A Colossal Interview 

Jem Cresswell On the Intimacy and Humility of Photographing Humpback Whales

January 11, 2021

Colossal contributor Anna Marks spoke with photographer Jem Cresswell during the 2020 holidays via email. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  All images © Jem Cresswell, shared with permission


Anna: In comparison to other art mediums, what inspired you to become a photographer? How did you get into it?

Jem: My dad was 48 when I was born. He was an avid landscape photographer with a love of the outdoors. He initially encouraged me to explore the medium. On a couple of family holidays when I was young, we would compete capturing different images of the same vistas. From then on, I’ve always had a camera in hand, and it became part of the way I experience the world.

I spent most of my youth exploring the wild and desolate coastline of The Great Australian Bight in South Australia, surfing, diving, and camping with friends. This sense of escape and freedom grew my absolute love of the ocean. It was only natural that the two would combine. I bought my first underwater film camera when I was 17—and I was obsessed. Below the surface, it feels like you’re entering another world. It’s such a multi-sensory experience. The ocean covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface, and there is still so much to be discovered.

I moved to Sydney in 2008 and began assisting some of Australia’s leading commercial advertising photographers. This allowed me to learn on the job working closely with some very talented and experienced individuals. In 2010, my path crossed with Murray Fredericks. I’d always looked up to his art series, Salt, captured on Lake Eyre in South Australia. As luck would have it, I began assisting Murray on his commercial work. We worked together for a number of years, including out at Lake Eyre and the Tiwi Islands on his art projects. Now that I no longer assist and have my own pool of commercial clients, Murray has become more of a mentor. One thing I learned from Murray was the major importance of long-term personal work—to pursue your ideas as far as they can go, which in turn, revitalizes your relationship with your craft and invites growth.

Photography allows me to show people the way I view the world. I want the viewer to feel immersed in the elements, not just viewing them from afar. I fell into a long relationship with photography, which has had such an impact on my life and become part of who I am. I am currently working on a new body of work, which does include an immersive installation piece, which will be my first foray into moving images.


Anna: What did you want to capture in Giants? Can you tell me about how the project started?

Jem: I now live in Sydney on the east coast of Australia. Each year, numerous whales travel past during their migration from Antarctica to the warmer breeding grounds of the pacific. I’d read a research paper from 2006, in which scientists discovered the presence of spindle cells in the brains of humpback whales. These cells were previously only thought to live in humans and great apes, are linked to social organization, empathy, intuition, and rapid gut reactions. Humpback whales carry around three times the amount present in humans. Whilst there is not yet enough research to prove they do exactly the same thing in humpback whales, the whales do exhibit complex emotional behaviors, have intricate social networks, and complex song structures. The discovery raises questions around anthropomorphism, given as how we, as humans, tend to put human emotions on what we think the behaviors of these creatures may mean.

I started to think about the idea of capturing intimate underwater portraits of these conscious creatures, on the same lenses I would normally use to photograph a portrait of a human in the studio. Was it possible to capture the expressive emotions and individual personalities of these gentle giants? How would the viewer react to a portrait of this nature? What emotions would we feel? Was it even possible to feel a human emotion whilst looking into the eye of one of these whales? Could I bring the viewer into the world of these mystical giants? How would I capture an image like this? Would I ever get the opportunity to be close enough underwater to capture the style of image I had envisioned? So many questions constantly flowed through my mind.

In mid-2014 during the migration, I traveled to Tonga, one of the few locations you can swim with humpback whales, to see whether the idea was even possible. There was a lot to work out on the technical side of things, as well as with my own body language and heart rate in the water. Towards the end of my trip, I had an incredible swim with a young, curious, and playful calf. The length of the encounter allowed me to begin refining the portrait style I had been envisioning. More importantly, it began to show me what might be possible when you let these incredible creatures dictate the terms of the interaction. In their presence you feel such awe, yet so small and insignificant.

Each year, I became more in sync with the whales, managing my body language in the water, and as a result, the lengths of most of my encounters increased, as did the opportunities to capture them. —Jem Cresswell

Between 2014 and 2018, I returned each migration to continue pushing the idea as far as it could go. Each year, I became more in sync with the whales, managing my body language in the water, and as a result, the lengths of most of my encounters increased, as did the opportunities to capture them. At the end of this time, I had a stockpile of over 11,000 whale images. I had originally been working towards an exhibition series titled Giants, which I released in 2017 and consisted of only six works. It was only after this I started to look at the possibility of printing a book on the extended body of the work. I enlisted the help of artist Luke Shadbolt, and the journey went on from there, with the main delay being the amount of time it took to slowly cull the images down to the 105 that made it in the 220-page book. I am so glad I didn’t rush any part of the creative process and gave the project the time it needed.


Anna: Has anything surprised you about the project?

Jem: The whole project was such a journey of growth, especially because I was limited to the time the whales are in Tonga. After each trip, it would be nearly a year until I would have an opportunity to work on the project again. This allowed for reflection, consideration, and slowly the project started to take shape and build momentum.

The main lesson I learned was patience and to really appreciate the vast amount of time spent with nature throughout the process (regardless of the outcome of any of the images). There is very little you can control underwater—you are at the mercy of the elements—and of the wildlife. You can’t force a natural interaction with a wild animal, which makes it all the more rewarding when everything comes together. Working on this project has taught me a greater appreciation, awareness, and importance for not only these gentle giants but for all other life that is on this planet.

There is very little you can control underwater—you are at the mercy of the elements—and of the wildlife.—Jem Cresswell

An estimated 200,000 humpback whales were butchered between 1904 and 1980, seeing the global population reduced by 90 percent. It’s amazing to witness the numbers slowly increasing, and hopefully, people will feel connected and inspired to care more about the natural world. There is still so much to be learned from these intelligent and complex creatures.


Anna: You mention capturing the personalities of your swimming subjects. Can you tell me a little bit more about this?

Jem: As the project progressed, I became more aware of the individual characters and different behaviors of certain whales. Some of the whales I swam with many times over a few weeks. They are very complex social creatures, and I was trying to see if these emotions and behaviors would carry through to the images. For example, playfulness, curiosity, confidence, romance, sadness, intensity, shyness, caring, nurturing, or would we as the viewer project our own emotion on the image?

Anna: Why have they been rendered in black and white?

Jem: I spent most of the project capturing images out to sea in areas where it’s incredibly deep, quite often ranging from depths of 1-3 kilometers. The water in Tonga is a dark inky blue, and when peering into this void, if there isn’t a subject to focus on, it’s absolutely impossible to have any sense of scale. It just seems completely endless. This deep dark blue in the image conversion process to black and white renders the water a deep black, which is what I had envisioned to avoid distraction and draw your eye directly to the subject.

Besides this, black and white to me has always had a sense of permanence and timelessness. I feel this represents how long these creatures have been around for (fossil studies date baleen whales back to at least 30 million years ago). I have also always loved the ethereal feel of Toni Frissell’s 1947 black-and-white image “Lady in the Water,” shot in Weeki Wachee Spring in Florida.


Anna: What has been your favorite part of the project?

Jem: That would definitely be the overwhelming close-up experiences I was lucky enough to have had with the whales. Some moments felt so otherworldly compared to daily life back in Sydney. Despite the constant struggle with my terrible memory, certain moments are forever etched into my brain.

Some of these being watching a mother whale gently lifting her newborn calf to the surface to breathe, being in the midst of a 12-whale heat run as male humpbacks competed for the right to mate, having a playful calf interact and mimic your body movements in the water, and, freediving down near an adult male humpback, posed upside down with its head on the reef (and) singing so loud that on the deeper tones my entire body was vibrating, and on the high-pitched notes I would need to put my fingers in my ears! It’s experiences like these that will always draw me to the natural world.

I haven’t shared this video before. It’s not the type of thing that can be captured in an image, but it speaks volumes to the experiences I had whilst working on the project.


Anna: Has COVID-19 been affecting your work? How?

Jem: We have been very lucky here in Australia, and whilst there were a few uncertain months at the start of the pandemic, at the time of writing, we only have around 300 active cases in the country and 40 people in hospital. Most of the cases are returning residents in hotel quarantine. We can’t currently travel overseas, and there are restrictions around certain social situations, but on the whole, we are in a fortunate place.

Whilst the lockdown was on earlier in the pandemic, I managed to finish the Giants book and send it to print. However self-publishing during a pandemic did draw out the proofing process, and committing to a print run with no work in site added a tad more stress, but having the freshly printed physical book in my hands made it all worthwhile.

For me now, my commercial advertising work has returned, and luckily the new long-term personal project I am currently working on is located in Australia. This surrounds the beauty of a certain species found on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world.


Check out more of Cresswell’s photographs by picking up a copy of Giants and by heading to Instagram.