An interesting and sometimes hilarious insight into life as a cliff diving photographer

Shooting in urban locations is straight forward enough, the ground is flat, and there are stairs or elevators up to higher ground. Easy. However even in these situations we may have to navigate tens of thousands of tightly packed people to get from one spot to another without getting poked in the eye with a baguette (yes, in La Rochelle) or wait for what seems like an eternity at the door of a lighthouse, while the pre-arranged person with the key finishes their lunch with no sense of urgency… zut alors!

Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art has space all around it, however a large and mostly empty restaurant carpark to one side did not permit us to enter their property and had security on hand to enforce this. They did let customers in however, so it was possible to go and sit on the balcony and have a beer, purely for work reasons you understand, and take some shots. See, difficulties.

While on the subject of the USA, prior to the competition in Boston in 2013 we had Orlando dive out of a helicopter in front of the Statue of Liberty, as you do. This involved a 4am start to get organised, to a boat, out into location and then co-ordinate and shoot in the permitted early morning time window.

This was a one dive gig, so myself shooting tight and the other photographer, Brian Nevins going wider with a 70-200mm, were positioned on a boat with the helicopter hovering between us and Lady Liberty. Radio communication had an exhaustive series of checks with everyone giving the OK, and then visual safety checks followed by the actual dive, and the trick was to ensure that our boat didn’t move, the helicopter didn’t move, and we could frame up and shoot the dive stress free.

Well of course the only one that didn’t move was the Statue. The helicopter drifted towards the boat, the boat drifted to the left, we were running around onboard trying to maintain the shot, and in the end I couldn’t go any further than the bow without my hat floating, and the dive happened with Orlando further right than hoped, placing him directly over the Statue. As the helicopter had moved closer, the first part of the dive was way too high, so in the end I only got one decent shot. Brian in the meantime, who was shooting a sequence, went from a well framed shot at around 120mm, to a zoomed out photo at 70mm with the top of the chopper, chopped off. Whatcha gonna do…

Another mission, this time in Japan in 2016, also with Orlando, (bad luck, this guy) involved a hastily concocted scheme for him to dive off some rocks with the glorious Mount Fuji in the background. Sounded awesome! The day before, we caught two internal flights from Shirahama to overnight in Tokyo, then another early morning hotel departure for the four hour drive to the location. One thing that was abundantly clear during the drive and upon arriving, was that Fuji was totally invisible due to thick cloud cover.

We waited for three hours, and by now the conversation was just getting silly, when a faint outline of the mountain top became visible. Orlando went out and did one quick flying front which I shot from the beach with a 400mm. He came back and we stood around for another hour, but the mountain was gone, so with that one dive we called it and began the long drive and plane journey back to Shirahama. While not as imagined, it worked out ok.

What didn’t work out ok, was David Colturi diving from a paraglider in Switzerland. Well, when I say that, the photos looked quite picturesque, but it had a less than desirable outcome. David came to Sisikon in 2018 after much testing and training with a team prepared for the demands of this very specific dive into Vierwaldstaettersee, from beneath a sheet of nylon piloted by multiple Red Bull X-Alps winner, Christian “Chrigel” Maurer.

This photoshoot had all the factors of a concept created by someone who was not a photographer. A moving paraglider depositing a diver at an approximate location and height, at the precise time that a paddle steamer passes, shot from another moving boat. Oh, and be sure to capture the historic little chapel in the shot too. Needless to say things did not roll out as expected, with exact paraglider heights hard to judge second by second, therefore dives happening when they looked/felt correct to David, resulted in a couple of hard landings, and adding to that the photo boat often stalling then drifting, eventually and comically colliding with a passing paddle steamer.

We managed three dives in four hours. Top marks to all involved for actually achieving a result with so many factors coming into play. It transpired that David suffered a raptured spleen while performing but happily he quickly got back into form and still rips his 27 metre dives, saying of the experience, “I love to push boundaries and prepare myself for things that have never been done before. It’s been a great experience setting up this unique project that combines cliff diving and paragliding over the last couple of months and finally executing the dive in a big team effort.”

His long suffering girlfriend has said that she will break up with him if he ever attempts a similar stunt, while also possibly adding to his organ woes. It’s been said many times that cliff diving is a dangerous discipline, and despite all care and precautions by professionals of the sport, it’s evident some risk still remains.

While all that technical stuff creates concern, so too can a simple cliff. Corsica 2012, and a rocky outcrop looked appealing to a few divers I was out with, looking for a way to capture the medieval clifftop city of Bonifacio, and a diver in action, as the location for the competition the next day would not give us that angle. As you can see from the images, while the final image of Gary Hunt is quite serene and evocative, the reality leading up to that is a little less tranquil, but indicative of the way the divers help each other out with a smile.

Find the Corsica photos here.

Smiles and laughs are never something you are left wanting for with cliff divers. This last shot from an elevator at a hotel in Dallas, Texas in 2018 was a crazy idea I had, I just needed crazy divers. Fortunately, we have plenty! Rhiannan Iffland and Michal Navratil were only too happy to ride up and down in the elevators a few times in their swimwear. We only had a few minutes between other obligations, and would have liked to have a few more businessmen on board, but in the end, the fact that we can quickly make shots like this happen is one of the reasons why I love shooing this sport and its athletes so much. 

Written by Dean Treml, head of photography at the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.

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