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‘A beautiful underwater world awash with light’: Michel Roggo’s Freshwater Project

July 18, 2019
Rotomairewhenua (Blue Lake), high up in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, is sacred to the Māori. The lake has the clearest freshwater ever reported. Image: © Michel Roggo / roggo.ch

Freshwater ecosystems are often key parts of our everyday landscapes: whether ponds, lakes, rivers, wetlands and canals that we might cross and pass by regularly. However, glimpsing the life that goes on below the surface of freshwaters can often be challenging, even to the most regular visitors.

Some creative artists have used film to shed a light on underwater lives, whilst others have used sound to ‘eavesdrop’ on their aural worlds. Since 2010, Swiss artist Michel Roggo has been using photography to explore and document global freshwater habitats through his Freshwater Project. Roggo’s work has taken him to more than 40 freshwater ecosystems across the world, each containing unique and unusual biodiversity and geology.

Speaking to The Freshwater Blog about the project in 2014, Roggo said: “We know what coral reefs look like, but what about the creeks, streams, lakes and ponds on our doorstep? I’m always looking for new and interesting scenes with the most dramatic light. A marsh pond, beneath the ice in a mountain stream, among algae – these habitats are hardly ever seen but they are incredibly beautiful.”

During the cold winter months, West Indian manatees escape the ocean seeking out the warmth of Florida’s freshwater headstreams. Image: © Michel Roggo / roggo.ch

For Roggo, shooting photographs in freshwater habitats offers two key opportunities. First, as sub-surface freshwater life is remarkably overlooked by most creative practitioners, Roggo’s explorations in The Freshwater Project offer new perspectives on spectacular and unusual underwater landscapes. For Roggo this is the process of “searching for this magic moment under the surface, with the perfect light and composition.” Roggo’s photographs are largely taken with remote-controlled submerged cameras, and he rarely dons diving gear in his explorations.

The project is also intended to have positive conservation impacts. Roggo has partnered with the IUCN Freshwater Programme to provide images which celebrate the unseen beauty and diversity of global freshwater systems, and highlight the pressures they face.

“As one of the few professional photographers specialising in underwater images of freshwater landscapes and species we strongly support Michel’s work,” said Dr. Will Darwall, Head of the IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit. “We see the need for raising public awareness of the beauty of underwater freshwater habitats and species through images such as these as a most important contribution to IUCN’s own work towards valuing and conserving nature.”

A Florida red-bellied turtle at home in the massive stream of freshwater in Florida’s underground, which reaches the surface through numerous sources. Image: © Michel Roggo / roggo.ch

A new exhibition at the Zoological Museum at the University of Zurich in Roggo’s home country of Switzerland brings together over 900 of his photographs, documenting what the curators call ‘a beautiful underwater world awash with light’. The photographs in ‘AQUA’ – created in collaboration with local guides, including members of indigenous peoples, biologists, dive guides, skippers and pilots – document global locations including Lake Baikal, the Sense river, and the Iguazú Falls.

The Zurich exhibition is organised into five themes, where freshwaters are variously: dynamic habitats; challenging ecosystems which foster unique biodiversity; water sources in glaciers and ice caps; water sources in groundwaters; and geological agents of erosion and transport. The result is a diverse and beautiful collection of animals, plants, ice, rock and water sources across the world.

Icebergs calved off Sermeq Kujalleq glacier in Greenland float out into sea. Image: © Michel Roggo / roggo.ch

Roggo’s exploration of the glaciers and polar ice caps – where around two-thirds of the world’s freshwater is stored – led him to the ends of the earth, from the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica to the glaciers of Greenland.

“Michel Roggo has put together an impressive record of the most important freshwater habitats on Earth,” said Isabel Klusman, Head of the Zoological Museum. “This is a key step in raising awareness for these fragile and often endangered domains.” The AQUA exhibition opens on 23rd July, and is accompanied by a new book featuring a selection of 360 photographs from the Freshwater Project.

Cichlids in Lake Malawi, home to more species of fish than any other lake in the world. Image: © Michel Roggo / roggo.ch
On Canada’s Pacific coast, every four years millions of sockeye salmon journey up Fraser River to Adams River to spawn and die. Image: © Michel Roggo / roggo.ch
The river Sense in the foothills of the Alps is the last Swiss river without a power plant on its course. Image: © Michel Roggo / roggo.ch

AQUA exhibition
Michel Roggo’s Freshwater Project

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