Underwater photographer captures ‘once in lifetime’ images

Published 8:11 pm Friday, August 7, 2009

When the “Celebrating Contemporary Art in Alabama: The Nature of Being Southern,” exhibition officially opens at the Johnson Center for the Arts in Troy on Aug. 11, each of those who walk through the door will be immediately drawn to a certain art piece, said Wiley White, Center development director.

That piece might be a cornucopia of tires, a whimsical piece of furniture, a detailed portrait or a functional piece of pottery.

“Visitors will first view the pieces that visually appeal to them and those that have stories that interest them,” White said. “And, after they make the rounds, they will come back and focus on the artwork that appeals to them in a personal way. And, the black-and-white, underwater baptismal photography of Caroline Davis of Birmingham will certainly have wide appeal because baptisms are personal to so many of us. Baptism are emotional so we will be emotionally connected to her work.”

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Davis said people do connect with her work in a personal way and often share their own visual memories of their baptisms.

“My photographs are not religion driven but I’ve seen people cry from my work,” she said. “That’s the ultimate drive for me to keep doing my work to search deeper for those images that come once in a lifetime.”

Davis’ background in underwater photography is shooting tourist destinations in color. She worked for years as an underwater photographer for commercial accounts and advertising agencies before taking her first baptism shot.

She was at a family reunion in the Grand Cayman Islands and came upon a baptism ceremony while scuba diving.

“I’m a pilot and, when I came back home to Alabama, I was flying over the Black Warrior River and, from the air, I saw a baptism in the river. I was fascinated by it.”

The next week, she had lunch with a church deacon in Green County. He invited her to photograph a baptism and other reverends soon followed suit.

That was 14 years ago, and photographing baptisms has become a passion for Davis.

“Every time, I shoot a baptism, because of the privilege I am granted, I embrace every second I have to respect and capture the moment,” she said.

“Doing underwater photography takes me to a place about as deep as you can go within yourself. I’m searching to find out what’s not visible to other people. Beneath the surface, with songs and prayers reverberating all around me, I go into a deep meditative state in the immediacy of that second revealed to me. I try to combine the body under the water, the reflection and line of the water and the line of the surrounding congregation above. This all comes together in a single moment. The photograph, I hope, will make that moment eternal.”

Davis said there are fewer and fewer outdoor river baptisms and the centuries-old tradition could soon vanish. She finds more river baptisms are being performed in the Black Belt of Alabama than anywhere else. However, she is traveling to other states to photograph as many river baptisms as she can and as fast as she can.

“So this has placed me in a different role than that of a fine art photographer,” Davis said. “I have become, by the forces of nature and society, to be a historian, too. My work has become much bigger than I what I first thought.”