Embracing the wild, wide underwater world
In the past few years of our annual Ocean Views photo contest I have noticed very creative and significant images credited to Greg Lecoeur. His amazing shot of an oceanic whitetip shark and pilotfish graced the cover of our Summer 2018 issue. He is from France, and most of his published marine images appear in European and Asian publications, so I went to the internet to research his portfolio and learn more. I discovered the depth and quality of his published body of work, but it was only in conversations with him in preparation for this article that I better understood the turns in his life that led him to a career in underwater photography.
Lecoeur grew up in Nice on the French Riviera and as a child was deeply connected to nature and the sea. He had an early passion for marine biology and constantly asked his parents for books on the subject. Sailing and freediving were his most serious hobbies; he spent his spare time diving and hiking or simply walking in the woods with his father.
His father owned a successful business in large commercial electronic scales, so Lecoeur appeared to have a preordained career. As everyone assumed, he worked with his father for a while. For 10 years he was in the scale business, and he even started his own independent business in this niche in a neighboring region. But all the while a small voice in his head was telling him there was more to life. At 32 years old Lecoeur left a successful business behind him — he just quit and went on the road for a full year, traveling with a backpack and a dream.
The adventure began in the Galápagos Islands, which for three months was an eye-opener and an incredible playground to perfect his photographic techniques. Then he explored Baja California, British Columbia, the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, Mexico and Honduras. Originally his plan was to travel as a scuba instructor. He had begun taking photos, which was an interest from childhood but not yet a serious one. Self-taught with some basic underwater photo gear that was light enough for traveling, he let local dive shops know he was a photographer. They encouraged him to shoot images of the tourists on their boats in hopes of selling some of his underwater photos to them.
Lecouer shot photos of tourists underwater as part of his work, and on his days off he went diving for fun and took pictures on the reef. Relentlessly critiquing his own work, he gradually got better and more consistent results. That year of traveling and dabbling in different fields began to forge a direction, but he was still uncertain about where his path might lead.
In 2012 he was back in France showing his portfolio from the road to one of the large French dive magazines. They told him, “You have good photos — you have something special. Come back when you have a name; we can use you then.” Frustrated, Lecoeur wondered how he could he make a name for himself if no one gave him a chance and how he could get a chance if he needed a name to get published. He decided he would build a reputation through contests; one of the most prestigious is in Antibes, near his hometown.
Lecoeur reminisced about that time in his life: “To me it was about sharing. I’m a shy guy, but I can express myself through photography. I have an eye and a heart, and with my underwater photos I could say at a glance what I feel about being under the sea and the creatures I encounter.” In that first contest at the Festival Mondial de l’Image Sous-Marine, he was awarded a second place in the portfolio competition and earned the prestigious Ernie Brooks award for outstanding achievement in black and white print. (He later won the portfolio category in 2015.)
With that first bit of positive reinforcement, he went back on the road — by then he’d fallen in love with dive travel. Despite his university degree in marketing, he never really cared for business in the traditional sense. Travel and photography called to his first passion for marine biology and elicited a stronger pull than had any other career path thus far. His big break in terms of gaining the name the dive magazines wanted happened in 2016 when he was named the National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year.
That was a huge accolade, not only in the eyes of potential clients but also for his own self-esteem. There would be no better time to take a risk and change his life. No longer a kid and no longer drifting like a leaf in a stream, he now had a direction and needed to put together the pieces of the puzzle to make it work.
Like most marine photographers he found he needed to multitask. That meant holding exhibitions to sell photos, writing articles for dive magazines and selling stock photographs through his contacts. Soon came lucrative commercial shoots for luxury watches and other consumer brands related to the ocean or diving. Everything he did was essentially his own idea for an expedition, and then he would propose a sponsorship concept. Sometimes it was accepted, other times not, but always there was a strong editorial hook about marine biology and nature in these projects. Aqualung and Nauticam in particular have consistently supported his work over the years.
Lecouer’s camera equipment has evolved since his early days of itinerantly photographing tourists; he now shoots a Nikon D500 in a Nauticam housing, with his basic optical arsenal including the 60 mm and 105 mm Micro Nikkor lenses for fish and macro, and wide angle captured with the Tokina 10-17 mm fisheye zoom lens. His strobes are Ikelite DS161. This basic kit allows him to cover most subjects most places he goes.
Many of the projects he plans now are tied to marine ecology consistent with his mission to use his photos to speak to marine ecology and conservation issues. A recent shot of a sargassum frogfish floating amid a raft of plastic and detritus — shot unexpectedly at the end of a dive in Raja Ampat, where he was expecting to find only pristine beauty — won an award in the 2018 Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in the wildlife photojournalism category.
Lecoeur notes that photographers don’t always have the best reputation, particularly for poor buoyancy in a fragile world of vanishing resources. He tries to dispel that image by carefully approaching his subject, not being intrusive and letting the best shots come to him — which is good advice for all of us.
What will the future bring for Lecoeur? He has just published Requins, a French-language coffee-table book about sharks, and says his next project will involve a small sailboat and an expedition to Antarctica. From there he will live stream his adventures to communicate with a younger audience who may only know the marine wilderness via their digital devices. If they can see what he sees and know what he knows, he believes they might understand the perils facing this planet and the need for responsible stewardship.
© Alert Diver — Q1 2019