With an honours degree in Marine Science, freelance photographer Justin Gilligan specialises in the subject of underwater photography, Combining his scientific knowledge and artistic panache to create images that celebrate life and reflect its most natural state.
When did you first discover photography as an interest, and how did it become a passion for you?
I was first drawn to photography through magazines such as National Geographic and Australian Geographic from an early age. It was as much about the unusual subject matter, as it was about the light and composition. I learnt to scuba dive in Port Stephens at age 14 and started taking my first underwater pictures shortly afterwards with a Nikonos V film camera. Even though I completed a marine science degree at university, I always had a passion for photography. I would always sneak off to the library in between classes and admire the work of photographers such as David Doubilet (Water Light Time) and Sam Abel (Stay This Moment).
I soon found that both of these fields complemented each other, and through photography I was able to show people the unusual species and habitats found in the underwater world. My images were eventually being used for brochures and posters and then later, magazine articles. These days my feature articles tend to focus on the threats to the oceans and the stories behind the hard working researchers out there working to save the marine environment, so it’s constantly inspiring.
What are some of the first subjects you photographed?
Having spent a lot of time learning underwater photography at Fly Point and Halifax Park in Port Stephens, I was initially drawn to small macro subjects. These sites are a treasure trove of rare and unusual species that crawl, slither and swim amongst brightly coloured sponge gardens. The diving was also quite seasonal, so I started to know when and where rare species would turn up at specific times of the year and really get a buzz out of first finding them and then briefly interrupting their lives to photograph them. Amongst these unusual subjects were Anglerfish, which walked along the bottom on hand-like fins, Blue-ringed Octopus and brightly coloured Nudibranchs – a type of sea slug that appear to be coloured by an artist’s palette.
Your work has featured in some great publications and has also gained you some prestigious awards; tell me about that.
After I completed my university degree, a couple of friends and I designed and funded our own marine research project on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, an Australian Territory located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We spent around 11 months on the islands during our first stay, counting fish and corals on underwater data sheets as a baseline to detect future change to the island’s marine environment.
It was the perfect office and an adventure which I thought would make a great story. I drafted up my first magazine article and sent it around to a range of dive and travel magazines. The package was well received and opened up a new world of opportunity for me. We have since returned to the islands on several occasions and also expanded our research to Christmas and Lord Howe Islands. During each visit I always work on my photography and storytelling ability and aim for higher profile magazines at the end of each trip. These days, I quite often spend a reduced amount of time covering a greater variety of projects, rather than participating in the research. My work has been published by Australian Geographic, National Geographic Kids, BBC Wildlife, and New Scientist, amongst many other publications. Around the same time my first article was published, I started entering photography competitions and have now received awards for my work in the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, and the Australian Geographic ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year competition, amongst others.
You’re also a featured photographer at this year’s Northern Zone Photography Convention. How did you become involved in that, and what are you looking forward to?
My father Lives in Port Macquarie with his wife, Kay, and they quite often go travelling around Australia. He is also a keen photographer and joined the Port Macquarie Panthers Camera Club a couple of years ago and has been involved with the club ever since. It has really helped progress his photography. We often speak photography jargon, and I’m sure we don’t even make sense to most people, and quite often we don’t even make sense to each other. It’s really great to see the positive influence the club has had on him, with their regular competitions, presentations and workshops.
When the opportunity arose for me to present at the Northern Zone Photography Convention, I thought it would be a great opportunity to present my work and hopefully inspire some of the audience through my work and also be inspired by the other photographers shooting in the region.
Is there anywhere or anything in particular you love to photograph?
My real specialty is my underwater work. It was how I came to find photography. It has taught me so much, which I have applied to my topside work. For example, whilst scuba diving or snorkeling, you have a limited time in the water before you run out of air or get cold. Therefore, I’ve learnt to plan each shoot and envisage the image I hope to obtain (including the optimal camera settings) even before entering the water. I’ve taken this planning approach and applied it to many other aspects of my photography.
I like being out in the wild, so I’m really interested in any photography that gets me out of the office. I’ve really started to enjoy landscape work over the past few years, which can be time consuming but rewarding when you witness an everyday scene transformed into something beautiful and otherworldly in the right light.
Even though there are some spectacular places for photography abroad, my favourite photographic destination is Australia. I really think we are so lucky to have so many great subjects right here on our doorstep, and it’s great to be able to return to the same location over and over to increase the chances of really nailing a great shot.
If you would like to see more of Justin’s work, please feel free to check out his website (www.justingilligan.com) or Facebook page (Justin Gilligan Photography).
This article was from issue 116 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.