fbpx vie magazine subscribe button

Beneath the Surface

The Stories That Lie Within

By Hailey Bethke | Photos by Johnny Ocean Photography

What lies below the surface is often left unexplored. This statement is a metaphor for how many of us experience everyday life: we look at the facts and don’t often consider other avenues, let alone the reasoning behind perspectives different from our own. Emerging underwater artist John Oja, aka Johnny Ocean, takes this statement both literally and figuratively as he challenges the boundaries of traditional underwater photography. Oja offers a new perspective on how we perceive subjects by immersing them in an often uncharted medium: water.

Oja is a lifelong water enthusiast, spending his time in the Gulf of Mexico as a local spearfishing guide and free diver when he’s not behind the lens. These experiences have led him to cultivate a natural ease in the water, which allows him to offer calm direction while shooting underwater with clients. Although Oja has always considered himself a creative, he shut down photography as a future career avenue in college.

“I remember two people in my class who were incredibly gifted photographers,” he remarks. “In comparison, I didn’t think I was good enough and let that insecurity temporarily halt my creative pursuits. I thought photography was like athletics: you have a peak season in which to succeed, and some people are just inherently gifted. But now I realize that photography is a skill that can always be improved.”

John Oja, aka Johnny Ocean, captured by friend and fellow fine art photographer Chandler Williams of Modus Photography

Fortunately, Oja decided to try his hand at photography again in his adult years, beginning by shooting spearfishermen with a GoPro. Eventually, he decided to take the plunge and invest in high-quality camera equipment, and soon after began shooting portraits in his underwater “studio”—the pool at Emerald Coast Scuba in Destin, Florida.

John Oja, aka Johnny Ocean, captured by friend and fellow fine art photographer Chandler Williams of Modus Photography

Oja often shoots in the pool with various backdrops to create a controlled environment. “Our local springs are usually too cold, and the Gulf of Mexico offers other challenges, such as the current and visibility,” he explains. “The photos always turn out the best when clients are comfortable in the water.” Underwater shoots take approximately two to three hours and require one essential virtue: patience.

I realize that photography is a skill that can always be improved.

“We have the communication barrier underwater, as well,” Oja says. “You can describe what you want to have a shot look like above water, but once our heads go under, it’s all reliant on me being able to shoot the right angles and the client executing our plan. When we both come up for air, the person often doesn’t even remember what they just did to replicate it again underwater,” he laughs. “I will often take more than one thousand images at any given shoot and only get one I am happy with. So many factors—like hair and skin, air bubbles, and camera focus—make shooting underwater a challenge.”

His most recent collection, a series of local artists shot underwater, was displayed at the Maxine Orange Art Gallery in Fort Walton Beach in June. Oja fondly recalls details from each of the shoots with these creatives. “I loved shooting my buddy, photographer Sean Murphy,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘How do I envision him?’ And immediately, I realized, ‘behind a camera.’ Sean bought all of these vintage underwater cameras from the 1970s for the shoot—and he forgot to seal them properly, so they all flooded. But we got some amazing photos, and the final product looks incredible!”

Oja’s goal was to create with these local visionaries collaboratively to truly capture the unique essence of each individual in their photos.

The complete series includes photographs of local artists Bradley Copeland, Chandler Williams, Harley Van Hyning, Maxine Orange, and Sean Murphy; ballerina Kate Beliaeva; contemporary dancer Rico Dias Garcia; and violinist Jessica Heit. Oja’s goal was to create with these local visionaries collaboratively to truly capture the unique essence of each individual in their photos. “I want to give to the people who show up to shoot with me,” he says. “I want a beautiful end product that truly captures their spirit.”

Photo by Chandler Williams

So, like Oja, perhaps we all need to explore a different outlook on the world around us. What sets us apart and highlights our uniqueness? How do we want to be remembered or captured in an image? Although those questions often require ample time for exploration, Oja knows that we all shine a little differently under the water. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of our true gifts and beauty through a new lens and fresh perspective.

— V —

To connect with Johnny Oja, head to JohnnyOceanPhotography.com and follow along on Instagram @johnnyoceanphotography.

Read Responsibly

December 2023, Holiday Issue, Christmas, VIE Magazine, Lisa Burwell, Cover, Gift Guide, Holidays
Marisol Gullo, Not Too Shabby, Home, Decor, Interior Design, Santa Rosa Beach, Churchill Oaks
VIE Magazine September 2023 Jay Mercado
VIE Magazine - The Art & Design Issue November 2021
VIE Magazine January 2021 Special Commemorative Edition
VIE Magazine September 2020 Wanderlust Issue, Fancy Camps, The Idea Boutique
VIE Magazine August 2020 Art & Culture Issue, Nathan Alan Yoakum Art
VIE Magazine - Architecture & Design Issue - July 2020
VIE Magazine - Decor and Home Issue - June 2020
VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail