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A Cotton Photo & Creative Works LLC: Amanda Cotton, Photographer

 ECO Interview

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Amanda Cotton is a professional Nikon photographer specializing in underwater imagery. As an avid scuba diver and ocean enthusiast, Amanda's goal is to help the general public embrace the beauty below the waves in hopes that with awareness comes concern. The conservation and preservation of this ecosystem is of the highest priority to Amanda. While she enjoys owning and operating a conservation-minded design/media company, A COTTON PHOTO Creative Works LLC, Amanda takes great pride in working with likeminded organizations that genuinely care about the planet and its inhabitants, both above and below the waves.

She received her Bachelor of Arts in Professional Photography while attending Brooks Institute of Photography, where she participated in the highly acclaimed Underseas Program established by Ernie Brooks. She has received numerous awards for her photography including several from the International Photographers Awards (IPA), Celebrate The Sea, Underwater Photography Annual Awards, and many others.

Amanda Cotton is a Member National of The Explorers Club; a member of OAS (Ocean Artists Society), NPS (Nikon Professional Services) and PPA (Professional Photographers of America). In 2015, Amanda Cotton was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.

Her imagery has been published in major publications and news sources worldwide including National Geographic, BBC, Discovery, Smithsonian Magazine, Times Publishing, CNN, Scuba Diving Magazine, Sport Diver Magazine, Natural History Magazine, Earthweek, and Science Daily as well as many international dive industry advertising campaigns. Working with organizations such as Scholastic Books, The Conservation Fund, Consortium For Ocean Leadership, Women Diver's Hall of Fame, Marine Life Protection Act, and Rourke Publishing has allowed her imagery to have a positive impact on the oceans through education and outreach programs designed to improve awareness toward the plight the oceans face.

Where was your first underwater shoot, and what was the subject?

I studied at Brooks Institute of Photography in California and participated in the Underseas Program established by Ernie Brooks, a pioneer in black and white underwater photography. During our courses we spent a lot of time at the Channel Islands off the coast of California shooting sea lions, kelp forests, and the local marine life. This was my initial experience shooting with a 35 mm camera underwater. Even though the dives were long and the water was cold, we were always excited to jump back in and learn more about our cameras and the art of capturing imagery underwater.

Do all of your expeditions require participants to be certified divers?

Many of our expeditions involve scuba diving, which of course requires certification, but several of our expeditions offer encounters while on snorkel and freediving. The most important aspect to a fantastic experience by a guest is to have a high level of comfort in the open ocean. It also helps to be in good shape, sometimes the open ocean can be a demanding place to swim in. Strong currents, waves, and bumpy boat rides can take their toll on you. By being in good shape, a person is better able to deal with these things when they arise.

Great hammerheads of Bimini with operator Epic Diving. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Great hammerheads of Bimini with operator Epic Diving. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Your company provides opportunities for underwater photographers and experienced divers to join you on expeditions around the globe. On what kind of adventures do you take people?

Yes, we offer opportunities for underwater photographers and divers without cameras to join us on expeditions around the world focused on big animal encounters. Sharks, dolphins, crocodiles, and whales are particularly interesting to me, especially sharks. I love introducing people to these different species of marine animals. Many times, those that travel with us are frightened of the animals before they encounter them. Once they have experienced being in the water with these animals, often times, that fear disappears into fascination and admiration. More often than not, people walk away from the experience wanting to get involved in marine conservation efforts. This is one of the most beautiful aspects to my job—the ability to have a positive impact on the ocean and its inhabitants, things that are incredibly important and special to me.

American crocodile in the waters of Banco Chinchorro (image taken under permit). Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

American crocodile in the waters of Banco Chinchorro (image taken under permit). Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Some of your expeditions occur in frigid Arctic water or among apex predators. Why is it important to you to challenge not only yourself, but others?

Pushing the limits of what we believe is achievable, I think, is in our human nature. In the world of underwater photography and adventure, we have to continue to explore the limits of what is possible. It was only a few years ago that diving with large sharks like tiger sharks and great whites was believed to be too dangerous. Nowadays, hundreds of people a year head to places like Tiger Beach in the Bahamas to do just that, both safety and respectfully.

My company, A COTTON PHOTO, offers many trips to encounter large sharks. We feel it is important to show these animals in a different light than many people see in the media. The best way to do this is to get people in the water with them face to face. Experiencing a 4-m tiger shark swim less than a meter away without any interest you in is a humbling moment. You quickly realize much of what you thought you knew about sharks was wrong. The idea that they are mindless man-eaters quickly fades, and a love and appreciation of the animal begins to grow.

The same is true with orcas and crocodiles. I lead trips for Big Animals Expeditions founded by Amos Nachoum, a pioneer in big animal encounters, to dive with orcas in Norway. Again, this is a species that many believed, just a few years ago, could not be dived with safely, and yet we continue to bring people out to experience them in the wild during in-water encounters. Amos has been running these expeditions for years—he continues to push the limits and that is the reason I enjoy working with him.

Debra Canabal, owner of Epic Diving, with a tiger shark in the Bahamas. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Debra Canabal, owner of Epic Diving, with a tiger shark in the Bahamas. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

You’ve been active in shark and whale conservation and have spent hundreds of hours photographing these creatures. What has surprised you about them?

With sharks, I was surprised to see how smart many of the species are. They learn quickly and will work together, which is fascinating to me. The oceanic whitetips in the Bahamas are a prime example of this. Many also have distinct personality traits—some are shy, some are bold, some prefer close interaction with divers and will seek out the attention of the feeders.

Marine mammals surprised me with how similar they are to humans. They care deeply for their young, form strong bonds, and have emotional responses like humans do to pain, loss, fear, and the like. It is something you can see and feel when you are in the water with a mother humpback and her young calf. The beauty of that connection, the care she has, the protectiveness, are all beautiful to see and experience.

A family of sperm whales with diver off the coast of Dominica. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

A family of sperm whales with diver off the coast of Dominica. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

The work of your mentor, the pioneer underwater photography Ernie Brooks, has been exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as at numerous other prestigious forums. Meanwhile, you’ve won numerous awards for stunning underwater artistry. Is underwater photography gaining more acceptance as fine art?

Yes, absolutely. I think that with the digital revolution access to equipment has grown, allowing more artists to use underwater equipment. With this, we have seen an explosion in creativity in underwater imagery as more people shoot underwater and the push to create something new and original continues to grow and we see some remarkable artwork being created. There are artists, like Christian Vizl, who have pushed a fresh and innovative twist on underwater photography into the fine art world. There is also growth in underwater work in commercial photography as well. These are exciting times in our industry, seeing where this art form is moving.

Manta ray with diver off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Manta ray with diver off the coast of Kona, Hawaii.  Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Your shoots often show women interacting with water in unexpected ways or from unexpected vistas. Can you talk about the inspiration behind these striking images?

It comes back to connection. For the images of women underwater, it is about connection to self and womanhood. It is easy to get lost in the expectations society has placed on us in our different roles. Being a woman, I felt the weight of those expectations. There was a strong desire to lift them and remove them completely, allowing myself to just be me. The further into shooting this idea I went, I realized many women felt the same—it was a connection we all had, this lack of connection to our authentic self. The images captured were to represent the different emotions and facets to being a woman. Many of the images were a part of a project I collaborated with Cristina Zenato on. She is an incredible diver, and through telling her story in the images we were able to tell the story of all women. It was a beautiful and inspiring project to work on with her.

Maca Benitez deep inside a cenote in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Maca Benitez deep inside a cenote in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Because there are no crowds of people under the ocean, ocean photography has an unusual anti-social dynamic. What are the human/ocean interactions that interest you as an artist?

This is such a great question. I think most of us divers find happiness in the solitude we find underwater. It is our break from the stresses of the real world, a chance for us to get away and be alone in our thoughts, surrounded by beauty. We are given the chance to reconnect to nature without any interference from others. This connection between nature and a person is beautiful to me and something I love to see in underwater imagery. I shoot a lot of free divers and models on breath hold; this feels like the strongest connection between water and humans. There are no boundaries in between—it is full immersion and complete commitment from the person in the photograph. This connection speaks volumes to who we are in our own skin, on this planet, and inside our own minds. There is a peacefulness to being underwater, a sort of “homecoming” for us. I think we all relate to that and feel it when we see underwater imagery.

Whale sharks off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

Whale sharks off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico.  Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

You founded Water Women Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on empowering girls between the ages of eight and eighteen. What have you learned from this venture, and what are some of the programs available to these future leaders?

I have learned there is truly a need for these types of programs. The response has been incredible, with women from around the world wanting to get involved and help out. There was a need to create something that would help girls make their way into leadership roles in different industries through the support and mentoring of women in their field, but I didn’t realize how many women out there felt the same way as I did and wanted to be involved in making a difference.

It has been delightful to see so much growth of the organization, our work, and the network. Not only are our mentors helping the girls they work with, they help and support each other, which is exciting to see! We offer programs in everything from marine biology, underwater photography, marine archaeology, marine conservation, and more. Any industry related to water, whether freshwater or saltwater, falls under industries of interest for our programs.

Who are some of the other organizations and people you have worked with to communicate ocean conservation issues to a larger audience?

There are so many organizations that I am excited and honored to have worked with and continue to work with into the future. Fourth Element is an amazing company based in the UK that I am proud to work with; it has a new product line called Ocean Positive focused on reducing ghost netting in the world’s oceans. Big Animals Expeditions created by Amos Nachoum continues to work toward bringing attention to marine conservation issues. Also, the Ocean Artists Society is a group of ocean artists all creating artwork for the benefit of our oceans. It was created by the artist Wyland. For the last couple years, I have contributed imagery to Bite Back, a shark and marine conservation organization based in the UK doing extraordinary work. The Women Divers Hall of Fame does incredible work in several different areas of diving, marine conservation, and education, and I am honored to be a member of WDHOF since 2015.

'Vincent Canabal, owner of Epic Diving, freedives alongside a great hammerhead off Bimini in the Bahamas. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

'Vincent Canabal, owner of Epic Diving, freedives alongside a great hammerhead off Bimini in the Bahamas. Photo credit: Amanda Cotton.

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