Seth Casteel found himself sitting on a viral goldmine with his portraits of dogs diving underwater after toys. That series, Underwater Dogs, and its follow-up, Underwater Puppies, thrilled and delighted dog lovers, who saw the faces of their own pets in the delighted, slightly crazed images of the dogs that Casteel captured. To say the project took on a life of its own as a result might be an understatement: Casteel’s dogs are in books (Underwater Dogs, Underwater Puppies, and three children’s editions) as well as wall calendars, engagement calendars, jigsaw puzzles, and more. But behind the mirth is a cause–water safety for pets–and using his photography to engage people on an important issue is at the heart of Casteel’s new project: Underwater Babies.
“Through the course of exploring [underwater dogs], I became aware of the statistics regarding human children and water-related accidents, and I was absolutely shocked,” Casteel says. “After experiencing infant swimming lessons and learning of the benefits, I felt that I could create images to promote this important cause–keeping our human children safe around water.”
The resulting project, Underwater Babies, was just released in book form, and features exactly what you might expect: Cute babies, swimming underwater, making funny faces as they go. It was, Casteel says, an experience with a few notable differences from shooting underwater puppies.
“The babies aren’t diving in after tennis balls,” he says. “Working with dogs is extremely interactive–we quickly develop a relationship and become a team in order to create the photos. With the babies, I tag along to swim classes, and even though I make myself known to the babies and parents, I try not to disrupt their routine.”
There are other differences beyond the fact that babies aren’t crazy for tennis balls. With dogs, Casteel spent a lot of time with his subjects underwater, while the babies would only be submerged a handful of times, and for only a few seconds. That narrow window meant that every shot had to count.
Casteel initially intended to shoot most of his subjects in costumes–and there are a few mermaids and other dressed-up babies in the project–but most of them ended up being babies in swimsuits and swim diapers. “I had some elaborate plans for Baby Tarzan swinging through an underwater jungle and other far-out ideas, but I decided it was unnecessary,” Casteel says. “For me, the beauty of the book is the smiling, curious faces, and the simple, effective message it promotes.”
Of course, one can’t take photos of babies underwater without drawing comparisons to one of the most famous photographs in rock and roll history: The cover to Nirvana’s Nevermind, with its shot of an underwater baby delightedly swimming in a pool. And Casteel doesn’t run from the association. “I think just about everybody has seen the famous cover of the Nirvana album,” he says. “In the Underwater Babies book, I thank the band, and also photographer Kirk Weddle. They certainly deserve credit for introducing the idea of swimming babies to pop culture.”