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Underwater Photographer Dives Into Helping Cancer Survivors

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Breast cancer survivor, Kim. Photo by Erena Shimoda.

Ever since she was a little girl, Erena Shimoda fantasized about being a mermaid and calling the ocean her home. As an adult, she felt like her childhood dream had almost come true the first time she went scuba diving during a trip to Honduras 14 years ago.  

“It was the closest I’d felt to living underwater,” said Shimoda, a native of Tokyo who graduated from Academy of Art University in 2001 with a B.A. in new media. “I was hooked on scuba diving. I just loved those moments underwater. I started taking photographs of fish and sharing them with other scuba divers back on the surface.”

She became a certified dive master and continued to focus on her underwater photography in the oceans of Cancun, Corsica, Cozumel, Hawaii and Thailand. Eventually, she added portraits—shot in swimming pools—to her underwater photography repertoire.   

Shimoda also became a volunteer for Look Better Feel Better, an American Cancer Society program that provides cancer survivors with free services, such as makeup, hair styling, wigs and clothing tips, to help them feel good about their post-recovery appearance. She came up with the idea of creating beautiful underwater portraits of cancer survivors to aid them with their healing process. Though not a cancer survivor herself, Shimoda related to their struggles because she almost lost her life in a car wreck. The devastating crash killed her father and left her with a brain injury and fractured bones throughout her body.

“My friends and family kept telling me it was a miracle I survived and that my father must have been watching over me, and I truly think he was,” she said. “I started volunteering with Look Better Feel Better because I wanted to make my father proud and give back to the community.”

Three years ago, she raised enough money to shoot free underwater portraits for 13 cancer survivors. She found her subjects through friends, Facebook and several organizations. Today, in addition to doing full-time website work, she continues to donate her own time and money to offer underwater portraits to cancer survivors. According to Shimoda, the photo shoots always have a positive, transforming effect on her subjects.

“They feel good about finding the courage to try something new and to come out of their box,” she explained. “When you have cancer, you feel alone and isolated. The photo shoots are an opportunity for them to feel free and beautiful. My goal is [to] see them smile and laugh, even if it’s just for a moment.”

Her subjects also smile once they see the stunning end results of their photo session. Their portraits and compelling testimonials are posted on Shimoda’s website, underwaterhealer.com.

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Photographer and Academy of Art University alumna, Erena Shimoda. Photo courtesy of Erena Shimoda.

“The experience was amazing,” wrote Maya Sycip, a model who was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 19. “It was so quiet and peaceful, as if I was in my own world without any worries or problems that often come with being out in the real world. I felt so free in such a serene environment that it was almost like experiencing nirvana.”

Shimoda has shot portraits in pools in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Boston and Hawaii, among other locations. She said finding a pool for a shoot can be challenging—things such as location, water temperature and lighting come into play. In addition, each of her clients has a different degree of comfort being underwater.

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Thyroid cancer survivor, Amber. Photo by Erena Shimoda

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Wilm's tumor cancer survivor, Eden. Photo by Erena Shimoda.

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Brain cancer survivor, Maya. Photo by Erena Shimoda.

“I don’t know what will happen until we jump in,” said Shimoda. “Maybe because I’ve worked with lots of different types of people in various industries, I’m pretty good at sensing someone’s vibe. I can be patient and adjust myself to a person’s level of comfort in the water.”

Although Shimoda majored in new media at the Academy, she said she applies the many skills she gained as a student—including photography, graphic design, animation and web design—to her underwater photography business. “I want to tell students to never give up on their dreams or think it’s too late to try something new,” she advised. “Most importantly, don’t listen to anyone else. It can be hard, but follow your heart.”