MEET ALEX ST. JEAN: Q&A ABOUT WATER, PHOTOGRAPHY, AND FATE
If you’ve seen the gorgeous photos of Valérie Lacroix on the August cover of International Diver, showing us how she does summertime in Montreal, then you’re familiar with the work of Alex St. Jean, who is the cover photographer for the August, September, and October issues of International Diver.
We head deep into Alex’s world, asking him about how he got into photography and diving, and how he brilliantly weaved the two together to be where he is now. We also talk about life on the road, which has produced many wonderful stories. Alex primarily focuses on underwater photography and capturing freediving competitions. His work is breathtaking – literally and figuratively – as Alex captures stunning underwater scenes while holding his breath.
At thirty years old, Alex is making waves in the underwater (and overland) photography world. His work has been featured on many platforms, including Red Bull TV, international newspapers, diving publications, Deeper Blue, the cover of an actual music album, and now in International Diver Magazine.
International Diver: Where in the world is Alex St. Jean?
Alex St. Jean: “I kind of live all over the place right now. I used to have an apartment in Montreal but now I’m kind of bouncing between here, Mexico, Honduras, and then going to freediving competitions in Europe. I’m in Montreal in the summers mostly, shooting architectural photography.”
How did your love affair with photography start?
“I moved into my first apartment, and my neighbors were photography students at Dawson College. I became friends with them, and they invited me into their classes a few times to sit in and be a model. I saw what was going on and it was pretty cool. I didn’t know you could be a photographer as your actual career. I applied the next semester and got in, just like that.”
So then, how did you become the water lover that you are today?
“A year later, one of the girls that got me into photography, we ended up dating, and we went to Hawaii together. I was kind of scared of the ocean, and she forced me to take a scuba class because she was already a certified scuba diver. That scuba class completely changed my perspective on the ocean. They put a mask on me so I could see what was going on, and I learned how to equalize my ears so there was no pain – it was a beautiful experience that got me on the path to where I am today.”
It’s amazing that you were once fearful of the water and now it’s the biggest part of your life.
“Now I’m all about it,” laughed Alex. “I know how powerful the ocean is and now I have a deep respect for it.”
You spent quite a bit of time in Roatán. How did you find yourself there?
“I was a rescue diver at the time and I wanted to become an instructor so I asked a few friends and one of my good friends recommended someone in Honduras. I knew nothing about Roatán at the time, to be honest, and I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish. I met a local girl there, we ended up falling in love, and I ended up staying there for a couple of years. It’s a super small world there.” It was an easy decision to stay in Roatán, as Alex was attracted to the small town feels.
How did you turn photography from a hobby into a career and make the leap from physics to photography?
“I’ll be honest with you, it was never really a hobby. I was studying physics at McGill University and doing other hobbies like skiing and climbing. But when I met my neighbors and saw what they were doing and how fun and creative they were being, and how every shoot you kind of learn something, and it’s all about problem-solving, it sounded right up my alley. And, it also uses the basic principles of physics, of optics and light. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s scientific, it’s creative, it’s a little bit of everything. I never really did much of it before; it’s not like I always carried around a camera. Basically, I was studying and then I started working in photography right away.”
How did you end up combining your two loves – water and photography?
“The way it got together was during the trip to Hawaii, my girlfriend got me into scuba. We ended up traveling around to a few different islands, and we ended up on this one island. I don’t even know what to call it, like fate or whatever, but we ended up on a little organic farm, and the guy who owns the organic farm is a dive instructor who runs a scuba camp for kids during the summers. He needed a photographer to take underwater photos, and that’s how I got started, thanks to John Gibbons at Hawaii Sea Camp.” From there, Alex started shooting all the time, developing his personal style and technique, and people started liking his photos and wanting to hire him.
Tell me about your diving history?
“I believe it was in 2011 I stared, I did my Open Water scuba diving class. That same year, I did the advanced class and the rescue class, and then it wasn’t until maybe two years later that I did my Divemaster. And then in 2014 I did my instructor, and also 2014 I met some freedivers and shot my first freediving competition. Then, between 2015 and now, I’ve been shooting freediving competitions and teaching a little bit of scuba. This year I became a freediving instructor.”
What does it take to be an underwater photographer – gear-wise?
“I have my camera, which is the same camera I use on land – now it’s a Canon 5D Mark IV. A wide-angle zoom lens – so a lens that goes from 17-40mm focal length. I have to have an underwater housing, one that’s made of aluminum, preferably, with a big dome port, so it corrects the refraction of water. And then for different types of photography, I have these arms I put onto the camera with strobes, like underwater flashes – the deeper you go, the less color and light comes through, so you need to artificially light things.” When scuba diving, Alex would also be wearing all his scuba gear on top of his photography equipment, but now he’s just focusing on freediving.
Your images are amazing. Is photography more than just taking photos, or are you trying to tell a story when you shoot?
“I definitely try to tell a story – what people want to hear, to read, and to see is stories to be inspired. That’s what I try to do with the photos, I try to convey what’s going on the best way possible and to tell a story, and in terms on freediving, it’s about the athlete, the competition, and the sport as a whole.”
In what way is underwater photography different than other types of photography, and how do the creative processes differ?
“Well, it takes a lot more equipment, it takes more patience, maintenance, and care of your equipment. It takes extra skills – you have to be aware of your buoyancy and your body position in the water, so you’re not running into corals or harming marine life or moving into other people or boats. For freediving, you have to hold your breath and go down deep. In terms of what you can do creatively, I think you have an advantage underwater because you’re moving in 3D, while on land you’re moving in 2D – forwards, backwards, left, right – whereas underwater I can travel on 3-axes and get whatever angle I want.”
What types of photography really make you tick?
“I used to be really into macro photography, but now I try to find something in all types of photography I see. I’m not really going to focus on one type – I like to study all types of photography, to see what the photographer is doing and learn from that, and break down what the person is thinking. What got me started in photography was street photography – shooting what was going on and telling that story and finding multi-layered compositions. As for underwater stuff, I love shooting whales, sharks, dolphins, and little things.”
Do you have any favorite photos you’ve snapped, or memorable underwater moments that come to mind?
“Definitely. There’s two that stand out. There’s one I took in Roatán in 2015 of a diver named Carlos Correa. We were just doing a little fun shoot – the sun aligned, the water was perfect, and he was in a really good position. It ended up really nice. There’s another one I took this winter in Mexico in a cenote. It’s one of my friend, Glen, who’s a freediver and a safety diver and he had his four-month-old son in his hands, and he’s like ‘Alex, take a photo of this,’ so he brings him in the water and he sinks the kid and lets the kid swim up by himself. The picture came out pretty friggin’ awesome.”
What’s next for Alex St. Jean?
“For the next month and a half, I’m in Montreal shooting architecture, and then after that, I’m going to be traveling around all over the place – Spain, Turkey, Curaçao, Las Vegas, Colombia – to do various competitions and underwater photography.” Alex has taught photography in the past, but he’s currently too busy taking photos to do any teaching. However, he plans on teaching in the future if he gets too tired of traveling.
To see more of Alex’s work, visit his website at www.alexstjean.com, and follow him on Instagram at @alexstjeanphoto. The names of our next two upcoming cover models must remain a secret, for now. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to find out who our next models will be.