Just off the coast of Cancun there is an area of ocean floor that has been transformed into a mysterious sculpture park. Aside from the occasional tourist and bull shark, it’s pretty deserted but for the stone figures scattered in the white sand, placed there by artist Jason deCaires Taylor back in 2009. Claudia Legge, a London-based photographer with a passion/addiction for shooting underwater, found out about this creepy tranquil sculpture park when she was in Mexico and wasted no time in getting below the surface with her camera to check it out. We spoke to her about the pretty breathtaking results of her dive, and the technical difficulties of doing such a shoot.
Tell me about the story of these statues, and why they were made
They were made by an English sculptor called Jason deCaires Taylor. The idea behind it was to make an underwater installation that over time would develop into artificial coral reefs. He’s a bit of a hero of mine as he integrates his skills as a sculptor, conservationist, underwater photographer and scuba diving instructor, which are all things I want to be, or do.
The site is the world’s largest underwater sculpture museum, MUSA, situated off the coast of Cancun and the western coast of Isla Mujeres. As you can see from the pictures they are very surreal scenes, all the figures are casts of the locals. As time goes on the characteristics of the sculptures will change as they slowly evolve from rock to living artificial reefs. DeCaires Taylor’s aim is to make another attraction for divers, to stop them from diving around the natural coral reef and potentially destroying it. This hopefully enables the opportunity for rehabilitation.
How did it feel to be lurking around in the depths of the sea with the statues? Was it scary? Spiritual?
It was very epic swimming around the sculptures, it’s like you’re entering this private life. It reminded me of a poem by Keats where he describes the imagined life of two figures on the side of a Grecian urn. They are frozen in time and it’s sort of tragic but also wonderful because their reality is constant and they don’t suffer the trials of human existence. That’s sort of what I felt when I was down there, it was a bit eerie, like these were real people frozen in time, and of course they actually are modelled on real people.
They feel more alive than most statues because the coral grows on them and all this marine life exists around them all the time. But they are also at peace, and it was very tranquil, almost spiritual down there. It felt like a lost civilisation, like Atlantis, but perhaps that’s because I’d been visiting all these Mayan sites and museums. It’s strange to think that they are still there right now in the same position, and will be forever. Hopefully.
"It's strange to think that the statues are still there right now in the same position, and will be forever. Hopefully."Claudia Legge
You’ve photographed a whole bunch of other things underwater before, but what drew you to these?
It just seemed mysterious and fascinating. I studied sculpture at university so that’s an added interest, but I think the basis for my curiosity was the idea of these apparently everyday scenes depicted underwater. Also there’s a real marine conservation message here, which is something I’m keen to promote where possible.
How do you feel your skill is developing, and are you still learning?
I don’t think you ever stop learning, especially with underwater photography because it is essentially two disciplines. They are both technical, the diving and the taking pictures, and I guess at some point you can get to a certain level where you can relax a bit, but I’m not where I want to be yet. With the artistic side, you never really know anything for certain so I suppose you have to keep learning from mistakes and adapt. I’ve started to do a lot more filming, and that presents exciting challenges underwater.
Technically did this project call for any different equipment than for your other shoots?
With this project I was using full dive gear, so there was a lot more to think about and more equipment. The water in Mexico is very clear so I didn’t need to bring lights down with me. I had a very lovely assistant/dive buddy who helped me with my housing when I had to clear my goggles. I used a nauticam housing, which is made of aluminum and allows me to have full control with my settings. It even has an inbuilt leak detector, which flashes at me if it’s leaking, which is pretty cool. But it also affects your buoyancy so that’s something else you have to be thinking about constantly.
"The water in Mexico is very clear so I didn’t need to bring lights down with me. I had a very lovely assistant/dive buddy who helped me with my housing when I had to clear my goggles."Claudia Legge
You probably get asked this all the time, but what is it about photographing underwater that makes you keep returning to it over and over again?
My reasons are always changing actually because I keep finding new things that I love about it. I think the main attraction is just that I love being underwater. It’s both the setting and the subject in the sense that it always effects whatever I am photographing. Water is so evocative and atmospheric. It refracts the light in amazing ways and affects shape and movement of things, particularly the human form. This is what relaxes me and fills me with awe and wonder.