Kohei Ueno


Q: Dear Kohei, you have quite an interesting life story. First of all, you were born in Japan, raised in Singapore and now living in Australia. These countries are quite different in culture and in mentality. Which one defines your life view the most?

A: It’s very hard to answer this questions because I’m very proud of my Japanese heritage, its history and culture, but I also like the idea of not having to associate myself to a particular identity, and appreciate the fact that I am who I am based on where I’ve been and what I’ve done, not solely based on where I come from. Of course there are things I love from each country, and things I don’t, with varying degrees of rules and restrictions, traditions and culture, but I feel that these things don’t necessary define my own values, or the mentality of a nation, because I feel that we are constantly growing and evolving each day, with freedom to access whatever information we want, that it is really up to us how we choose to interpret, act and define our own values and shape our own life views.

Q: You are a professional photographer who specializes in underwater images, the ocean and diving. When did the fascination start for you? 

A: My relationship with the ocean started at 13yrs old when I got my first open water scuba certificate. I’ve always loved being in the water as a kid, but it was not until the age of 30 when I discovered freediving. That transformed the way I saw the ocean, and discovered more about myself. There is a popular quote that says ‘Scuba divers like to see outside, and freedivers like to see within’ and I think this sums it up quite well. Although I still enjoy both, my fascination with freediving has a lot to do with this journey of inner awareness. There is a lot more to freediving than just holding your breath, or the thrill of adrenaline, or to show off or anything like that. When I completed my 16m depth requirement during my first freedive course, I experienced a very powerful moment, something so good that I had never felt before. I was immediately hooked to this new sensation, and I knew right away that this is a sport that I would continue for the rest of my life.

Q: Before becoming a full-time photographer, you had a successful career in a very different area. 

A: I believe it is natural for anyone to want to work for the best companies in the world, and I was just lucky to have had the chance to get a glimpse of this at a relatively early age. I always knew I wasn’t the corporate type, but to me Google was an exception and I was thrilled to have that opportunity. I felt like my life was all set and good for the first couple of years, but four years later, that feeling slowly started to fade.

I began realising that my happiness wasn’t stemming from the great perks of the company, the money, or the work culture and all of that stuff after all. What I initially thought as important was becoming less so, and I began to wonder what it actually was that I valued the most. I didn’t know the answer to this question, but I knew I had to stop following the rules of what was taught to be the right choice, what was deemed to be successful, or how one should be happy based on the general consensus of others.

So I took the plunge and quit my job in 2014 and embarked on a solo trip around the world, taking photos of beautiful places with my first ever non-point and shoot camera that I bought for the journey, self-learning on the go. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in control, truly listening to my heart, and only doing things that I actually enjoyed. When I returned home in 2016, one of the photos I took won the grand prize at a photography competition, and that marked the beginning of my photography career.

It also enabled me to upgrade my kit, obtain my first ever underwater housing, as well as a trip to Tonga to swim with whales. These chains of fortunate events had reminded me of how much I love the ocean, how much I love being active, and how much I love being creative. The building blocks that naturally led me to exit the corporate world for good and pursue the passion I now have for freediving and photography.

Q: It is one thing to like the ocean and diving, it is quite another to dedicate a whole career around it. Why did you specialize in this niche market and what were the initial challenges involved?

A: It wasn’t that I decided to specialize in this niche on purpose, in fact it wasn’t that I decided to dedicate a career around photography to begin with. Even to this day I feel like I am simply using my free time to do what I enjoy doing the most, and that naturally led me near the ocean, staying active, creative and leading a healthier lifestyle.

I knew I always loved arts and sports while growing up but I’ve never had the courage to pursue it as a career until now, so I feel lucky to have found photography as a medium to express my art in a sport that I love, which also helps me stay in tune and discover more about myself.

Holding my breath in the ocean helps to rejuvenate my inner well-being, washing away all sorts of unnecessary thoughts, helping me reset my mind to focus on the present moment. For me freediving is a life changing discovery.  know it is something worth sharing that is beautifully empowering, and that’s what motivates me to push out this sport in this form of art, and how I ended up specializing in this niche.

Q: Your winning project at IPA was “Beneath the surface of competitive Freediving”. For the outsider, this sport seems a bit crazy, but it is completely the opposite, you state. 

A: Freediving is a sport where you dive as deep as you can, for as long as you can on a single breath of air. It may seem like a crazy extreme sport reserved only for the suicidal adrenaline junkies, but when you look closely beneath the surface, you may find that it is quite the opposite. Freedivers dive in a meditative state, lowering their heart rate and relaxing their body to consume the least amount of oxygen. It is more similar to meditation where you use your mind to control your breath by holding it in and staying still by looking within. Everyone has their own private reasons and their own subtle goals, but I can assure you that no one freedives for the thrill of adrenaline or to voluntarily risk their lives. To me I do it simply because it feels amazing and I enjoy tapping into this art of balancing the mind, body, and spirit.

Q: What about the technical side of photographing freedivers? How dangerous it is, how deep you go down, what are the specifics one should know about photographing in the ocean?

A: When you’re dealing with photographing freedivers who are diving at speeds of one metre per second, things can get really complicated. Not only do you have to adapt to the loss of light at different depths, but you must also adapt to the change in pressure while diving head down with a camera in your hands. As you constantly adapt to the change in environment, you’re also fighting against currents and waves, thermoclines and equalization, your own breath and your own safety as you dive deeper and deeper, composing your shots while trying to stay as steady as possible. The most challenging thing about shooting underwater on a freedive is that you have to deal with all of this at the same time. Everything happens so quickly and you have zero time to think. On average I would do multiple dives to depth of around 10-20m, and it could get really tiring, and dangerous if you are not able to stay in control and calm at all times. This is why being able to freedive competently is very important, to be able to quickly change not only the settings of your camera, but also the settings of your body.

Q: What does this award mean to you, and why do you think your project won?

A: The IPA sports photographer of the year award marks a very important milestone for me in my career as a freedive photographer, as well as for the sport of freediving in general that I practice, teach and love. Not many people even know that such a sport exists, let alone understand why anyone would even try. As a photographer I find the greatest joy in sharing beautiful images that have deeper meanings than just the looks, and as a freediver I find the greatest joy in sharing new experiences and inspiring others to do the same. Winning this award enabled me to do both, and it is the ultimate prize for all the hard work that I’ve put in throughout the years. I believe my project captured the eyes of the viewers because it gives a fresh new perspective to what freediving seems from the outside, and gives the viewers a glimpse of what makes this sport so great that has changed the lives of so many people, including mine.

Q: What are your plans regarding your photography? Are there special places you wish to photograph at, or special competitions? 

A: My plan is to continue shooting, continue diving, and continue sharing the beauty of the ocean and the beauty of this sport as a freedive photographer, instructor and athlete. Photographing the humpback whales in Tonga was what really got me started on this journey, so I wish to return to this place to run my own tours and workshops in the future to share as much as I can to carry forward the same inspirations and experiences to others. My other wish is to photograph freedivers at the cenotes of Mexico, and other major freedive competitions around the world such as Vertical Blue in the Bahamas.

Q: What advice would you give to young and aspiring ocean photographers?

A: I think if you have the passion for the ocean and an appreciation for the arts, then nothing will stop you no matter what genre of underwater photography you choose to do. Even if things don’t turn out the way you want, as long as you are doing something on a daily basis that you know you enjoy, you are already way ahead of the game in my opinion. I think this drive to continue doing something not because you want something, but because you simply enjoy doing it, is the secret recipe that naturally leads to good outcomes in the future, regardless of the industry. One other thing I want to add if you are looking to become an ocean photographer though, is to take up a freediving course because having a good understanding of your own safety is paramount, and to be able to use proper technique goes a long way in this field. Also, get yourself a good underwater housing from the beginning, because there’s nothing worse than flooding your gears and losing all your pictures. I highly recommend joining the great freediving community at Molchanovs if you are serious about freediving and underwater photography.

For more of Kohei’s works, check out:

web:  www.koheiueno.com

Instagram: @kuenok