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Life in a Drop of Water: an interview with underwater photographer Liam Marsh

February 24, 2017
fresh_water_shrimp

Freshwater shrimp in a drop of water. Image: Liam Marsh

Liam Marsh is an award-winning natural history and wildlife photographer based in the Blackdown hills of south Somerset in England. His photographs of aquatic life – both above and below the waterline – are creative, unusual, and often beautiful. We spoke to Liam to find out about his approaches to revealing freshwater worlds through photography.

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Tell us about your work as a wildlife photographer: how did you get started, and what are you working on at the moment?

I have always loved photography, and as a process it encourages you spend more time examining the world around you. I’ve always found wildlife to be the perfect match for that approach. Photography has given met a set of tools with which to examine the many wonderful creatures that live around us. All of my images are a result of countless hours spent watching wildlife and getting to understand them. It’s something that I never grow tired of.

I really see my job as a way of discovering interesting subjects or behaviours, and then trying to capture them in a way that is both attractive and engaging to an audience. Hopefully through my images I can share some of the fascination and curiosity I feel when watching wildlife first hand.

For my latest project, I’m working on a short film about caddis fly larvae and how they go about constructing their protective casings underwater. Film is something relatively new to me but I’m really enjoying the ability to share stories in ways that photography can’t always achieve.

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Caddis larvae casings. Image: Liam Marsh

Your photography in and around freshwater is stunning: what draws you to focus on rivers and lakes?

Thank you. I absolutely love spending time on or around water. There is always so much life and activity to be found in our freshwaters. There are challenges when working close to water, certainly, but I find these are far outweighed by the potential for interesting images.

I’m fascinated by the idea of this entire world that goes on almost without our knowledge, just below the water’s surface. It’s a thrill being able to show somebody a creature that lives so close and yet they may never have seen before.

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Dragonfly larva in a drop of water. Image: Liam Marsh

What are some of your favourite aquatic species and habitats to photograph? Are you ever surprised by what you can see through a highly magnified lens?

I am always amazed by what I see through my lens. It doesn’t even have to be a very high magnification; even seeing the close up details of a familiar subject can be captivating. It’s that sense of wonder that keeps me motivated and inspired to create new images.

A favourite species of mine has to be dippers. They are such an interesting bird to watch, whether it’s the way they move or interact with each other: they are always active. In particular I love their connection to the water, they are so well adapted to their environment and yet behave unlike any other bird.

I can’t say that I have a particular favourite when it comes to habitat, but certainly I love looking at my local area. I’m fortunate enough to have travelled abroad several times taking photographs but nothing really compares to home. There is something special about uncovering the secrets of wildlife that live in your local area.

It’s easy to be dismissive of our local fauna and flora, there is always some larger, more flashy species abroad. But I think that some of the challenge involved in finding and learning about our local wildlife means that the encounters we have feel extra special.

mayfly_larva

Mayfly larva. Image: Liam Marsh

There’s two wonderful galleries of aquatic photographs on your website: Life in a Drop of Water, and Underwater Photography on the Tiverton Canal. Could you tell us a little about these projects, their processes, and what they’ve produced?

Both of these projects involved looking at the fresh water environments local to where I live in south Somerset. Using both still and moving image, the intention to was to try to show the sheer variety and complexity of life in these underwater habitats.

My most recent project ‘Life in a Drop of Water’ looks at the freshwater invertebrates that live in our streams and rivers. These species play a vital role in the health of our rivers and yet are so easily overlooked.

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Mayfly larvae after moult, in a drop of water. Image: Liam Marsh

I collected samples from several local streams and brought the specimens back to my small studio. These are tiny subjects, measured in mm rather than cm, so it can be a slow fiddly process to photograph them. Being so small I was able to suspend them in droplets of water (hence the title), as they are unable to break the surface tension. From there I was able to set the lighting and composition for each photograph.

Ultimately the aim was to show how complex and beautiful the creatures are that exist in some of our smallest fresh water habitats. These streams are full of animals that each have their own captivating stories to tell.

So far I have had a very positive reaction from the local people who I’ve shown the photographs to. There is a genuine fascination that people have for these animals and as a photographer that’s encouraging.

A brown trout swims in the clear waters of the river test

A brown trout in the River Test, a chalkstream in southern England. Image: Liam Marsh

Can underwater photography influence how we think about environmental conservation and management, do you think?

Yes I hope so. I feel enormously privileged to spend the time that I do watching and learning about these animals and habitats. I understand that is not time afforded to everyone.

It can be difficult to encourage people to take an interest in conservation, especially when much of what needs to be saved is difficult to see or understand. Hopefully by seeing the richness and beauty of the life that surrounds us, people will be able to value and preserve it.

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Caddis larva. Image: Liam Marsh

And finally, tell us about a ‘dream’ freshwater habitat you’d like to shoot in the future.

It might seem odd but I would really like to do more work on the rivers that run through our towns and cities. It would be great to try to dispel this idea that wildlife is reserved for the countryside. I think sharing the life that inhabits our rivers is a great way to do this.

In my experience, people are interested in wildlife but don’t always realise how accessible it is. If I could, in some small way, help people to see the importance of our rivers and how they themselves can help to preserve them, that would be fantastic.

Liam Marsh website

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