Why This Model Was Photographed Surrounded by Sharks

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Australian free diver Amber Bourke, with two sharks, in a project to raise awareness about the importance of the animals. Benjamin Von Wong

Photographer Benjamin Von Wong wanted to find a way to make sharks seem more accessible, and to raise awareness about the plight of the animals, which are killed in the tens of millions each year for their fins—used to make shark fin soup. So he came up with an ambitious plan: to photograph a model underwater in a flowing white dress with the threatened animals.

"Some photographers take photos of models in dresses," writes Australian freediver (and model) Amber Bourke, in a Facebook post. "Others decide that the model should be a freediver and she should be tied to the bottom of an underwater cave." Surrounded by sharks.

Von Wong took the following stunning photographs in Fiji. He decided to have Bourke hold a shepherd's crook, to suggest that we must look after sharks, just as they help keep populations of fish in check by eating old, sick and overpopulated animals, he explains in a video describing the project.

"Just like sharks are the shepherds of the sea, we are the shepherds of our generation, and we can make a difference and have our voices heard" to protect sharks, he says.

Specifically, he advocates for the creation of protected marine areas in Malaysia and elsewhere in the "coral triangle," an area of the western Pacific known for its reefs.

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The sharks could only be shot during a two-hour window every day, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., when the animals were active and the light rays visible. Benjamin Von Wong

"Well designed, administered and enforced Marine Protected Areas have been scientifically demonstrated across the globe to benefit fish and marine ecosystems," writes Von Wong in a petition on Change.org. "While the fins from a dead shark may be worth $100 to a local fisherman, through ecotourism, a living shark can support an entire island community and its surrounding ecology by bringing in over $1.9 million over the course of its lifetime," citing a study that found sharks are worth more alive than dead.

The video took a lot of work to film, as Bourke had to be tied into place in the underwater cave and regularly given quick shots of oxygen by assistants who then sped out of the way. And then, of course, sharks had to show up on their own accord. "In addition to the standard complications of shooting underwater—limited oxygen, complex communication, specialized equipment, and experienced divers—we only had a tiny two-hour window every day, between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., where the sharks would be active and light rays visible," Von Wong told the photography blog Fstoppers.

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Around 100 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, which are made into soup. Benjamin Von Wong