A photographer who came to Nanaimo for the area’s scuba diving is among this year’s winners of the Ocean Storytelling Photography Grant.
Shane Gross is one of four photographers being awarded the grant by the Save Our Seas Foundation, established in 2003 to protect ocean life – especially sharks and rays – and supports researchers, conservationists and educators worldwide with funding to help them tell scientific and environmental stories.
The Save Our Seas grant program is led by Thomas P. Peschak, National Geographic magazine photographer and director of storytelling for the foundation; Kathy Moran, former senior editor, and Jennifer Samuel, photo editor.
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Photos Gross took in Campbell River and the Bahamas were included in his portfolio submission.
The 36-year-old is originally from Regina, but scuba diving, photography and his love for oceans and marine life are practically part of his DNA.
“My father was a scuba diver from before I was born and he’d go on these epic, live-aboard trips, 30 days in the Red Sea or Great Barrier Reef or whatever, and come home and project his pictures on the back of our curtains – it was slide film in those days – and there’d always be dive magazines and books and documentaries laying around,” he said. “It was always around.”
Gross grew up being obsessed with sharks.
“Jaws was one of my favourite movies since I was, probably, six years old,” he said. “Still most of my clothes have sharks or whales or octopuses or something like that.”
He moved to the Bahamas in 2012 and worked as a dive instructor until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Soon after returning to Regina he realized he needed to be where he could dive, but pandemic restrictions prevented him from leaving Canada.
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“So I drove out to Nanaimo, knowing nobody, and just decided to go for it and I’ve been here a little over a year now,” he said. “I’ve really grown to love it.”
Gross was always interested in photography and after years of viewing magazine images and wondering how photographers made them, he decided to take it seriously in 2009. He put aside his point-and-shoot camera, bought high-quality underwater photo equipment and ventured out to make images of whale sharks, sperm whales and other marine life.
“I didn’t think of it as a career at the time. I just wanted to take nice pictures … I just absolutely loved it and grew to become more and more obsessed with it,” he said.
Wherever he went to make images, he’d hear stories and legends of the abundance that was once there, such as so many turtles crowding a waterway that people could cross by walking across their backs or that 100 million sharks were killed one year for their fins.
“Go down the list. Everything in the ocean, we’re just depleting it and, so, how can you show the one side without showing the other side? … My passion and my focus now is telling conservation stories,” Gross said. “Every story about the ocean now is a conservation story … even if it’s a positive story.”
Gross first applied for the grant in 2014. He didn’t win, but made the finals and asked Peschak if he’d give a one-on-one review of his portfolio.
“There were some decent ones in there and he was fair about that, but for the most part, he ripped them apart…” Gross said “I remember one picture came up and he said, ‘Never show this photo to anybody ever again,’ and it was the first time anybody had ever been that honest about my work and it showed how much work I still had to do.”
For the grant, photographers must submit a photo essay of 10 images, each one building on the last to show a complete story, plus 20 other images that demonstrate the photographer’s technical and artistic ability. Gross’s work was selected from a field of 150 entries from 47 countries.
As part of the grant, Gross will go on a three-week assignment under the mentorship of Peschak, Moran and Samuel and he said he’s nervous but excited.
“For me having that mentorship means the world,” he said. “It means I’m going to accelerate as photographer that much faster than I would otherwise … The previous winners of this grant, looking at the works that they produced in only three weeks is astounding. The bar is very high and so the pressure is on to deliver.”
To learn more about the Save Our Seas Foundation, visit http://saveourseas.com.
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