30 Minutes With... Daan Verhoeven
We get to speak to Daan Verhoeven, profound underwater photographer from the Netherlands.
Hey Daan, how are you? Thanks for doing this interview!
You’re welcome Chris Crawshaw, it’s my pleasure.
You’re easily the best known freediving photographer on the circuit, possibly in the world, and your photos are stunning. Do you ever just look in the mirror and think “oh my god I’m so frickin’ amazing”?
[Laughs] No never! I always look in the mirror and think “what’s that big ape looking back at me for?!” No, I’m very lucky, but I have to disagree with your first statement… I think the best-known freediving photographer is still Fred Buyle. He was definitely my big inspiration when I started and I think he’s still number one out there.
That’s very modest of you, thank you, I’ve never heard of him.
[Laughs] Don’t tell him that!
You’re supplying pictures to Suunto this year, kudos. How’s that working out for you?
Very nice! They…last year provided me with a D4, which is lovely. And… yeah it all helps to get the word out doesn’t it? Freediving is such a small sport so, to have a company behind it that has more…clout than everybody else, it’s to the benefit of everybody.
Especially if they can pay you in dive equipment!
Well you know, you need one of them thingies to tell you how deep you are… because otherwise you don’t know.
True. So…Who or what is your favourite subject to photograph?… Apart from Georgina Miller.
[Laughs] Yeah…yeah, you had to say that didn’t you! I have a couple of favourites: Freedivers in general are always fun to play with because they can do things that normal subjects can’t do. But amongst freedivers I’d say… There’s a Japanese girl called Hanako [Hirose] who is extremely playful… all you have to do is point your camera at her and she’ll do something fantastic. Then there’s Guillaume [Nery] who swims very beautifully, so that tends to translate well. Good technique! That tends to translate well into pictures.
What are the best things, and the biggest challenges about shooting for Vertical Blue?
Err… the best thing is… it’s a nice group of people, and Dean’s Blue Hole… you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful setting I think. Like…there’s no ‘wrong angle’ almost in Dean’s Blue Hole. But it’s also the biggest challenge. I mean, the visibility is unpredictable. In general you can say that on low tide you’re gonna have good visibility usually but… we'll you’ve been there! Yes! [Laughs] Just two meters and it’s pea soup! The other challenge is the duration of the event. Doing that many dives for that many days in a row…
Yeah, how many dives do you end up doing in a normal day of competition?
Well last year… it was about 60 dives a day…
Whoa! Yeah, well you get them on the way down and then on the way up so with 30 competitors that’s 30 times 2.
Have you ever got bent?!
Err…[laughs] eventually I think! I mean that would explain a lot!! No, not that I know of, no. I’m not sure if my dives are deep enough, if my dive profiles are a DCS risk. Just… say, below 25 or certainly below 30…
Well… I… [Laughs] I’d still say there’s a bit of a DCS risk there to be honest! But… you seem alright…
[Laughs] Yeah… pretty much.
Alright, so… What was your first camera like? Was it love at first sight?
Ah! My first camera…. was… a Nokia 1800.
Wow. I didn’t even know Nokia made cameras!
Well it wasn’t a camera, it was a mobile phone. [He does well to hide an exasperated sigh]. But I got rejected from photography school. They saw my portfolio and were like… “Nah”. [Laughs] And actually I saw my portfolio the other day when I was moving house and I thought “Nah” as well! So they were right to not, they were right. But I thought that meant I wasn’t a photographer so I didn’t photograph until I was… well until I got that Nokia that had the tiny little camera in it… and I started taking pictures again… and even with that tiny camera I liked it a lot and then I borrowed my mum’s compact camera, digital as well. I found that whole digital experience quite liberating. Though the camera was quite shit, it was the freedom of digital! Because you don’t have to develop it, you see instant results! And you can learn quickly with that.
When did you first consider photography as a career? Did people ever tell you to grow up and get a proper job?
[Laughs] Well I had proper jobs! I was a graphic designer for books. But then, you know, in 2009 that crisis kind of hit and I was the last into my company… so the first out. But by that time I’d been taking pictures and starting to get paid for it as well. Getting jobs as a photographer so I thought “well, let’s try that”!
So it sounds like it’s something where you’ve never really been encouraged! I mean…obviously you’re getting encouragement now!
Well… I got massively encouraged by a friend who encouraged me to pick up a real camera, like a real DSLR and start with that. And then there were friends who gave me jobs.
You’ve maybe answered this question already but who’s been the biggest influence on your photography?
Yeah… um…. ooh man that’s a really hard question! Because there’s always my Dad in the background, who wasn’t a photographer but he said a thing that always stuck with me in my photography. He said: “style is the voluntary restriction of available means.”
I quite liked that so I always try to… not go all out, so it means that the more I restrict myself, the better I tend to find my pictures. So that’s why I don’t do scuba, that’s why I don’t do flash photography, that’s why I don’t…. I try to keep it as simple as I can. I don’t use filters on Instagram, that type of thing. I want to keep it quite restricted that way.
Right, and that’s how you develop style?
Yeah! That’s how I developed my style in a way. By restricting myself. So in that case my Dad was the biggest influence on my photography. It was my friends who convinced me to get an actual camera, it was Fred Buyle who’s work I really admire and who told me “get this camera and get that lens”… because that’s the thing to do underwater. And then there’s George (Miller) who kind of allows me to keep doing this job even though it doesn’t always pay! [Laughs].
You’ve recently translated some of your Father’s writing haven’t you? Yes How was that as an experience?
That’s interesting. I’ve been doing it for a while now, for a couple of years. He passed away in 2001 and it’s something that… you miss him and it doesn’t go away. But I did find that… when I translated… I don’t miss him any less but at least the missing becomes something productive, you know? Because after a while you get… a bit sick of missing people because you realise ok I’m never going to see them again and the missing is never over but if you find a way of doing something productive with it, that kind of helps a little. So I usually try to translate him when I miss him the most. I’ve had a couple of attempts at doing some bigger stuff of his, like he wrote a book on violence. But I think that Freedivers might be able to relate to this one: It’s so difficult. He was such an intelligent man and I’m not nearly at his level so I find that it’s… so difficult to translate that work that I almost give myself a mental samba. I get to a point where…erm… like you concentrate so hard and you’re so close to the edge of what you can do that you almost push yourself a little bit too far.
That certainly sounds familiar
Exactly… but that mentally. So I’m beginning to understand how certain philosophers or certain students of philosophy have gone mad. If I didn’t have something else to do, if I didn’t have a paid job and I didn’t have to do something else for a living then I would do this all the time and I might go mad.
Is that because you’re trying to find the right words to communicate exactly what he was trying to say? Or is it something to do with the emotional connection?
That’s about two thirds of it. One third is actually trying to understand what the hell he is saying! He was the deepest man in Holland, metaphysically. When he died it was on the news and he was called ‘the most original thinker in Holland’. I was the deepest man in Holland physically for a while, but it’s just a completely different type of depth. I’m out of my depth when I do philosophy and he couldn’t swim so… yeah it’s that. It’s trying to understand what he’s saying or what he’s writing. That’s a major theme in my life. Trying to get deeper, not just physically, but also deeper into his work and into his world. And that’s difficult because I’m quite a superficial kind of person in a way. For me to get deeper it’s… you know. I like making fart jokes!
It’s amazing to hear you talk like this actually: Not a fart joke in sight!
It’s petrifying isn’t it?!
Do you have any favourite phrases of his to share with us?
Oh yeah. “Water is innocent of the temptations that well up from it. It even washes away its own sins.”
Ha. I can see why this shit makes your head hurt, Daan, I really can!
Exactly, right? But that is actually a quote that helped me a lot because, if you think about it, water is innocent. Because sometimes water is of course our friend and our element and we love to play with it… but I mean, our friend Nick [Mevoli] drowned in it and my friend Adel [Abu-Haliqa] was never found again.
But you can’t blame the water.
You can’t blame the water, right. It’s our favourite playmate but it’s… ruthless as well. I don’t mean playmate in a sexual way.
No, you already have one of those.
Shhh. Don’t tell George that, she doesn’t like it. She has a brain too!
So. moving on! Any tips for up-and-coming freediving photographers?
Yes! Shoot Raw! Don’t shoot JPEGs, always shoot Raw. If you can get a camera that shoots raw, please do so. So that’s my main tip and then… yeah… fuck up a lot!
Yeah… the second part I understood, the first… not so much! But I’m sure it’ll mean something to all those photographers out there. What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever captured on camera?
[Laughs] and can you provide us with a photo of it!
I’ve done some selfies nude…! Yeah… well there is such a thing as “underwater nudes”. Dudes tend to not come out… well when you do that! Because there is the cold factor and the shrinkage…! Dudes should not be under the water nude. Girls, sometimes not either but most dudes…. no.
No. Although you’re probably biased, right?
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe a little.
Is ‘Selfie’ a dirty word?
No I don’t think so. Erm… I think selfies can be very creative and very well done. It’s definitely over-used but I don’t think in photography, or in art in general, there’s such a thing as a dirty word.
What do you think of the rise of digital media and photography? Everyone’s a photographer now, right?
When I don’t like my photography sometimes it’s because it gets in the way of experiencing the world. In a way it’s nice to have that filter of the camera between you because it allows you to frame and shape what you see, but at the same time it disconnects you from what you see. So you don’t experience the world any more in a way. Sometimes I feel with my own freediving that it’s better to put the camera away and just be there. But I think a lot of people want the world filtered, you know they’re a bit afraid to experience the world as it comes directly at them.
Raw. As you might say. Yes, raw, exactly! You’ve just opened a freediving school in Cornwall, I’ve seen some photos of your new house there and it’s beautiful. Does it feel good to have “taken the plunge ?”(lolz)
[Laughs] It feels good and petrifying at the same time! We’re in the middle of setting it up so we have the connections there we’re working together with a really good school there so we have a really good facility. And we know that the environment is fantastic for freediving and for teaching in, but also for experiencing the sea in apnea, you know? You can just swim about there and play with fish and look at the reef and… it doesn’t need to be all about depth. So really everything is there and now the question is… “if you build it, they will come” so will they?!
Is that a quote from Wayne’s World?!
No! It’s that Kevin Costner movie… It’s… err… fields of dreams!
Isn't the water a bit cold in Cornwall?!
No, no! It’s lovely and warm! It’s 23 degrees in the summer! Yeah… no it’s 5mm stuff. It’s not too bad and the visibility you can get 8-10m so it’s not that scary actually. And right now it’s about to be basking shark season!
Yeah. And we’ve already seen seals there and dolphins, we’ve seen interesting things. Plus there’s wrecks and there’s… yeah it’s a really lovely spot.
I can’t wait to visit.
Oh you should man. Come as quickly as you can.
You’re a pretty good diver yourself: According to apnearanking.se you’re still #1 in the Netherlands for CNF despite not having competed since 2010! Do you ever miss being on the other side of the lens?
Yes. Err, well not necessarily on the other side of the lens because, like many photographers I don’t like getting my photo taken. But being a competitor? Oh yeah. I think this is a general thing in competitive freedivers, you never really touch your potential do you? I always think I’ve got something left in the basement. I know I can go deeper if I learn how to equalise and if I can dedicate some training time to it… That word “deeper” comes into my mind a couple of times a day. And yeah… being around all these people who make it look so easy to go to 80m. I’m thinking damn…!
Are you going to return to competition?
I’d say yes. I think so.
I’d love to see that!
[Laughs] I’d love to see that too! I’m a little bit afraid of it but then… that’s one of those fears that guides you to what you want to do, isn’t it.
It is, for sure. Ok… On a scale of 1-10, how pissed off does your average Dutch person get when someone refers to them as “coming from Holland?”
Yeah. If they think we’re German [laughs] well that registers on the scale! No Holland is fine.
I had one very good friend who was Dutch and he used to get furious about it.
Ah but that was probably because he was from Groningen or from Limburg or I don’t know where. I’m from Brabant but really… it’s this tiny little country and then we divide it up into even tinier bits and…
…and get very territorial about them!
[Laughs] Yes! I’m from this street and not that street!
Ok… so… you’ve done very well, you’ve only mentioned her once during the course of this interview so far. You’re never far from your beloved Georgina Miller. How did you meet?
We met at a competition in Belgium. She was on the other side of the pool and I saw her and I thought “wow”. But we didn’t get together then because I did a no-fins dive and had a big old samba and that’s the first time she saw me! [laughs]
No doubt you lost concentration through thinking about her right?
Yeah yeah, I’m gonna blame that one on her! Hang on… wait there’s a kiwi brandishing a knife in my doorway.
[Johnny mumbles some incoherent sentence... I think about hair products]
Ok last question.
Yes. You’ve been very succinct! Aside from helping you with the ladies, how helpful are your rugged good looks to your photography career? [Laughs] Ah not at all! You don’t think it helps you with the clients like Suunto?
No! Because they look at my work don’t they? No. No. Rugged good looks!
If only our readers could see you blush, Daan.
Daan Verhoeven is a former Dutch champion, Dutch record holder and currently lives in Cornwall, South West England where he runs a Freediving School. He is a freelance underwater photographer and his work can be found here at www.daanverhoeven.com