Deb Achak Discusses Underwater Photography, Beaches, and her new work in Culture and Sea, with Sofya Belinskaya
Sofya Belinskaya: I’m here with Seattle based artist, Deb Achak who submerges her camera to explore oceans, beaches, and the ways that people interact with the boundary of water and land. Deb’s solo show, Culture and Sea, is currently on view at Winston Wächter through June 20. Deb, thank you for sitting down with me. This show is comprised of two series, Aquatic Street and Ebb and Flow and the connecting theme is water and ocean. What initially drew you to the subject?
Deb Achak: I shoot what excites me, and I don’t always know why I’m photographing something. I found it fascinating that there is this instrument that allows me to swim and capture the surface of the water, the people in the water, and above and below. So, the process began with that joy and fascination. I started collecting images over the course of several years. That’s when it was revealed to me just how much the subject matter is about my childhood, and the summers spent at crowded public beaches. This is what we did as kids, and I think there is a returning to childhood. Also, I find water very meditative. For me, swimming is a peaceful, calming, restorative experience.
SB: Were you shooting these two bodies of work simultaneously or did they develop while you were processing them?
DA: Ebb and Flow came first. I have been shooting that since 2015. I decided to swim out and try to capture the water. I let the water interact with my camera and the lens. It happened to be a beautiful day, the clouds were really interesting, and that’s how my Ebb and Flow series began.
The Queue was an early work in Culture and Sea, and that was shot in Hawaii. I was able to capture tourists doing something in the water that was interesting. It was a stand-alone piece for a while. Then, my family and I went to the Amalfi Coast of Italy. The scene was so rich in color and so densely populated with people that I remember feeling like, ‘Omg, I cannot wait to wade through these crowds and capture moments of these people.’ Somewhere between the Queue and that trip to the Amalfi coast, something was sparked in me.
SB: As you are going in the water to shoot, are you removed from the scene as you shoot or are you interacting with your surroundings?
DA: The answer is both. I am in it 100%. The way I shoot feels meditative. There is a lot of intuition. I am trying not to be noticed because I want to capture unguarded moments. That’s the vast majority, and why I call them street photography, but from the water. I am trying to enter a scene with a camera, and have people not notice my camera. That’s not easy because it’s a fairly large apparatus, so I have been developing techniques to put people at ease when I’m so close to them. I have such a reverence and respect for the people I capture, and I hope that’s always conveyed in my work.
SB: I want to ask about your process. How do you approach the act of shooting?
DA: The approach begins with a meditation, and as I’m getting my gear together, and I focus on not having a lot of restrictions on what I shoot, and not having to have a fixed mindset on what I’m supposed get that day. I go into the water, calm and relaxed, and not feeling like I have to force anything or anyone to cooperate with me that day. That’s been really huge for my process.
I shoot generously, because it’s digital. Shooting a lot allows me to stay in that headspace, that there won’t be a scarcity, that I won’t miss a thing. There’s a lot of work that goes into post processing. That’s a great problem for me to have. I shoot with an openness and joy, and later go back and ask what is this revealing to me, what is this saying to me? Why am I responding? Why do I want to invest months into perfecting these. So that’s the process.
SB: These works were taken in Hawaii, Italy and Florida. Do you see a difference depending on where you are?
DA: Certainly. Culturally, these are really different places, and I hope that always stays that way in the world. Florida was about birds and everyone had their drinks in beer cozies, and there were a lot of floaties. The color of the water was different, its got a yellow green quality. In Europe, there is a massive influx of tourists in the summer, and you have these crowded beaches and different languages. I love to convey that as well as the gorgeous architecture. What I ask myself is what makes this beach unique and how do I capture the spirit of this and the people who come here.
SB: You have a background as a social worker. Does that part of your life inform your photography practice?
DA: I studied literature, art and women’s studies, and I didn’t know any artists and I thought, well I’m going to study something really interesting, and when I graduated, I thought, well now I have to go and get a job. I didn’t think it was possible to have a career as an artist. I moved to Seattle, and started working in the social work field, and then I got my master’s in social work. I continued with social work until I had my kids. I picked up a camera to start documenting my children and found my creative outlet. From the time that I got a camera, I never put it down again. I was sucked into the medium and it’s been part of my life since.
I am always curious about the connection between social work and my photography. I think with my Ebb and Flow series, it’s such a peaceful series for me that I hope it can be therapeutic to the viewer. With Culture and Sea, I think what you are seeing is my deep curiosity and reverence for people. A big part of social work, which I did in hospital settings, is that you have to quickly develop a rapport, you had you get to know someone that you did not know, you had to make them feel comfortable so you could access their needs. I think in my work there is some of that, putting people at ease and I have such a respect and curiosity that there’s no judgment in my work when I photograph people. And I am every person too. I too am in a bathing suit, I too am on vacation with my family, and I too am relaxing. It’s a equal mix of reverence and genuine curiosity that inspires how I capture a scene at the beach.
SB: Do you feel that you see something about people you did not expect to see?
DA: If it weren’t for the camera, I would be at the beach in my own little bubble, I would be with my book, my hat and sunglasses, maybe take a nap. The act of doing this gets me to really be outside of myself and to be engaged with humanity, and that has been a huge surprise. I’m not the most extraverted person, so I must be compelled to do this to try and get that close to people in crowded beaches. I put myself a little closer to people than I might normally, just to get the shot.
SB: Your show, Culture and Sea is on view through June 20. Deb, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts process today.
DA: Thank you Sofya.