“The Ocean is a Scary Beautiful Place.” Life in Salt: Karim Iliya on Travel, Photography and Flying Drones Over the Red Sea for His Upcoming Freediving Documentary
by Owen James Burke
“For me, it’s about seeing things, and the camera is just a machine. I just use that machine to show people how I view existence.” Photo: Krannichfeld Photography/Courtesy of Karim Iliya.
At just 24 years old, British-born Maui-based photographer and videographer Karim Iliya’s curiosity has led him around the globe by sea, sky and land, to which his vast range of subjects are testament. He’s trekked the Arctic, dived into a humpback whale brawl off Tonga, and filmed a volcanic eruption in Guatemala. You might not believe it from his age, but the list goes on.
Ten years ago, when Karim first started with a point-and-shoot camera, his dream was to travel the world taking photographs. Today, he’s a wizard behind the lens, and a masterful drone pilot. We caught up with him in China, on his way to North Korea, where he’s hoping he might be allowed to boot up his camera.
Impact zone, somewhere along Maui. Photo: Karim Iliya.
The photos in your Liquid Landscapes series are majestic. Where did photography begin, for you?
Thanks! I started taking photos in Hawaii, where I am currently based; sunsets, palm trees, windsurfers, bugs. Really anything that I saw. For the next eight years me and my brother kept talking about getting an underwater case for our little point and shoot cameras. It wasn’t until 2013 that I finally went through with it, and it’s changed everything.
Photo: Thread Caravan.
You’ve lived all over the world—but where, exactly?
I grew up in the Middle East and Asia. Specifically, I was born in England, and moved to Turkey, Bahrain, India, Korea, UAE, and the US and New Zealand for University. In some of those places, we were by the sea.
What was your introduction to the ocean?
My parents are obsessed with windsurfing, so whenever they had a chance, we would go to Maui. Initially I spent a lot of time in the trees, but like a monkey, slowly made my way down. Between, surfing, windsurfing, and swimming, I began to spend a lot of time in the water. Once I started taking picture in the water, I began to shift my focus from sports on the water, to free diving and exploring the three-dimensional space within it.
What inspires you when you point your lens toward the water?
Other than the incredible beauty, the way that light moves and changes. and the cool looking creatures that live within it, It’s the ability to navigate through three dimensional spaces. To be completely weightless. If i feel like going up, down, left or right, it’s all the same, as long as I can hold my breath long enough to get there. It’s extremely peaceful. I always found snorkeling to be nice, but lacking something. I realized that everything you see is from a birds eye view. Like being on land, you are tethered to the surface. But when you put on a weight belt so that you become neutrally buoyant, and you dive down, everything changes. It is a magical world. Turtles swim over you, fish dance around you. There’s always something new and surprising happening in the ocean. The creatures that live in it are incredibly dynamic. Waves overhead look like storm clouds, and the light is sucked from the world. The ocean is a scary beautiful place.
Karim Iliya with a juvenile humpback whale off Tonga in the South Pacific. Screenshot from “Diving into a Humpback Whale Fight” (above). Photo: © Darren Jew.
What scares you most?
In sketchy situations involving the ocean, whether it’s big waves, currents, or animals, staying calm is what will keep you alive. That’s not to say I don’t get scared. I do, but in the ocean, I’ve learned to squash instinct, and very quickly calm myself. The biggest reason is that when you panic, your heart rate increases, and you use your oxygen very quickly. Big wave surfers have to do this too.
Also, the way that you conduct yourself around certain animals can greatly impact your experience. In the ocean you need to be able to remove your mind from the situation and think through things. I remember a time when the current was so strong I wasn’t moving forward at all, after some time uselessly trying to push forward, I had to calm myself and think. I realized that the current would be less strong underwater so I took a breath and dove down, swimming along the sea floor. I would come up, take a breath and go back down until I finally made it out of the current and back to the beach.
Living on Maui, how do you spend your time when you’re not behind the camera?
I actually spend a lot of time away from Maui. Much of it shooting pictures. I do a lot of aerial photography, which is pretty thrilling. I fly quadcopter drones. I think it’s similar to underwater photography in that you now have the ability to explore 3 dimensional spaces and shoot from any angle. But it’s also more reliant on new (often unreliable) technology, and is much more stressful. But I still get an adrenaline rush, and the results are beautiful. On Maui I shoot a lot of other things. I love macro photography of lizards, stars, windsurfing, and landscapes. Outside of Maui I do some documentary work, aerial cinematography, visiting friends, camping, hiking. I guess my only complaint in life is emails. I have a ton of office style work – things that need to be done. I much prefer to be out shooting, so I rarely sit down, sort and edit. It’s far more gratifying to just go out, shoot more, and buy more hard drives.
Above: A humpback whale calf leaves the safety of its mother in the waters off Tonga to have a closer look at Karim. “I could not help but wave and smile at the newborn whale almost three times my length. Its curiosity got the better of it, and emerging from under it’s mother’s fin it swam towards me, approaching less than 30 centimeters from my face.” Photo: Karim Iliya.
What (or who) is your favorite subject in the water?
Humpback whales. They are the most incredible creatures I’ve encountered. I was fortunate enough to freedive with them for 8 days in Tonga and it was the most mind-blowing, incredible experience I’ve ever had. Between curious babies coming face to face to inspect me, being assessed by a bus sized mother whale, seeing juveniles play with dolphins, and being in the middle of large males battling, smashing into each other to win mating rights with a female. They are some of the most kind and considerate animals, making an effort not to hurt me, and expressing a variety of moods, behaviors, and emotions. Looking into a humpback whale’s eye, and having it look back at you is very humbling. They are conscious and aware, and highly intelligent. There is nothing like it.
Your upcoming documentary on freediving is intriguing me, but you seem to be keeping pretty quiet about it. The images you’ve posted from the Red Sea are striking. What can you reveal?
Ah yes. It’s still in the works. I went to Egypt with a really great film crew called WTYSL (What Took You So Long?). The documentary is centered around a Portuguese fervid named Rebecca who uses free diving as a form of meditation and recovery from drug addiction. Much of the competitive free diving involves going up and down ropes, blocking out the world around. Becca likes to use free diving as a means to explore her surroundings, interact with the underwater world, and be at peace with her surroundings. I personally freedive in the same way. Since then I’ve been working a bit with WTYSL on documentaries around the world. They do great things.
The red sea, Egypt, from the air. I went to egypt to film aerial and underwater scenes with @wtysl for an upcoming freediving documentary. This is the town of Ras Abu Galum. This area is considered one of the best places for free diving. As you can see, coral reef quickly gives way to deep blue water.
What gear did you use to shoot there?
I used an Inspire 1 Quadrocopter drone. It was kind of sketchy. We didn’t realize how on edge the Egyptian army is. We were in the Sinai region where the army is having problems with ISIS. ISIS had recently be using drones to create propaganda videos of their attacks. This meant we had to be super careful where we filmed, and had to hide the drone. Otherwise I was using my normal free diving setup. Canon 5dmkiii in an Ikelite housing, 14 or 24 mm lens, fins, mask, wetsuit, and weight belt.
Last month I was out in Egypt with the crew of @wtysl filming a freedive documentary. Here in this small village, there was no electricity to charge my batteries. Much appreciation to @dronesetc for providing me with a few extra batteries to keep my quadrocopter in the air a little longer. This was one of the last shots before packing up and heading back to civilization.
Talk about your favorite lenses.
100mm macro is amazing when I need it, I don’t use it that often, but it opens up a whole new world. I spend a lot of time with the 14mm lens underwater. It is a big blue world, so it’s nice to show it. All of my whale photos were with the 14mm. I guess it just depends what you like to shoot. There’s no recipe for which lenses to use.
“Sometimes, I’ll put down my camera, bring up my hands like this, and that one’s just for me.” Screenshot from video below.
Haha, funny you should ask. I’m currently in China. Tomorrow I won’t have internet for five days because I’m going to North Korea. I still can’t believe it. It should be a really interesting experience. The plan is to see a military parade. I’m really hoping I’ll be allowed to photograph it.
My next major goal is to get out and see some wild animals. African safaris. I want to photograph the wildebeest running in Tanzania, Polar bears in Svalbard. I’m feeling a little desperate as these animals are disappearing. The only way I know how to help is by trying to create beautiful photos of them so people will get their act together. I fear it’s not enough though. I would really like to put more of a focus on conservation work. I’m working on joining some whale research teams so I can get back in the water and contribute my efforts in the underwater realm.
A Few of Karim Iliya’s Tools of the Trade:
Ikelite housing (for Canon 5D Mark iii)
100mm macro lens for Canon.
100-400mm lens for Canon.
16-35mm lens for Canon.
24mm lens for Canon.
14mm lens for Canon.
Off the Water:
A Scuttlefish favorite as well, James Nestor’s DEEP belongs on every ocean-lover’s shelf.