Heather Perry’s love of the ocean is visceral. “Ideally, I would take a photo that tastes salty, that sounds like water rushing past my ears,” she says.
As a small child, she remembers holding two conflicting feelings at once: fear of the water and a desire to be a deep-sea diver. The fear went away as soon as she set foot in the water and, from the age of seven or eight through college, she was a competitive swimmer. “My most comfortable space in life is 25 feet [underwater] on a white, sandy bottom with one breath of air.”
Perry, who has a degree in marine biology, was working in an aquarium when she first tried her hand at underwater photography. “I was terrible,” she says. But she loved it. She kept shooting, determined to figure out how to be a professional underwater photographer. “I did everything I could to round myself out so that I could take jobs that would get me out into the ocean. I became a scuba diving instructor. I put together a series of marine biology slideshows I could present to schools. I became skilled at handling boats and lines.”
While she was initially focused on natural history, she found herself increasingly drawn toward the interaction of people and water. Her true epiphany came after recovering from a bout with cancer, when she gave herself permission to follow what rang most true for her. “When I first came back to life it was in the water,” she says. One of her first forays back into the world, and into photography, was with a company leading open-water swim vacations.
As she had done before, she found a need they didn’t know they had and pitched herself as a “swimming photographer.” Perry ditched her dive gear in favor of free diving and began focusing in earnest on capturing the human relationship with water. (She’s now a partner in the company and has gone on five trips a year in the past eight years.)
“I am so inspired [by] this cusp between two totally different worlds—this shocking place where you go from breathing to holding your breath, [go] from feeling the pull of gravity to being nearly weightless, to floating,” she says. “The light does amazing things as the water mixes into the water in splashes and the air mixes into water in bubbles. It bends light unlike anything else I can think of in the photographic world.
Perry thrilled at seeing, mirrored in the people she was photographing and guiding, the same healing effects of the ocean that she herself had felt. And listening to her talk about it makes someone who prefers admiring the waves from a safe distance (me) want to jump into the open ocean and surrender to its transformative energy.
“The ocean is this living, moving fluid, with its own energy source,” she says. “You can’t help but shed the masks and artifice that we walk around with all the time. You get stripped down to the essence of who you are. I am enamored of photographing people in this experience when they are most themselves. What I am moved by is that it’s not always pretty, it’s not always easy—the water can push you, scare you, can be difficult, require a lot of effort. [It] seems to always be driving you towards a general sense of surrender. And when you do surrender, it carries you to where you need to be.”