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Double exposure | Spotlight on Kona photographer known for dreamy underwater images

Updated: 
March 27, 2014 - 12:05am

In the natural, chaotic energy of the ocean, Sarah Lee responds to the perpetual motion and irregularities with instinct, wonder and calm.

She’s carefree and lighthearted about the fluctuating aspects of this unknown. A long-distance swimmer and surfer, Lee is comfortable in this watery haven — her playground for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Kona, Lee said she was always drawn to ocean. She wanted to be in it or near it.

As an underwater and surf photographer, Lee has a passion for capturing the ocean’s beauty, complete with its crashing waves and sweeping surges, which she matches in strength and tireless spirit. She is armed only with a camera, swim fins and goggles. She holds her breath while thinking about the visual concepts she wants to portray, finding the composition with the chaos, experimenting, and embracing the spontaneity.

“I’m attracted to underwater photography in the ocean because of the lack of control I have in such a massive body of water and its constant state of change,” Lee said. “You have to adapt to anything it throws at you, embrace what’s happening at the present moment and just let things be.”

Lee, 23, has captivated millions with her ability to capture the interplay of people, water and light. She is known for photographing people floating, diving and swimming in a seemingly timeless, weightless space. Her pictures are ethereal, dreamy and breathtaking. There’s also a genuineness, purity or playfulness to how her subjects interact with water. With each photo, she continues to prove what lies beneath the surface not only matters most, but can also be the most intriguing and moving at times.

As a teen who was “bored to death” or at least thought she was, Lee got into photography. She first viewed the camera and medium as a tool for exploration, adventure and having fun. She fell in love with photography because it allowed her to observe, translate and share with others the beauty in everything and daily happenings she witnessed. It also provided Lee, a self-described shy kid, the opportunity to get involved with what was happening around her.

While a good student, Lee said she couldn’t care less about taking advanced placement courses at Kealakehe High School. She was mostly interested in graphics art, photography and video, along with competitive swimming. After graduating in 2008, Lee attended Chapman University, where she is currently finishing her last semester and majoring in film production, with documentary emphasis.

Her college education was interrupted briefly with a once-in-the-lifetime opportunity to participate in “Alison’s Adventures,” a film series that visits communities off the beaten path, shares customs, traditions and the importance of family, investigates ancient myths and legends, as well as inspires eco-lifestyles. Her travel partner for the whirlwind adventure, which lasted two years, was the series creator — filmmaker and surfer Alison Teal.

Lee succeeded because she was nurtured by the pulse of the ocean, listened to her intuition, as well as was supported and encouraged by her family, friends, teachers and community to follow her heart. She never imagined being able to do it professionally or that her pictures would have such broad appeal. Her goal has always been to share her experiences and “perpetuate the stoke,” defined as “the present state of happiness.” Besides underwater and surf shots, Lee also shoots lifestyle, landscape, fashion, wedding, engagement, portrait and production still photography.

Almost every day, Lee gets a kind note from an admirer who came across her work, usually through social media. Most say her fantastical photos provide a refreshing escape or inspiration. Lee feels honored to be able to “create aspirational images that people want to be a part of.”

Among those currently supporting Lee’s work are H&M and SmugMug Films.

H&M, a Swedish fashion giant and global retailer, opens its first Hawaii store today in the Waikiki Business Plaza on Oahu. Lee is one of three Hawaii photographers the company commissioned work from for its installation commemorating Hawaii’s local culture. The other photographers are Mike Coots and Zak Noyle.

“Our Hawaii store is unique so we wanted to capture what is special about the Hawaiian Islands. What better way to do this than by collaborating with talented local surf photographers,” said H&M spokeswoman Nicole Christie. “We fell in love with Sarah’s edgy and youthful ocean photography and believe her style is a perfect fit with our brand. We also wanted to look for partnerships beyond Oahu and celebrate the enormous talent throughout all of Hawaii.”

Besides displaying Lee’s photographs in the store, there are prints of her images on T-shirts and totes. Those T-shirts will be sold to benefit AccessSurf Hawaii, a nonprofit that “empowers people with disabilities by providing surf instruction, and therapeutic educational programs on water recreation” while also enriching lives by “assisting families to access the beach and ocean in a barrier-free environment,” according to the group’s website.

SmugMug Films is a new YouTube series. It debuted in January, with the purpose of showcasing “the passion, style, adventure and other intangibles that go into the best photography in the world.”

Lee teamed up with the company for a behind-the-scenes video highlighting her and the unpredictable nature of her work. The video can now be viewed at youtu.be/3sSX-AJNMjE.

The other SmugMug Films released so far feature professional photographers Ben Von Wong, Jessica Ambats and Scott Kelby.

To learn more about Lee and view her work, go to vivantvie.com or hisarahlee.com.