Juan Oliphant is more than an underwater photographer. While his photographs aptly capture the beauty in marine wildlife and his Instagram following is as impressive as the proximity which he can gain to sharks, he is as much of a conservationalist as he is photographer. Not only do his photographs spread positive messages about sharks to the masses that follow him on social media, but his work in research, as well as more overt conservation efforts, such as talks, and playing large roles in organizations, such as One Ocean Diving and Water Inspired, is certainly making waves in the protection of and changing perceptions of sharks.
We interviewed Juan about his life, conservation work, and photography.
What was your background before fully committing to marine photography?
Juan Oliphant:My passion for the ocean and marine wildlife began at a young age, surfing and scuba diving. At the time I was also interested in photography, however, it was mainly weddings, events and surf photography that I dealt with. It wasn’t until I was working on one of the Sea Shepard’s dive and conservation boats that I realized there was a need to protect sharks. The project they were working on at the time was called Shark Water, which focused on the depletion of sharks in the Cocos Islands and Galapagos due to long lining and senseless killing of sharks. This project and documentary forever sparked a need to do what I can to help with shark and marine conservation.
When did you first dive with sharks? How difficult was it to overcome the expected fear impulse?
J.O.:The first shark I ever saw was a beautiful little white tip reef shark, while on a scuba dive. I quickly realized in that encounter that the shark was more scared of me than I was of it. My mentality had already changed then, but when I had the opportunity to dive with hundreds of hammerheads in the Galapagos, they wanted nothing to do with me and were more intimidated by me than I was of them. This completely convinced me that a perception change for these animals needed to occur. After that, I was able to witness sharks in a feeding environment, and, despite this, the fears I had been previously taught still weren’t accurate. That being said this realization was something I had to experience on my own.
Naturally, I have to ask, have you had any close calls or been there when others have?
J.O.:Mostly, I’ve had a lot of sharks be interested in my camera and confuse it with potential food. This is because sharks have jelly filled pores called the Ampullae of Lorenzi which can sense the electrical currents coming from the device. There have been a few bites and checks to my cameras, but for close calls that’s pretty much it.
PHOTO CREDIT: JUAN OLIPHANT
How do you find your shark subjects? Are there certain parts of the ocean that they’re more likely to be than others?
J.O.:I generally travel to natural aggregate sites or “hot spots” for sharks around the world. I enjoy highlighting the natural beauty of the animals in those areas and expressing the need for them to be protected.
For a full mindmap behind this article with articles, videos, and documents see #photography
To what extent do you think that your photography work itself has helped change perceptions of sharks?
J.O.:Changing the perception of sharks was certainly the main goal in my work, and the reason why I got into the industry. Through social media, the attention my work has gotten sharks has definitely been very beneficial to that perception change. I’ve known a lot of people who have gone through this change in mentality and feel very differently about sharks now.
PHOTO CREDIT: JUAN OLIPHANT
Do you do any conservation work with sharks outside of photography?
J.O.: At One Ocean Diving we aid with various research on these animals. Whether it’s through tagging, biopsies, or field ID’s, it’s important to document those specific findings. We also participate in community outreach programs such as educational talks, presentations, events, and beach and reef clean ups.
What is your favorite type of shark to photograph? Are there any that are particularly curious with the cameras?
J.O.: That’s a very tough question. Whichever shark I am in the water with at that moment is my favorite shark to photograph. However, if I had to narrow down a top three I would say White Sharks, Tiger Sharks and Greater Hammerhead Sharks. As far as curiosity, the more dominant sharks tend to express more interest in the camera. I would say I’ve had more Tigers on my camera than any other species.
James is currently studying Psychology, with a focus in Neuroscience, at Stanford University. He is a member of the varsity fencing team there, and also a huge soccer enthusiast. Passionate about psychology, James is interested in the role it has in our everyday lives, and particularly the impact it has on marketing and advertising.