Increasingly, people feel these days that politicians cannot be relied upon when it comes to improving the world. Thus, the onus falls on each of us to heal our planet and give our children palatable living conditions. Photographer, environmental activist, and mother of two Julia Lehman thinks about this quite a bit.
Using my abilities as a photographer and artist to help has been on my mind for a long time. I’ve contributed to environmental organizations for many years, including Greenpeace, ASPCA, 4-Oceans, and Clean Water Council.
Especially now as a mom to a 16-year-old and a 12-year-old, I’m horrified and outraged by what’s going on and realize more than ever that we all have a role in this and that we cannot rely on our politicians to help us. I truly have nightmares about all of this and had to make a decision that, in order for me to not be depressed all the time, I needed to channel the grief through creativity.
Julia, a tenured veteran of both activism and photography, once again interwove two of her passions for some recent work — aptly titled “The Plastic Project” — based around spreading awareness of the abhorrent amount of plastic in our oceans. She put together a visually striking set of underwater imagery and shot a concert for an outfit called Worldtown, a group of musicians and artists from all over the planet. Julia even made a music video with the band, which can be viewed on Billboard Music’s website.
I met the Worldtown crew through my friend, Corin Brena, who is the Director of Operations for the band. She is also the founder and creative director of One1even. Corin and I met and became friendly on the baseball field while our boys played ball together. She hired me for a few website rebranding projects, and we really enjoyed our “creation-ship” as we call it. She had talked about how awesome WT was for a little while, but I hadn’t met the band members until early this year.
This past summer I mentioned to her that I’d be interested in exploring and learning more how to shoot underwater video and brought up the idea of shooting Worldtown. She immediately jumped into director mode and got the WT gang excited. Within three weeks, we had this project in motion.
Julia invited the Worldtown folks to her house to do the underwater shoot in her pool. Part of the reason the project kicked into gear so quickly was that the pool was a week from being closed for the season. After a pair of test shoots, the team embarked on a 15-hour workday to get plastic-infused photos and an accompanying video, which can be viewed above.
The shoot was one of the most exhausting yet exhilarating experiences of my life. Shooting for 12-15 hours is intense enough on land, but, when you add being underwater for most of that time, it becomes an ever bigger challenge. I had so much adrenaline pumping, knowing we only had one day to pull it all off and everything had to line up perfectly to get the footage we needed.
The actual shoot went from noon to midnight, but the pre-planning included much more than just a few test shoots. Aside from prepping the pool, Julia had to construct a shot list and game plan that coincided with the transition from day to night.
I keep my family out of the pool 24 hours prior to a shoot. They don’t like that very much, but it has to be done. I also put clarifier in the water, shock it, and constantly have the filters running. Clear water is incredibly important — I can’t shoot when the pool is cloudy, the images just look blurred and flat. It’s a ton of work to prep the pool and keep it clean prior to a shoot. I’m lucky my husband does a lot to help.
There are also certain times of the day I like to shoot, usually from 12-4 if I want bright consistent sunlight. But I do love cloudy days when the light is soft and dreamlike too. Nighttime shoots are epic but require a lot more work. There are also more safety concerns with electricity near water, renting, and setting up constant lighting. I need assistants to help me for those shoots. Also, when shooting at night, the models and I tend to get colder much faster, and it’s hard to stay in the water more than 2-3 hours at a time.
Though very comfortable in the water, Julia doesn’t fancy herself an expert videographer. Along with taking a self-taught crash course on underwater filming, the Philly-based photographer had to purchase quality waterproof casing for her cameras.
I was grateful to have Corin, another videographer and editor/director, on site with me. As a still photographer for over 25 years, I’ve ingrained it in myself to get everything perfect in the frame. But what I learned with video is I don’t need to have a very long clip with everything perfect. Once I let that idea go, I became more relaxed with the shooting.
The advice I’d give someone looking to get into underwater photography is to rent a housing first. The housings can be very awkward and hard to shoot with — it takes some practice to use the bulkier systems out there.
One other thing that I highly recommend is getting a weight belt or a sandbag that you can put on your lap while shooting. I look silly with my 25- to 30-pound weight on my leg, but I need it to be stable while composing the shots.
As you can see, the shoot produced a gripping series of images. But that was only half of Julia’s work with Worldtown. In early November, the collective put on a concert at Warehouse on Watts in Philly, which set the stage for another type of water-based activism. This is where an organization called Charity Water entered the fray. One of the concert attendees carried a container around the venue, collecting donations that will help give people access to clean water — one of a few ways Julia and company are raising funds for Charity Water.
We raised $300 in donations. $30 gives one person access to clean water, and we are happy that we at least have 10 people with clean water. We’re just getting started! Also, we knew going into this particular show that most folks weren’t going to have a lot of extra cash, but we also knew a ton of folks who were there would want to be a part of spreading awareness and joining forces. We are still keeping the social media campaign running and hope more folks will donate. Even a few bucks can make a difference.
I’ve decided to donate 100% of the profits made from the images that I took for WT and my plastic project to Charity Water. We also have a clothing designer on the WT crew, and his business is called ‘Next Level Fashion.’ It has taken some of my images and created paintings, then printed them on 95% recycled plastic material to make really cool clothing. They will donate a portion of the revenue to Charity Water.
That lovely cerulean woman you saw mingling with the concertgoers — bucket in hand — is “Mami Wata,” an African mother, water goddess, and friend/fan of Worldtown. She raised $300 that night after sitting in the makeup chair for hours beforehand.
I got to the venue around 7 p.m. to shoot the makeup artist, Angie, painting Olivia, our Mami Wata.
I found Angie via Instagram and told her about Charity Water and our pay-it-forward project. In exchange for her time and talent, I shot film and stills for her portfolio and featured her on social.
A few hours later, the musical acts started to perform. Global Village, another collection of artists, opened for Worldtown, which hit the stage a little before midnight.
I think there must have been a few hundred people there. Worldtown has such a high-energy vibe with so many incredible musicians that have magically fused their talents. It was hard not to put down the camera and just dance with everyone!
The night of the video launch party for WorldTown was an interesting balance of work and pleasure. I knew I wanted to document the event for the next big campaign and show how many people care and that made it out that night. I have always loved documentary photography, so it was pretty easy to flow through the crowd and take shots of the exciting moments happening that night.
I was back and forth with shooting high ISO, natural light, and also with a flash on camera and lots of drag shutter. It was really dark in the room, and there wasn’t much area to move around, but I’m happy with the results overall.
The work didn’t stop there for Julia (it never truly does for an activist), who continues to dedicate her time to the cause in a variety of ways. This month she’ll be meeting with Scott Cooper, the CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences, to discuss more ways to spread the word about the scourge of plastic choking our oceans.
Scott happens to be the dad of one of my son’s friends. I had no idea who he was since he’s new to this area. Although I’ve chatted with him multiple times and have enjoyed his company, it wasn’t until his wife, Shirley, saw one of my posts about the plastic project and reached out to me to talk to Scott about what I’m doing.
It was so synchronistic and perfectly timed since ANS wants to create events that will bring more of a millennial presence to the museum. I am excited to see how we can collaborate!
Instead of simply sitting around and stewing in a righteous, justifiable strain of anger, Julia has put it on herself to get people’s attention when it comes to the survival of our oceans and our planet. In using her considerable gifts as an artist, she’s taken a needed sense of urgency and turned it into a force for change.
There’s been a lot of love from the large Worldtown community. We worked with a social media guru to help us map out posts that were educational about the water issues and Charity Water and how they can get involved. The ripple effect is definitely happening. I’m seeing lots more interest coming from folks and comments and likes on social. I think tying in issues that most of us are concerned about with other creatives and activists is why we are beginning to see a larger impact.
See more of Julia’s work on her website.
Director of Operations, Worldtown: Corin Brena
Read more about Julia on our Published blog.
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