Today I’m super excited to announce a new series called #WeArePADIWomen, a collection of stories and secrets from some of the most inspiring women in the scuba diving industry. If you followed Women’s Dive Day coverage in July, you know that there are plenty!
I’m kicking off this series with the wise words of a woman I’ve been lucky enough to share a dive boat with once before, Allison Vitsky Sallmon. Allison is not only a talented professional underwater photographer and PADI Rescue Diver but also a breast cancer survivor who founded Dive Into The Pink, a nonprofit that mobilizes the dive community to raise money for breast cancer research and patient support.
Allison and I and some of our fave dive buddies!
As a Florida native and resident of Southern California, Allison has always been near the ocean. After twenty years of diving, Allison picked up a camera in 2006 and within a year had purchased a dSLR and started a second career diving and shooting alongside her husband, fellow underwater photographer Andy Sallmon. Today, Allison has a wide portfolio of unique perspectives from around the world. I look at a lot of dive photography and much of it runs together. Allison’s work, I can spot before I see the watermark!
Allison and Andy took me out for a day of diving in San Diego a few summers ago, and I was truly touched by their words of encouragement to an amateur photography enthusiast like myself, their enthusiasm for sharing their knowledge of the industry, and their patience for watching me flail around like a manatee in a 7mm wetsuit for the first time.
Now, over to Allison. Thanks for joining me for this celebration of women underwater!
When did you start diving and what was your motivation for doing so? What eventually inspired you to first pick up a camera?
OK, first of all, you didn’t flail like a manatee. That’s just nonsense. You looked fabulous above and underwater, and the sea lion pups loved you! (Second of all, I dived for 15 years before the camera came into things – I wish I’d started earlier!)
I got my first certification in 1992 in Gainesville, Florida. Diving wasn’t even on my radar. My mom actually gave me the class as a gift – she was planning a family trip to Cozumel, and she wanted a dive buddy. By the time we went to Cozumel six months later, I had done over 100 dives and was signed up for my cave course.
For the camera, at first, I just had a little point and shoot, a cast-off from an ex (if he hadn’t given it to me, I don’t know that I’d ever have started shooting). I was living in Boston at the time, so my first dives with a camera were in cold, green water. I didn’t know what I was doing with it, and that was a tough place to learn. But we took a trip to the Solomon Isands that year, and there were two amazing photographers on the boat. They inspired me, and by the end of that trip, it was all over. I was doomed to sacrifice my time, income, and sanity at the altar of underwater photography.
I am ashamed to say that I don’t log my open circuit dives, but I know I’ve done more than 2500-3000. I do log my closed circuit dives – the last time I looked, I had about 200 hours. I’d like to get more time on closed circuit, but it isn’t practical for every dive I do, so it’s incremental.
Oh man, I regret not logging my dives more religiously too! How did diving go from a hobby to a career for you?
Well, in fairness, I have a day job as a scientist that has nothing to do with diving. It’s been helpful because it ensures that I’m financially independent and can pick and choose the work I do in the dive industry, giving me the luxury to accept only those projects about which I’m passionate.
It’s been gradual – I’ve always enjoyed writing (my undergraduate degree was in communications), and that enthusiasm and a solid work ethic helped me get into editorial work and develop a reputation (hopefully a good one!). As for Dive into the Pink, it was a bit of an accident. I thought I’d run a single charter to raise some money, and it snowballed from there once we saw how enthusiastic people were about it.
Have you faced any obstacles in your diving or photography career? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest challenge getting started in this industry?
The biggest obstacle for me is TIME! Juggling my day job, editorial work, Dive into the Pink, and regular (weekly or more) local California sanity dives with a marriage (even to a pro shooter in the dive industry) and home can be tricky. It’s a delicate balance, and I’ll admit, I have a tendency to take on too much. I am trying to get better about spacing things out in a way that allow for down time. Sadly, the last few transpacific trips I’ve taken, I’ve been almost as excited about the flight as the diving because of the opportunity for uninterrupted sleep.
I feel you — I always look forward to my long flights as a time to rest! What do you feel are the most important challenges and opportunities facing women in diving?
There are very few challenges for women now, I think — they exist, but they are really the exception more than the rule. We are our own worst enemies; in my opinion, women have a tendency to be hard on themselves in a way men aren’t. We judge ourselves (and compare ourselves with others) to an extreme on everything – intelligence, success, appearance… I think this is true of women in all fields, and it’s a shame. We need to support and encourage each other, even when it isn’t easy or comfortable to do, because nine times out of ten, the person you’re encouraging isn’t being so kind to themselves.
Certainly, individual women have always been recognized for their impact on diving, ocean conservancy, scientific research, and media, but I think there’s more awareness of women’s impact than ever before – I think the opportunities that are currently available have perhaps always been there, but there’s increased visibility, in other words.
There are so many aspiring underwater photographers out there! What should shutterbugs hoping to follow in your professional footsteps have on his or her resume?
Hard, hard work is more important than any resume – exceed deadlines, don’t make excuses, and turn in great stuff. There is too much competition to approach this any other way. Constantly look to grow and improve — ask for criticism and learn from the advice you get.
Also, have a realistic attitude. The number of photography jobs is finite and the money isn’t exactly amazing or consistent. The vast majority of people who do this juggle shooting with a day job – some in the dive industry (sales representatives, for example) and some, like me, in completely unrelated fields.
Perhaps most importantly, be judicious about giving away work in exchange for personal “exposure.” Your gear, travel, and time is worth a lot, and there should always be some give and take involved when you’re providing images to a commercial business. If you ask for nothing in exchange for your work, it sends a powerful message that you think your work is worth nothing.
I know you too started out with a point and shoot camera. Do you have any tips for divers just looking to improve their underwater photography skills, especially those that might feel their equipment is lacking?
Well, you’ve heard about the number one peeve of photographers, right? You have a beautiful photo displayed somewhere, and some buffoon walks up to you and says, “Wow, you must have a nice camera!” In other words, amazing images come from the shooter, not the equipment. Sure, you can be limited by your equipment, but you should be able to squeeze a hell of a lot out of it before that happens.
First, take a class from a pro who has a documented success record – publications, for instance – and preferably a private class where you’ll spend time in the classroom AND water. Then, take what you’ve learned and practice, practice, practice. If you aren’t in the position to travel constantly (and the vast majority of us aren’t), find the best option for diving near your home, and go for it. Nothing beats time in the water for improving your skills.
What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
As a photographer, I recently had a photo displayed in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as part of the Windland Smith Rice photography competition. Of all the times I’ve been lucky enough to place in a competition, this win and exhibit was very meaningful because I visited that museum a lot as a little girl and marveled up at the blue whale suspended from the ceiling!
It’s not as showy, but I’m as or maybe more proud of what we’re accomplishing with Dive into the Pink. Watching people respond to the idea of diving for a cause with joy and gratitude has been rewarding in a way I never could have imagined.
What’s been your most special dive?
My most memorable in-water experience took place near home a few years ago. We were offshore, free diving near kelp paddies to photograph the life beneath them, and a blue whale surfaced and descended right in front of me. For a moment, I was eye to eye with the largest animal ever to live on the earth. And it was AMAZING!
Is there a piece of dive gear or accessory you can’t live without?
My drysuit. I have a backup for when my primary’s in the shop. With all the California diving we do (and given my wussiness), this is one thing I can’t do without. (I hate to insert branding here. But I have DUIs, and I love DUI! No brand I’ve tried fits a woman’s body better.)
I know we share the belief that divers are some of the greatest ambassadors of our oceans! What are some small ways those reading today can make a difference, divers or not?
Two things I try to be religious about are avoiding single-use plastic items and keeping consumption of fish (especially non-sustainable fish) to a bare minimum. These are easy things we can all do to make a difference.
I so admire the work you’ve done with Dive Into The Pink. As a cancer survivor, how did diving or the ocean bring you peace during a difficult time in your life?
When I went through my treatment, I was living in Boston, and it was wintertime. I hadn’t gotten my drysuit certification yet, so local diving wasn’t a terribly appealing option. I had some issues with my white blood cell counts getting very low, so although I felt fine and was able to work during most of the process, I avoided remote travel. What I did do was pore over dive magazines, admire images (and begin to notice who had taken my favorites), and dream about the places I’d go when I was finished.
I’ll never say that I was lucky to have faced cancer, but certainly, it has enabled me to view my life from a different perspective and with a little more of a “what the hell, let’s try (insert harebrained scheme)” attitude.
What advice do you have for new divers, or those who might be nervous to get started?
Give it a try before you get scared off! I loved my pool sessions, but I was freakin’ terrified before I descended for my first checkout dive. I was practically in tears, and I came very close to getting out of the water and going home. But once my head was under the surface, it was all over for me.
There are lots of technical diving images in the media, and there’s tons of hype about intense diving/training or gear, but this sport is very personal. Diving is what you make it, and it is perfectly acceptable not to pursue extremes in diving. Make sure you are comfortable and enjoying yourself, make sure that your skills are solid, and then have fun. Be true to yourself, and don’t succumb to pressure.
Do you have any words of inspiration for women in particular seeking a career in this industry?
The same words I’d give anyone – woman or man – in any field. A solid work ethic is critical. The dive industry looks like a big vacation from the outside, but I have never come across a group of people who are more dedicated or who work harder. Get the training and skills you need, be authentic, be honest and modest about your accomplishments, and keep at it. Steve Martin once said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” This applies triply to those hoping to make a name for themselves in diving. Exaggeration and ego will only take most people so far before others see through it.
It’s easy to feel like you’ve been everywhere but I’m sure that’s not true! What’s that big dive or trip that’s still at the top of your bucket list?
Ha! I don’t remotely feel as if I’ve been everywhere! I still haven’t been to the Galapagos, and that’s obviously on the list. I haven’t been diving in any polar areas, clearly on the list. Never dived the Azores, South America, the South Island of New Zealand, the south or west coast of Australia, British Columbia, Alaska, Washington state, North Carolina…. You know, I have a very long list, and it gets longer every year — and it doesn’t include the hundreds of places I’d like to return to!
What are you working on now? Where will your next adventure take you?
Fall/early winter is our key time to work on local stock images and stories, and our weekends are booked solid with South and Central California diving until the end of the year. We are fortunate enough to have some remote assignment trips for for 2018, but I’ve always found that it’s better not to speak about those trips in detail beforehand – it jinxes conditions!
For Dive into the Pink, we have a Pink (great white) Shark trip to Guadalupe in August, and we’ll hold several California-based Pink Charters and our annual online auction (including amazing trips, gear from companies like Scubapro, Fourth Element, DUI/OMS, and Shearwater, as well as beautiful apparel and jewelry) in October. After that, who knows? But it will definitely involve being in the water 🙂