Interview: Matthew Farrugia

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Very often, you might have shared his photographs and hit the facebook ‘like’ button without actually knowing the man behind it all. Matthew Farrugia is today’s protagonist for redwhite’s interview session. Born August 1984, Matthew describes himself as a multi disciplinary designer. Boasting a first degree honors in creative design, Matthew has nowadays become more synonymous with his quest at researching the underwater world through light and lenses.

Strangely enough, Malta – an island nation, features very few underwater photographers. Why is that and what made you specialise in this field of photography?

A strange matter indeed considering Malta’s natural environment where the sea acts predominantly! Since my very first dive in 2002 i got so enthusiastic about the sheer natural beauty of this, otherwise, alien, environment.

I gained experience as a diver and after five years I bought my first point-&-shoot camera. Being used to my SLR for my land photography and design work, i felt a bit frustrated when i realised this tool didn’t give me the same flexibility. That is why I set my objectives at investing in professional underwater, photographic equipment – a goal i managed to achieve last year following intensive work and investment!

Living in such a tight knit society, the saturation of sources and resources is inevitable and unfortunately this doesn’t allow the various local professional photographers and other serious enthusiasts to stand out from the rest. Combining the desire to document the natural underwater beauty together with my ambition to be different, I felt this niche segment in photography could suit me well.

How does underwater photography vary from the usual photography?

Underwater photography has a different language than land photography. The sea is not the natural habitat for men and that is why a number of physical and technical aspects need a different take when underwater, especially since there is an evident higher life risk factor to it.

The most evident constraint in this venture is definitely the lifespan of the diving tank which dictates the diver’s time under water. Meticulous planning need to be done prior to any dive. For instance, one can’t really have a chat with his model when underwater. Buoyancy, currents and wave action are other aspects that need serious dedication and attention.

The technical aspect of photography itself differs completely from land photography. For instance, red is absorbed completely from the colour spectrum, once it appears at a depth of six metres or more. On the other hand, the blue tinge of the sea water, changes according to the angle of the lens. A slight change can expose deep and dark navy blues or the most exquisite and lighter turquoise.

Strobes need to be positioned close to the subject and as far out from the camera as much as possible (approximately 20 inch on each side). If positioned incorrectly, images will get backscatter, which is very annoying and ruins the compositions.

Most of your shoots feature the human element inside the waters. How do you plan such photoshoots? Or do you improvise whilst on location?

A human element tends to add dimension and perspective to a wide-angled, underwater environment. Some shots are improvised but obviously a good number of shots are planned. Usually I study a particular dive site and investigate the topography and any special features in the area. Preliminary dives are done to notice any conditions/dangers and get more ‘intimate’ with the space.

Since the sun, being a major light source, is a major player in many shoots, i usually research the ideal time of day when it can provide me with various effects for the overall shoot.

How do you pick your shoots, and how does it feel working with non-models?

I’m currently trying to document as many locations possible around our islands. Working with non-models is not much of a struggle as the poses are researched and discussed prior to each dive. It is of utmost importance that the model feels comfortable underwater especially when she/he is required to dive into wrecks or caves. More often then not my diving buddy would be the model for the particular shoot. Since facial expressions do not really feature, being a non-model is not a huge setback.

When photographing water sports the athletes are very rarely directed so as to document the most authentic aura and the most expressive bodily expressions.

Is there any ideal season for underwater photography?

No. The real constrains are bad visibility; which usually occurs after rainfall, rough weather and high seas. Strong currents and rise in plankton, (mid to late summer due to temperature rise) are other aspects affecting the visibility underwater.

What are the challenges of the art?

The challenges are numerous and the risks are considerable. Intense training and practice on as many possible diving situations are very much suggested before actually taking the plunge. Depths are a big issue especially since natural light fades out considerably. Even more when you surpass thirty metres. As already indicated, natural elements such as currents and murky waters are other tough challenges.

Once I was competing in a ‘Macro live session’ organised by Germans in Gozo and I couldn’t pick any interesting subject. Whilst underwater, the photographer doesn’t have the facility to switch lenses so once there, one is practically bound to shoot with what he/she had initially set up for. Just imagine my poor luck having set up a macro lens, and finding a turtle hovering right above my head!

Indeed, familiarisation with the dive site, helps one to equip adequately before dipping into the sea.

Lately you’ve had a honorable mention in the International Photography Awards. Tell us more about it. What is the prestige of such a mention?

Recently I was awarded with two Honorable Mentions in the Editorial – Sports category for the entries The Swimmer and the Kite Surfing. The 2012 International Photography Awards received nearly 18,000 submissions from 104 countries across the globe. Such a prestigious mention is very rewarding and means much to me, especially on the international scene where i’m really keen to venture. A pat on the back and an indication that I might well be on the right track.

Does this kind of photography offer commercial viability for a photographer?

The initial expenses are phenomenal and the on going expenses are considerable. Underwater photography at this point in time is something which doesn’t pay the bills, so i try to compensate by  shooting commercially on land. Currently i am working on a project which seems to have good prospects and hopefully it will turn out to be financially rewarding in a few years. I am also investing time to build a strong portfolio and plan that by end of year i will conclude a deal with an online photographic agent.

How do locals react to your work? What’s the feedback from local publishing houses etc?

The feedback from the man in the street have been absolutely positive. I have been contacted by various people, both foreigners and locals, congratulating me. However, as predicted, the local commercial industry, including the diving industry, various entities and also local publishing houses are not willing to pay the true face value of high end quality imagery.

Considering the costs involved, it is not commercially viable to give away my professional work for free, or at a very low cost, in return to promises of exposure. Through my website and social media channels like facebook and twitter, I am already managing to get a very good exposure myself.

The thing i hate with a passion is plagiarism especially when my pictures are used for alien commercial purposes, without my permissions. It has happened a number of times already and all turn up with the excuse that ‘they didn’t know’. I believe this will keep happening and I just need to stay on the alert and monitor where my images are being used.

On a positive note I have sold a number of images to local and foreign publishers, including a set of images sold recently to an Italian magazine. I have also been contacted by various other publishing houses, one of which was all the way from India.

Is there any shoot you’d be really thrilled to conduct?

There are some marine creatures and places that I would really wish to document and there are some shoots in the pipeline for the coming year. Some places that I would really wish to visit and photograph underwater are: Palau, Indonesia, Galapagos, South Africa, Mexico, Iceland & the Arctic, amongst others. Creatures which I would really wish to photograph are: Whale Sharks, Great Whites, Seals and Manta-rays.

I also would be thrilled to conduct a shoot of a couple in their wedding outfits or a water baby… obviously underwater! Anyone interested can surely drop me a line!

What gear do you shoot with?

I shoot primarily with my Nikon DSLR using prime lenses such as a 35mm, 10.5mm Fisheye and 105mm Macro. The kit is then housed in a Sea & Sea housing and for every different lens I have a different lens port. Also I am equipped with two powerful underwater strobes on each side and a video/focus light to assist while focusing.

Have you been up to anything interesting lately?

I have lately photographed a water-polo session from underwater while the team was training. The set of 8 images have not been published yet and are being released exclusively for the first time here on redwhite.

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