there. Finally I would walk over to him, take him by the shoulder and pull him to the surface. “We’re taking a breather, Aaron,” I’d say, between deep breaths. “Sure, Scott,” he’d reply calmly. “Let me know when you’re ready.”


Clockwise, from lower left: Clarence Foules (PA), Aaron Thigpen, Jeff Laynes (underwater), Greer Goza (holding reflector), and Mòi. Photo by Russell Byrne.


Photo by Russell Byrne.

The project was to make portraits of track and field sprinters, in starter’s blocks, at the bottom of a swimming pool. I wanted make a portrait that, while conventional in terms of the pose, would be completely different from anything else people have seen. I batted around a lot of ideas, most of which involved putting them in a variety of bizarre environments, but this was the one that I was able to visualize best. It took me some time to pull this together, between finding a pool I could rent, getting talent (I wanted actual, real-life athletes) and scrounging a crew that would work for peanuts, since this was an unpaid personal project. A portfolio-builder, sort of. My total expense was just under $600, which included PA fees, pool rental fees, equipment rental, insurance, and prints for the models.

I used a Canon G9 point and shoot, because I could get the underwater housing for about $180, as opposed to several hundred for a housing for my 5D. The G9 shoots 12-megapixel RAW files, and I can rent it locally for about $40, so it was a logical choice.

Back to the pool. The setup was like this: Me, with my little Canon G9, holding my breath and lying on the bottom of the pool; my athlete models, with their shoes velcro’d to the starting blocks, trying to hold position (or in the case of Aaron, crouched under the surface, looking bored); a PA kneeling on the bottom holding a silver reflector to bounce some sunlight into the model’s faces; another PA helping the models get into position; a C-Stand with boom supporting a 2000-watt Arrias hotlight directly over the model (I was slightly non-specific about the consequences if this thing fell into the water); and a location manager on the pool deck, applying the Velcro to shoe soles, getting people in and out of the water on time, and generally keeping track of things.

Here’s some action shots (surface shots are courtesy Russell Byrne Photo):


PA Extraordinaire Clarence Foules


Aaron, waiting for me to get things in place.


Aaron again, posing in the blocks.


Up for a breath! Left to right: PA Greer Goza (in red, behind Aaron; Aaron Thigpen, steadying the C-Stand; Lache Bailey, under the spotlight; Clarence Foules, Yours Truly (with the bald spot). Russell Byrne Photo.


Lache Bailey comes up for a breath. Photo by Russell Byrne.


Kristal Buluran getting into her pose


Lache Bailey poses in the blocks

8 responses to “Waiting to Inhale

  1. Great story and I love the set up photos!
    You’re brilliant.

  2. 2000 watt hot light over the pool!
    on boom attached to a C-stand!!
    People as sandbags!!!
    Cojones… check.

    Those are some epic one light portraits. I’m guessing that whomever insured that shoot was on crack.

  3. Luis — Not as exciting as it sounds. It doesn’t show up well in the photos, but that’s a massive C-stand & Boom, the human sandbag was more to keep it from swiveling than to keep it upright. And I had the head itself safety-rigged with two redundant tethers. Plus, it was plugged into one of those GFCI outlets. Anyway, gotta light it somehow!

  4. Scott,
    Glad to see that you had a GFCI on the lighting, I was cringing when I saw the light in an early picture.
    Thanks for sharing the set up and details. Great images!


  5. Really good concept, not sure I would have had lights connected to constant power hanging precariously over the water. Your a brave man!