Can you please give us a brief history of your modeling (Life & Photo)
In 2016, at the age of 50 and having just started going to the gym the year before, I competed as a bikini athlete/bodybuilder. I placed in all six competitions that I entered, but I didn’t want to take it further, so once the competition season finished at the end of 2016 I stopped going to the gym. My lean defined physique was something people still wanted to photograph though, and in December 2016 I accepted an invitation to go out to Spain for a week, which involved posing for a group of artists, and was the first time I’d modelled for life drawing. My next session was in February 2017 and came about because a friend who knew I was a model asked me to pose for their art group in Sevenoaks. From that point on my bookings increased steadily, and very soon artist’s modelling, mixed with photography, became my full-time job.
How did you first get into underwater modelling
A few years ago I was invited to an underwater pool shoot by a photographer called Mark Harris (incidentally he’s the photographer I work most often with underwater). Though I’m not a technically skilled swimmer, I’m confident in the water and have always enjoyed messing about doing handstands and swimming underwater; however, up until the shoot I’d never gone under the water without goggles and a nose clip (neither of which are possible to wear during an underwater photo shoot). I wasn’t willing to let anything stop me from taking part though, so I took the risk…….and it’s a risk that paid off.
I guess it’s more of a challenge when it comes to clothing & make-up?
Andy Riley is the photographer who organises every pool shoot I’ve been involved in, and he always takes a vast array of dresses and accessories that the models can rummage through. Choosing what to wear can be a challenge as you have to be mindful of how the clothing will behave in the water, but it’s always great fun putting an outfit together. Things like isis wings and mermaid tails extend the levels of creativity, and it’s possible to explore concepts that can’t/don’t work on dry land as the model can defy gravity suspended in the water. I often choose to model art nude underwater, however, and then, of course, clothing isn’t an issue. In terms of make-up, there’s a great team of MUAs involved in every pool shoot, and they create stunning looks to complement each model’s outfit choice; the make-up is set using a special spray which prevents it from running in water.
So how long can you hold your breath for?
The idea is to expel breath from the lungs: if I hold my breath then it’s impossible for me to sink, which makes it very difficult to pose under the water (and can also lead to something Andy refers to as “puffer fish face”, which isn’t at all photogenic). I can stay under the water for up to 20 seconds, which allows enough time for several poses and multiple shots to be taken. To date I’ve done 16 underwater shoots and I’m able to hold various facial expressions, including being open mouthed or sporting a broad grin, but it doesn’t work every time and there are always outtakes from every shoot where it’s gone awry.
What is the funniest thing that has happened on an underwater shoot?
Clothing often misbehaves underwater, floating up and revealing what it’s meant to conceal, but I think the thing that amused me most was when I was using a champagne bottle as a prop: I began posing, looked into the bottle, and a stream of bubbles suddenly exploded in my face. It took me by surprise somewhat, and of course Mark the photographer found it hilarious
Can you tell me the hardest part of being a underwater model?
Modelling underwater is physically demanding and poses that work perfectly well on dry land simply won’t look right in the pool so it can be challenging to find what works. Being in the water on and off all day can take its toll on a model’s eyes: the make-up artists put a special gel in our eyes which helps, but it can still lead to soreness, particularly if the chlorine levels are imbalanced. Probably the most important thing to note is that safety is paramount on every underwater shoot: the photographers are very experienced divers and are conscious of each model’s own experience and comfort levels in the water, plus there’s always at least one safety diver in the pool at all times. It’s also worth pointing out that modelling in a swimming pool where the photographer is in the water with you is significantly different to being in a clear tank with the photographer staying dry as a bone on the other side of the glass.
If one of your friends said they would like to start underwater modelling what advice would you give them?
If anyone I knew was offered the opportunity to model underwater, the first thing I’d tell them is to do it; it’s a relatively unusual genre, and a chance to explore some unusual pose options. Once they’d decided to do it my advice would be to relax and enjoy the experience, and not to expect things to be as they are on dry land.
What is better on land or in the water modelling?
It’s hard for me to compare the two genres as they’re so very different, so I’m going to sidestep this question and say that they’re both equally enjoyable and satisfying.
If you could pose in any location where would it be and why?
I would love to pose in open water. So far I’ve only had the opportunity to model underwater in swimming pools, but I would really like to go somewhere with clear water and create stunning imagery with the vastness of an ocean surrounding me. My partner Luke and I are flying out to Italy at the beginning of September to shoot art nude with Mark and another underwater model, so hopefully we will get the chance to do an underwater shoot in the sea, or at the very least one of the river pools while we’re over there.
Can let us know what are your future plans?
I’m passionate about my work as an artist’s and photographic model, and I intend to keep modelling for as long as the artists wish to draw me and the photographers wish to shoot me. I’m 55 and I’m a strong advocate for ageing gracefully and naturally; older models have a lot to offer in terms of character and experience and I’m keen to encourage models to stop having the evidence of age removed, be it surgically or digitally in images. We ought to embrace getting older and wear our years with pride. Oh, and I intend to accept all the exciting opportunities that come my way , because life’s too short not to (including modelling in the ocean if someone would like to invite me…..).
Thank you Helen for taking the time to chat with me and share some incredible photos from shoots you have done.
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2 thoughts on “Underwater Model – Helen Saunders”
Great interview, thanks – full of stuff I didn’t know 🤔☺️ and great insights. Thank you both.
Love the comment about growing old gracefully… Well said Helen.