Rachel Ceretto: From Rolling Stone to Underwater Photography

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All images by Rachel Ceretto. Used with permission.

Rachel Ceretto currently calls Hawaii home, but she’s originally from San Clemente, California and has always been in love with the ocean. Throughout her life she has traveled the world working for some of the most distinguished companies in the business.

At the age of 16, she moved to Serbia and started to hone her photography skills by shooting protests. Later, she moved to NYC to work for Rolling Stone. While there, she developed a yearning for the ocean. That’s when she packed up and moved to Hawaii. Since then, Rachel has been addicted to the ocean and capturing the sea life within it. When Rachel’s not swimming with dolphins she is working with nonprofit organizations ensuring all humans and animals are treated with respect and compassion.

Rachel is a free diver, which means that when she dives to take photographs, she does so on one breath. As she tells us, there is no room for mistakes.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Rachel: What inspired me to get into photography was my mom, who was a filmmaker. She gave me her old film Canon AE-1 and that was it for me. When I was 16, I moved to Serbia and that’s where I really started refining my skills. It was a turning point for the Serbian culture due to the political unrest – Slobodan Milosevic (“butcher of the Balkans”) died while I was there; Montenegro separated from Serbia; every week there was a protest; I even worked with refugees displaced from the war. What I was experiencing was eye-opening and I wanted to show people what was going on. I took my camera everywhere with me and since then its taken me everywhere.

Phoblographer: What got you into underwater shooting?

Rachel: Serbia inspired me to become a war photographer, but I made it that far. It’s strange where life takes you, I’m now doing something so far on the opposite end of the spectrum but at the same time it feels completely natural. The intense feeling I got when I would photograph a riot, is the same feeling that I get when I am underwater. It’s that feeling of exposing a different world or truth. When I moved to Hawaii and starting shooting underwater, it just felt right.

Phoblographer: You used to photograph concerts and music, why the big change?

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Rachel: I grew up with my camera, and like growing up my interests have changed–I’ve changed. When I was in my early twenties I found working for Rolling Stone Magazine, musicians, and concerts exciting. After my 100th concert I wanted a new challenge. I photograph what my reality is and what inspires me. Currently, the ocean is my inspiration. I’m going through my “blue period.”

Phoblographer: Underwater photography and even the idea of it is very tough for so many people. In your first year of doing it, what were some of the biggest mistakes you tried to get over and how did you do it?

Rachel: I am a free diver (diving on one breath of air with no tanks) and that brings a whole other element to the process. Not only is it physically challenging but it’s mentally challenging as well. You have to swim, find the animals, compose a picture, all while trying to keep your heart rate down so you don’t run out of oxygen while you’re 50 feet below the surface. This type of photography doesn’t really leave room for many mistakes.

Phoblographer: Have you ever had any super scary moments underwater that you’d love to tell us about?

Rachel: Nothing super scary comes to mind. Like I haven’t met Jaws in the water or anything. I actually really enjoy seeing sharks! A few times the boat has left me by myself in a couple thousand feet of water. Moments like those are intimidating and put things into perspective. When you look down and have no comprehension of what is actually going on below you. Makes you feel very small.

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Phoblographer: Animals can sometimes be unpredictable and that is made even more so when you’re underwater.How do you eventually figure out how to get the shots that you want?

Rachel: Maybe that’s why I love underwater photography so much. Because it so unpredictable. Like documentary photography anything can happen at any moment and you just have to be ready for it. I live for those kinds of moments.

Phoblographer: What’s it like approaching animals underwater? Do you have to be slow and cautious?

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Rachel: You can tell when an animal wants to hangout and be photographed and when they do not. Like humans they have body language and you just have to be respectful and read the signs. Dolphins are the best animals to photograph. They are always so emotional and will let you know exactly what they are thinking. They love looking at their reflection in my underwater housing so they are constantly approaching me just to look at themselves! They are so self-aware.

Phoblographer: What animals would you love to photograph and why?

Rachel: I would love to photograph any aquatic animal that needs a voice. I know that sounds super cheesy (especially from an ex-New Yorker) but once you’ve worked with animals in the wild, you really realize how fragile their world is. Everything from plastic pollution, to shark culling, and the Taiji dolphin slaughter in Japan, it’s all destroying their home and our oceans. It will be a very different world if we don’t start taking care of it. I work with a lot of Animal Rights Organizations and Ocean Conservation groups that are trying to repair the damage that we have done. People like Silvia Earl have really paved the way for ocean conservation. Here in Hawaii we have so many amazing groups as well (Empty the Tanks Hawaii!). I think people are becoming more aware but we still have along way to go.

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