Meaghan Ogilvie: Underwater
An interview with photoED Magazine
We spoke to Toronto-based photographer Meaghan Ogilvie
about her incredible underwater photography.
photoED: What is it about creating stories through photography that you love most?
I love that photography allows me to connect and engage with any audience as a tool that transcends language barriers. I love that I have the opportunity to share my exploration of the world creatively and that I can inspire others to do the same.
photoED: Whose work has influenced yours?
I began my journey with analog photography so I will always have a deep love for black and white images. Sebastião Salgado and Sally Mann are my O.G.’s in this realm and I admire them for their commitment to long-term projects and their authenticity and technical skills.
When I began underwater photography, I came across the images of Zena Holloway. She is a pioneer and has always remained one of my favourite underwater photographers not only because her work is beautiful, but because she has sustained a long career in a very niche field.
Over the years, I’ve learned that success has a lot to do with stamina and re-inventing yourself.
It takes intelligence, ambition, and hard work to succeed and Zena demonstrates this. She continues to evolve now as a bio-designer and material innovator growing sustainable sculpture and fashion from grass root plants. She’s incredibly inspiring!
photoED: What makes a good photograph?
Creativity, lighting, and originality are the first things I look for in a photograph and its ability to evoke emotion. A great photograph tells a story, puts you in a particular moment in time, and speaks to your emotions. A good picture stands out from the average if it can do all of the above.
photoED: What advice would you give an aspiring Canadian photographer?
Practice regularly, keep pushing yourself, network, and collaborate. Photography is a continuous learning process and the more you take risks and challenge yourself, the better you will be. Collaborating with other artists will help you connect with the industry and potentially open doors. The online communities can also be really helpful.
It sounds cheesy, but above all believe in yourself and don’t give up. Many people didn’t believe I could make a career out of underwater photography, but I’m still here!
photoED: How has working in photography influenced you personally?
My mom bought me an old 35mm film camera for my fourteenth birthday. I took it with me everywhere and it became a part of my identity. I was shy growing up, so the camera gave me purpose and the opportunity to talk to people. It helped me with my introversion and still does today.
Working as a photographer, especially specializing in underwater, has made me more courageous and confident. I started out being afraid of open water, but now I’m an advanced diver, diving among beautiful sharks in strong currents 27 metres below the surface and I love it. Travel for my work has also shown me the beautiful diversity of the world and made me a more open-minded person.
There have also been a lot of ups and downs working as an underwater photographer based in Toronto. Being so far away from the ocean, I have been challenged to keep relevant. There have been moments where I wanted to give up. I’ve learned to keep going by re-inventing myself and upgrading my skills. I’ve learned to make my own opportunities. Working in photography has taught me to be persistent and go after the things I’m passionate about in life.
photoED: What has been your favourite or most personally impactful project to work on?
Back in 2008, when I created my first underwater shoot, I had no idea that one shoot would change the trajectory of my life and career. Ever since then I’ve had experiences I could have never dreamed of. That’s not to say it’s always been easy and fun, but the journey and projects have shaped my beliefs and perspective on life.
In 2015, I was commissioned to create a water themed large-scale public exhibition for the Toronto Pan-Am and Parapan Am Games in downtown Toronto at Brookfield Place. The goal was to educate and inspire the public about the importance of protecting the Great Lakes. For almost two years I worked on this project, researching the significance of water to Indigenous communities, producing and photographing work, as well as designing the exhibition and promoting it. It was an amazing experience shooting in the Great Lakes and learning so much about creating a large-scale exhibition. The most impactful part of the project was co-creating and collaborating with Indigenous artists and communities from Wasauksing First Nation, Six Nations of the Grand River, M’Chigeeng First Nation, and Aamjiwnaang First Nation. The experience changed my relationship to water, from viewing it as a resource to seeing it as a living and thriving part of nature. Since then, my perspective on life has shifted and I’m more conscious of how my individual actions affect the rest of the planet.
photoED: Any stand-out photography or adventures you still think about?
Being an underwater photographer has connected me with like-minded people around the world. In February 2018, I was a part of a sailing expedition in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines aboard a sailboat called Diatomée. I had never sailed before or met the three other people whom I’d be on a boat with for a week. It was a wild adventure, mooring or anchoring close to a deserted island and then swimming to the shore and stepping onto a feral island. I learned so much from the others about sailing, freediving, underwater photography, and the ocean. We were all from different countries — France, Spain, and Canada — and shared many stories about our homelands. It was an experience I will never forget.
photoED: What projects are you most excited about right now?
Last year, I focused on learning underwater lighting and cinematography so I could experiment with new techniques. I’m currently working on concepts for new projects, so I don’t have anything to share just yet, but I can say I’ve fallen in love with kelp forests and I’m excited to explore them more. I will be focusing on creating large-scale works.
I’ve also just returned from Raja Ampat in Indonesia where I won a trip to dive on a liveaboard. Raja Ampat is known as “the last paradise on earth” because of its rich biodiversity. Its remote location in Indonesia has allowed it to escape mass tourism and is one of the most successful conservation projects on Earth. During my recent visit I saw a lot of plastic and garbage in the ocean, as well as unregulated liveaboards and boats at dive locations. The reefs of Raja Ampat now face coral degradation, increased plastic pollution, anchor damage, and boat strikes from an influx of tourists and a lack of proper infrastructure. It was really sad to see that this “last paradise” was so vulnerable to destruction. Having just been there and witnessed the beauty and imminent threats, I would like to take action and use my work to bring awareness. I’m looking into ways I can do that.
photoED: What does your dream project entail?
Going on assignment for National Geographic. It has been my dream since I was a kid! I don’t want to jinx myself, but I’ve applied for a grant with them and hope I will be working on that project next year. Over the past three years my work has been moving more in the direction of documentary and wildlife photography.
I still have a strong artistic side, so another dream project would be to shoot a high-quality production underwater shoot in a pool with an unlimited budget. I have ideas for both still images and a short film.
What camera and equipment do you most use now? What’s your favourite lens? Can you tell us about your experience using Tamron lenses?
I’m limited to what I can use underwater because underwater housings are built for specific cameras and lenses. My current go-to is the old-school Canon 5D Mark II with a 17-40mm 4.0 lens and an Ikelite housing. I’ve had this set up for years now and most of my images are wide angle, so it was amazing to try the Tamron SP 35mm F1.4 lens to get a shallower depth of field, play with bokeh, and get a closer perspective of my subjects.
Tamron was generous enough to lend me the 35mm for my recent trip to Raja Ampat. Shooting conditions were really challenging because of heavy rains and strong currents that brought plankton and algae. This weather affected the visibility for pictures, but on the flip side brought forth a lot of marine life.
The 35mm had great reliable autofocus in low light and visibility, so I was very thankful to have it with me. It was versatile for getting wider shots of schools of fish but also for focusing on close details of coral, which Raja Ampat is famous for. It was a multipurpose lens to use underwater and on land to capture tiny insects but also seascapes.
Meaghan Ogilvie has exhibited her work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Oceanside Museum of Art in California, Le Festival L’Homme et la Mer in France, and the DGI Byen Centre in Copenhagen, Denmark, among many other places. She has participated in residencies at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Artscape Gibraltar Point on Toronto Island, Art Tahsis on Vancouver Island, and a sailing residency aboard Diatomée in the Caribbean Sea.
She was awarded a grant in 2021 from the Canada Council for the Arts to train in underwater cinematography in the Red Sea, and is a recipient of several public art commissions, including one from the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games, where she created “Requiem of Water” (2015), a large-scale photography installation exhibited in the Allen Lambert Galleria at Brookfield Place, and a permanent digital mural, “Here and Now” (2021), for Lakeview Village in Mississauga, Ontario.
See more of Meaghan's work - HERE.