Of all the beautiful ways to travel the world and get paid, working as an underwater photographer takes the concept to, well, new depths. Here, we catch up with Alexandra Baackes from Alex in Wanderland and hear about life as an underwater filmmaker.
Originally published in 2012.
Working as an Underwater Photographer
-How would you describe yourself and what you do?
I am an underwater videographer and also a blogger. My blog is focused on my experiences diving, traveling, and working around the world. In the underwater video field I mostly film private videos for divers who are completing their Open Water certification, though occasionally there are fun projects like filming stock shots of Seasonal Schooling Silversides or making a video for a multi-generational family of 15 that dives together every year.
Working in the diving and blogging industries might seem unrelated but in reality they are deeply intertwined. I use my blog as a platform to promote ocean issues that are important to me and hopefully to inspire new divers (who I might someday get to film!), while underwater video gives me constant inspiration and new material to write about. Both careers allow me flexibility and time to travel, take me to exotic locations, and feed my creativity. On the side I do freelance writing, editing and design.
-Did you know when you got into this line of work that you’d be travelling a lot?
I got into these lines of work because I wanted to travel a lot!
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-How did you get into this line of work?
I got into underwater video kind of by accident. I was finished up my design degree in New York when I fell in love with my diving instructor while on vacation in Thailand. After a whirlwind romance he moved to the Cayman Islands to be closer to me and I followed soon after, desperately looking for any kind of creative work. I started assisting a wedding photographer who also happened to do underwater video. She trained me and really opened up that world to me! I was thrilled to find a way to marry my passions for diving, art and travel. I loved the job but didn’t love Cayman- it just wasn’t the right place for me. Later I moved back to Thailand and started working for a small underwater video company. It was the absolute perfect fit- they gave me tons of flexibility, taught me so much and even paid me a higher than average commission.
As for blogging, I started a personal blog back in 2009 when I began my travels as a way to keep up with friends and family. As with anything you commit yourself to doing daily, my writing and photography improved and eventually I found myself ready to take blogging more seriously. A little over a year ago I launched Alex in Wanderland and today I live mostly off its advertising income.
-Would you recommend it to someone starting out now? Any tips for beginners?
I had a very untraditional start in underwater video. Many people get into the field having no creative background but wanting desperately to be part of the diving industry and the lifestyle that goes along with it. They might take an expensive training course and then be frustrated that their videos are sub-par and they aren’t selling many. When they do sell, the commission is very poor. So my advice to beginners would be to be honest with yourself about whether or not this really is the right career for you. You will work long hours (on filming days I clock 15 hours! See a typical day here) and usually work 100% on commission, meaning there is always the chance of making nothing at the end of the day. Also, some people are surprised to find that while half your day will be spent diving and connecting with customers, another half is spent in front of a computer screen editing whale shark clips to the beat of a Moby song. You need an eye for aesthetics, a mind for multi-tasking and a heart for sales.
If you still decide that you want a career in underwater video, fantastic- in my biased opinion it is one of the greatest jobs in the world! Watch tons of underwater movies to study different styles, treat editing as art form, and give the ocean the respect it deserves.
As for the blogging and freelance writing world I still feel like such a small fish, I really think I’m still in the beginner stage! My biggest advice though would be to network, network, network. My freelance gigs have all come from personal recommendations.
-What are the downsides of travelling with work?
When I’m doing video I’m not really “traveling” so much as living the expat life- I’m in a foreign country but I’m staying put and diving. When I’m on the move and blogging and diving for fun, that’s the real challenge- I haven’t quite figured out that work/travel balance yet. Whenever I’m on the road with others I find myself waking up at ridiculous hours to try to squeeze in a blog post or respond to comments before my travel companions wake up and want to start a day of activities!
Not having to go back to “real life!” I might make a negligible income but I am rich in time and flexibility. I love being able to sink in and really get to know a place slowly and thoroughly.
-Where have you travelled to?
This month I will visit my 17th country, Iceland (and like any sane person, go diving there)! Out of those I have lived in two (Thailand and the Cayman Islands) and dived in eight. My travels have been primarily around Southeast Asia and Central America with little dashes of Europe and the Caribbean thrown in for good measure.
-Which place surprised you the most? Why?
The Bahamas really surprised me! My previous experience with the Caribbean was in Grand Cayman, which is kind of like a slice of suburban America plopped into the Caribbean West Indies. So I went to the Bahamas only because my boyfriend at the time was working on a liveaboard (a dive boat that customers cruises around and customers eat, sleep and dive from) and I was able to tag along for free. I was pleasantly shocked to find extremely warm locals, stunning beaches and a really affordable diving location (the liveaboard I was on charged $1k for a week of diving, accommodation, food and alcohol, which is probably the cheapest you will find in this hemisphere.) While its one of the least exotic places I’ve been, for value and proximity to the US I was very impressed.
Vietnam was surprising in a less pleasant way. I was taken aback by (but also understanding of) the unwelcoming reception we got from many locals, and much of my three weeks there feeling uneasy in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else on my travels. Still, I plan to return someday and give it another go!
-What’s the most dangerous place you’ve ever visited?
I’ve never really visited a destination that I would classify as “dangerous,” though I have made some risky choices- in one short trip to Honduras I managed to go to a rave on an uninhabited island, accept an invitation to stay at the home of someone I met five minutes prior, and participate in some diving that laughed in the face of recreational standards. None of those things seemed dangerous at the time but I’m not sure they would stand up in the Court of Good Judgement.
-What makes you shudder about travelling?
Saying goodbye over and over again to the amazing people I meet along the way. It’s always painful and sometime I wonder how many goodbyes one heart can bare.
Also, immigration officers. Immigration officers make me shudder with fear.
-What has been your most poignant moment on your travels?
It would be impossible to name the “most” so I’ll have to go for the “most recent” instead! When I was traveling through Laos last month I was in a really bad place, in the midst of a brutal breakup with my boyfriend and travel partner of three years. I was in Vientienne and travelled out to the outskirts of town to a dilapidated temple that housed a traditional Lao sauna. I sat in the wooden little wooden hut, my lungs filling with steamed air and ancient herbal concoctions, and when I couldn’t take it anymore I went outside for a massage on an open-air pavilion. It started pouring rain and I had this strange sensation as I lay there in a sarong on a bamboo matt in the middle of the Laotian countryside, a sensation that everything would be okay.
-Would you do it all again?
I’m about to! I’m back in New York for the summer to attend weddings, conferences, and family vacations, but in September I’m off on the next great chapter in my journey – South America!. I can’t wait to get back underwater.
I feel so grateful to have found two diverse careers that I feel so passionately about, that stimulate me creatively, allow me to travel the world, and force me to examine different lands and cultures. Plus, nothing beats wearing flip flops to work, every single day.