Back into the Light

Introduction by Adam Hanlon

During the Wetpixel/DPG party at DEMA in 2010, I had the pleasure of meeting a large, somewhat hirsute individual with a ready laugh named Steve Williams. Steve and I had spoken at some length via the internet, and always seemed to share the same jokes, but it was the first time we had met in person. In early November 2011 he shared the shocking news that he had been diagnosed with cancer, and was to undergo radio and chemotherapy. Fast forward to DEMA 2012 and I re-met Steve again, perhaps typically at the Wetpixel/DPG party. I must confess that I did not recognize him as he notably less hirsute and pretty skinny! I’m pleased to report that the ready laugh and sense of humor seem unchanged.

Steve has written some words about his recent trip to Lembeh and his re-baptism into the underwater world. I feel very privileged to share these with the Wetpixel community.


When I got out of the water off Socorro on August 7 of 2011, I had no way of knowing that it would be almost two years before I would be in the ocean again. In October, 2011 I was diagnosed with stage 4 head and neck cancer and underwent four months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. For eight months my only sustenance was via a feeding tube and it was a year before I could swallow water again. I came through it all and learned a few things along the way that I wanted to share with my friends on Wetpixel. In May this year, a healthy Mr. Williams traveled to Lembeh for the first time to renew his love affair with the ocean. Here are my thoughts on returning to the water:

Back into the Light by Steve Williams

The fates and doctors had aligned to keep me out of the ocean for one year, eight months and 14 days, the longest dry spell of my life. My wife Carmen and I had made our way to Lembeh to dive with our friends Andy and Allison Sallmon and the crew which included my friend and fellow Wetpixelian Phil Sokol to see the famous black sand and critters for ourselves. We were there for Lembeh Wide Open, Andy and Allison’s self imposed challenge to show the possibilities of shooting wide-angle in Lembeh. The group was based at the highly regarded Lembeh Resort and dove with the outstanding dive operation Critters@ Lembeh. We were also there to simply celebrate life.

When I first discussed my treatment options with my doctors, it was always foremost in my mind that I would ultimately be able to dive again. Throughout the months of my treatment I was constantly focused on when I could get back in the water. So many people were there for me, my family, and the doctors and nurses of course, the therapists and importantly my new friends who have survived the disease and shared so much to help me. Thank you.

I wish I could share with each of them and you exactly how it felt to slide into the ocean and be home again. When I back rolled off the side of the boat that first day I could feel my soul filling up, swelling and expanding, it was a powerful visceral sensation. I had half-expected a momentous feeling but the intensity of the experience still surprised me. It was a graduation ceremony I will never forget. Some of us just belong in the ocean.

We went to Lembeh to try and open up some new wide-angle dive sites for the area. I’m afraid the resorts in the area rely far too heavily on just a few sites and the boat/diver pressure is going to affect them. For example, there are three easy to reach fans with Pygmy seahorses on them and the poor little guys must get their picture taken hundreds of times each day. No one knows what all those flashes are doing to them, but it just doesn’t appear to be sustainable. The area badly needs some new dive sites and we tried to do our part to help open up some new areas. The great news is that there are some wonderful world class wide-angle sites in easy reach. Lembeh Wide Open was a very valuable workshop and extremely well put together by Andy and Allison. We started each morning with a short class and some great examples of the kind of images we would be making that day as they offered their extensive experience to each of us. The next time you’re in Lembeh tell the guides you’d like to go to Dante’s Wall and California Dream.

The soft corals and sponges around Lembeh island provide wonderful wide-angle opportunities.

At the end of the very successful week Allison and Andy put a short video together with images from the crew to show some of the remarkable opportunities around Lembeh for wide -angle photography.

I struggled early though with the photography; even with all my extensive pre-trip checkout and pool work, gremlins were loose in the gear and in my head. Buttons didn’t do what they were supposed to do; cables weren’t carrying the right signals. I was acting like I had never had a camera in my hands. I even managed to get in the water for one dive with my lens cap still on. That was a first. It took a couple of days to get back in the swing of things; I shoot my best by feeling and instinct and dislike formulas and recipes. It took me longer than I expected to get the stream of consciousness flowing again.

When you do something extremely stupid it’s important to have your friends close by to capture the moment for posterity. The image is courtesy of Allison Vitsky Sallmon.

Even with all my forty-five years of experience in the world’s oceans, in the short two weeks we were there I photographed fifty-four species I have never seen before to share with the children and the Fin Foundation. Lembeh showed itself to be full of wonderful wide-angle opportunities and once again validated its reputation as the weirdest square mile in the ocean. The guides at Critters@Lembeh were simply the best I’ve ever had the privilege to dive with. They put us on some amazing creatures.

Lembeh lived up to its reputation and I was able to capture some interesting macro images with the help of the wonderful guides from Critter@Lembeh.

Throughout my treatment I learned quickly to rely on the oncology nurses to get a feel for how things were really going. These special people provide the gift of never-ending hope along with the drugs , IV’s and medications. So what do you think the young lady sitting next to me in the dive boat running across the Lembeh Strait does when she’s not diving? Yep, she’s an oncology nurse. Six people in a very small boat, 10,000 miles from home, what were the odds that one of my dive partners would turn out to be an angel? While I was considering the likely hood that the gods had sent along someone to watch over me, she was proceeding to kick all of our photographic butts with her Sony. Ms. Deanne Beck will be someone to reckon with in future photo competitions. She graciously allowed me to use one of her images to show the wide-angle opportunities of the Malawi wreck site.

This beautiful image by Deanne Beck shows what’s possible on the Malawi site. She used a Sony NEX5 and a 16mm with Fisheye to capture some of the soft coral on the wreck.

I gained so much from my illness. Physically I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since college. I’m forty pounds lighter and after working with a personnel trainer for 6 months to get in shape for the trip, I was able to easily do three dives a day for ten days and in retrospect could have done more but didn’t want to run out of gas. Mentally, I find that I appreciate everything with more passion. The breeze on your wet skin, the smile on your lover’s face, the way your friends are there for you. We have so much to be thankful for in this life and rarely appreciate it, and even more rarely show it. I’m working on being better at that.

Most of all I am continually surprised by the way I see differently now. All of us look at life and the things around us through our own prism. As photographers we should be used to “looking” at everything but I find I am “seeing” differently. After my illness, light is very different, in the past I have been known to surface in the middle of a late afternoon dive to watch a particularly spectacular sunset but special light like that now can bring a tear to my eye. It feels like I have added an amplifier or two to my ability to appreciate light. All the dials now go to eleven. It’s a gift from my illness that I hope never fades.

Throughout my treatment, when I couldn’t dive, I spent the time reading and looking at thousands of images. I developed the opinion that average photographs are pictures of “things” while amazing photographs are images of relationships. They can be relationships of light or show subjects in unique relationships. They can be relationships of shape, color, form or line, of texture or space, but I have found that every amazing image I have ever seen has at its core this concept of a fascinating visual relationship. The obvious relationship we can add to our wide-angle images means putting a model in the frame. The skills involved in modeling are just as hard to learn and do well as the expertise needed behind the camera. I’m extremely lucky in that I’m married to one of the best. We have been diving together for more than 30 years and have developed a mental mind meld that works through some kind of telepathy that I don’t understand. I just know that she appears in the viewfinder in some wonderful places. This was also true throughout my treatment and long recovery period. She is always where I need her to be and I’m extremely thankful.

When we saw the sponges growing on the wall at a site called Pante Jiko we both thought that Dr. Seuss had been here before us.

The other relationships that critically affect our lives are the new connections we build when we travel to new places and make new friends. We were once again blessed to make amazing new relationships with the wonderful people in Indonesia and the island of Lembeh. I can’t help but wonder which relationships are ultimately more powerful and lasting. The ones we capture with our sensors or the ones we make with our smiles?

I was showing some of the images from the trip to a friend today who doesn’t dive. She was amazed by the color, new shapes and interesting creatures. Her comment to me was fascinating, she said, “You must have really interesting dreams”. I’m guessing that’s true of all of us who go into the ocean to make images. It’s one of the things that bind us together across borders, cultures and languages. Each of us has our dreams about our lives and what we hope the ocean holds for us.

It’s very special when those dreams come true.

The colors, shapes and textures of our diving lives color our dreams in very special ways.

The smile on my face returning to the boat after the first dive in Lembeh pretty much says it all.