HARRY FAYT tells Will Roberts that his love for creating beautiful underwater images is anchored deep in his past.
From his home in Liege, Belgium, Harry Fayt recalls how as a child, his passion for the submarine world landed him in hospital.
At a young age, Harry, now 33, suffered from ear problems and as a result had to wear special plugs which stopped him from submerging his head in water. But time and time again, temptation got the better of him. «I didn’t want to swim at the surface, I wanted to go down, under the water,» he says. «But I would always Lose the things in my ears and one time I developed an ear infection — I had to be taken to hospital.» Fast forward 18 years and nothing much has changed. «When I swim and do Lengths in a pool, I will always go under,» he says. «I love to look up at the light and the legs kicking above me.»
But it was the fashion world which first got Harry hooked on photography. He studied at college and later set up a studio in New York. Back in his native Belgium, Harry began taking pictures of babies underwater, but soon moved on to more complex subjects which harked back to his early passion for fashion. “I enjoyed taking photographs of the babies underwater, but I wanted to do something sexy — so I moved from babies to babes,» he jokes.
His photographs have developed in depth and variety honing his underwater skills — sometimes the pictures are light and ethereal, sometimes dark and moody. He has brought sizeable props, such as pianos and sofas into his underwater scenes, but the majority of his latest series of photographs — called Rebirth — feature only a model in a pool. Still, through the creative use of flash, bubbles and backgrounds, Harry manages to create absorbing, beautiful pictures.
His equipment is more suited to taking pictures of marine life than models — a waterproof housing for his Canon 5D Mark II and a series of underwater strobes. He also invested in large screens to act as a background and shield the ‘ugly’ ceramic tiles of the pool. He has access to a six-metre wide bubble curtain, which he uses to great effect to add another layer of interest to some frames. «This equipment costs a lot but I have it now and if you want your image to be crisp and sharp it’s something that you need,» he says.
His shoots always take place in indoor pools -over the years he has become good friends with the manager of his local swimming pool. But still, hiring out the whole area can be expensive, so he needs to work fast to make the most of his money. Sometimes, the entourage can be extensive — models, make-up artists, hair stylists, divers and assistants all play vital roles in his work. “Sometimes, I can pay for a model for a few hours and by the time we have gone through hair and make-up I don’t have long to take pictures,» he says.
It makes communication with his team and the models even more important, especially as the vital part — the actual firing of the shutter — takes place in an environment where the subtle hints, instructions and encouragement normally associated with photographing models are near impossible. «The model and I will work by normally holding our breaths, so we will go down for 15 seconds or so, I will take some pictures and then we will come back up where I can say what I want the model to do next,» Harry explains. “I work a lot with Ukrainian models.
A lot of the models here in Belgium have tattoos or breast implants and I don’t want that in my models. The common language is English but sometimes it is difficult to explain things because their English is not too good.»
For Harry, the models can react in completely different ways when placed in an unusual environment such as underwater. «Of course, I need the models to be beautiful and to have a good sense of her body,» he says. «But quite often, because they are from the Ukraine, I have never seen or worked with them before.
«Their movement in the water needs to be graceful because the picture needs to be graceful. She cannot have a mouth like a hamster when she is holding her breath,» says Harry, puffing his cheeks out to demonstrate.
«And sometimes I will need her eyes and her mouth open.»
Sometimes, performing underwater will come naturally to the models, but there are also times when Harry needs to react or lend a helping hand. «I will work with my diver, who is always there for safety reasons. Sometimes, if the girl cannot open her eyes underwater, I will try to do something else with her and use her in a different way.»
The girls’ looks also change when they slip beneath the surface — the cover photo for his Rebirth exhibition is one such example. Harry explains that once underwater, he had to change his ideas: «This girl had an amazing, beautiful body, but underwater, her face didn’t look as good. But I wanted to use her because her body was so beautiful, so that is when I asked her to put her face out of the water.” The result is stunning — the reflection on the surface of the water adding a rippled, slightly abstract quality to the image of a faceless body, highlighted by deep red nail varnish and vibrant flowers in her hair.
There are other, more practical problems for Harry to negotiate. The movement of the water in the pool can have a drastic effect on the way the light throws itself onto the scene — a detail which Harry pays great attention to. “I like the background to be marbled by the water, but I don’t want that on the model’s face,” he says.
«If there are more people in the water, the light is more marbled, so I have to use extra flashes and strobes to stop that.”
Some imperfections though, are impossible to remedy in the pool and can only be solved by long, hard hours in front of the computer screen. Unsurprisingly, throwing a sofa, or a piano into a swimming pool can add thousands of tiny specks of detritus to otherwise crystal-like water, as well as unwanted bubbles which would detract from the subject. «It can take a very long time for me to use the clone tool to get rid of the impurities that I don’t want in the water and on the model,” he says. «I like it when it is clean.
I’m not looking for something natural, but I’m looking for something beautiful.”
The post-production process also throws up a welcome quirk. Often, after colour correction has been carried out, the models hair will take on an auburn tinge. “I think that is quite cool — especially as I like redheads,» he jokes.
The name of his new series perhaps relates to his earlier work photographing underwater babies, but Harry says it is more than that.
«I did some underwater work and then lost a bit of confidence and stopped, but now I have started again so this is a rebirth for me too. There is also the idea that there is an amniotic feeling to the picture.”
Why, despite the many challenges and practical obstacles that present themselves as part of underwater photography and the time-consuming nature of the art, does Harry continue? It’s probably that same drive which all those years ago made him duck his head underwater despite the warnings of doctors and parents, to witness and capture another world, a world where the human body takes on new qualities. «I Love the feeling of freedom that water gives the body,» says Harry. «When a model sits down her body will be flattened by the weight, but that doesn’t happen under the water -the body is a perfect shape. «The models are weightless underwater like in space. And a spaceship would be much more expensive to hire than a swimming pool.»
Harry’s love for photography has its roots in the world of fashion and it is still an area he works in. While he says that the skills he has learnt from his underwater work have little practical application elsewhere, many of the techniques he uses in his fashion shoots can be transferred to the water. «There are things I can do with lighting, flash and shadows which have worked in fashion shoots and I have tried underwater,” he says. One such example is in a picture where Harry has created an underwater silhouette, highlighted only by a flash beneath the model and framed by a bright curtain of bubbles.
This, and the rest of Harry’s underwater images, can be seen at his exhibition, Rebirth, which takes place in the Double One Photo Art Gallery in the Galerie du Roi, Brussels, between 27 September and 20 November 2013.