It’s hard work trying to pigeonhole André Musgrove. As an underwater cinematographer, photographer, Ocean Photography Awards judge, professional freediver, and underwater stunt performer, to say his career is varied would be an understatement. Born and raised in the Bahamas, where he is still based today, his experience and knowledge have seen him work on projects with Discovery Channel, National Geographic, GoPro, Canon, Rolex, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Here, he tells us how he came to be so at home in the water and what it takes to secure the perfect shot when grappling with the ocean and its wildlife.
From underwater stunt performer to TV presenter, you have a very varied career – which would you say is your dominant role?
I would say my most dominant career is underwater photography and cinematography.
You recently judged the Ocean Photography Awards, what do you look for when trying to select and secure award-winning shots?
For me when I'm taking my own shots I'm looking for composition, color (because color is usually lost underwater very easily so when it's actually there it really stands out) and basically just how unique or difficult the shot may be to get based on what the photographer or models have to do. These are the things I would use when I shoot my own work and when judging other work also.
What did it take to get here?
I was born and raised in Nassau, Bahamas, and a lot of my free time was spent freediving and spearfishing out with my dad on the boat on the weekends. And most of my friends and people around my age never actually did what I did. So, I'd have to tell them stories after the adventures were finished. So that encouraged me to pick up a camera to share those experiences with my friends who weren't able to actually call them or who didn't have an interest in that yet until I showed them the videos.
And that was basically my introduction to my underwater photography/underwater cinematography role. I started just with a little GoPro action camera. Took it everywhere I went when I was freediving, spearfishing, then I got scuba certified and I got into that. Then once I graduated high school, I began working at a local dive shop that had an underwater photography lab.
It was kind of a training ground for me for the stuff that I do now. I learned a lot more about high quality equipment and shooting different things for production companies, working with sharks, doing a lot of scuba diving, working with tourist scuba divers also. I worked there for two years, and then I resigned to freelance and do my own thing as [an] underwater photographer and cinematographer, working as [a] private dive guide when I had time.
What are some common misconceptions about your line of work?
I think some people think it’s very simple and easy to get into which it is not, especially if you're shooting in the ocean. Shooting in a pool or just with a little waterproof phone is completely different than being in the ocean and having to work with and understand wildlife in a way that makes it possible to capture those moments. Also, whether you're doing scuba diving or freediving makes a big difference. On top of that, the equipment itself is pretty expensive because not only are you buying the camera, but you also have to buy the underwater components to make sure everything's safe.
From your portfolio, would you say there’s one photo that really stands out for you?
Probably one of my most notable photographs was actually kind of a mistake. It's a photo of my friend freediving with a spotted eagle ray over a white sand path. We were following a school of spotted eagle rays, at least 40 of them, and I'm kind of just waiting for them to do their loops around so we could time our dive to meet them at the bottom so we don't spook them away, while getting some shots of them. But we never actually got the shot with the big school. Right when we're about to leave, we're swimming back to the boat and one straggler swims past. I was actually at the surface, so I wasn't aware, but David had already dived down and he was following it from behind. I was able to swim right on top of it and shoot a photo straight down. And that became the image that people know today, which was not the image that we were going for, but it was an image that turned out pretty well. That was a pretty unique and funny experience.
Have you ever had any particularly memorable close encounters with wildlife?
There was an interaction with two gigantic tiger sharks in a place called Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, and I was shooting and working with Sea Legacy. One of the dives was me swimming between these two large [~4-to-5 meter] 14-to-16 foot tiger sharks. And I was right between them, almost like a sandwich.
I remember just looking into the eyes of both of the animals nearby and I could see that they recognized me and they noticed me, but they weren't afraid of me. Nor did they think I was prey or food or anything. I just found a really big sense of acceptance and coexistence between them. That moment, it almost felt like it lasted for like 10 minutes, even though it was probably only five seconds. But I just felt really, really safe at that point. I was like, these are the biggest things in the water around us right now, and if these two big bosses accept me then I don't feel like anything else can touch me. That that moment was really special and just encompasses, like, we can coexist with these animals and people don't always have to fear them.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
The first step would be to get as much underwater experience as they can without a camera in their hand. So that would be learning scuba diving and building up your scuba certifications. If you have the ability to, it’d [be] great if you can dive in different places because different places have different things.
There are a lot of resources online where you can watch other professional scuba divers and learn a lot. That's what I did when I first started out, I was watching every single person who had an underwater anything out there, or who travelled across the world when I wasn't able to, just to learn as much as I could, but also learning different disciplines and diving, including freediving.
You can learn to hold your breath and dive down and be comfortable in the water where you can get a lot more close up interactions with animals than you would doing scuba because there aren't any bubbles to scare the animals if you're freediving.
I guess that would actually be the base, I would say before you even pick up the camera make sure that your body is comfortable enough as to be effortless in the water so that holding the camera is just an added thing that doesn’t affect your performance.