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Look at This! Diving for the Ball

This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
Look at This! Leisure by the Waterside
Look at This! An Unusual Underwater Portrait
students diving
Students at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center play underwater football. US Navy. United States Government Work.

This official photo from the United States Navy shows students at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center playing underwater football to cool down after a physical training session. It was taken by Mass Communication Specialist Abraham Essenmacher, who was in the pool with the divers. It’s an incredibly intense, action-packed shot that provides a great look into Navy life. Let’s look at why.

Examine the Photograph

In this image five Navy students compete for a football underwater. At the moment the image is taken, three of the players are reaching directly for the ball while two more are in a position to tackle whoever gathers it. In addition to the five players in the pool, a further ten students can be seen standing in ranks in the distance through a viewport in the side of the pool.

The main focus of the image is the competition for the ball. All five players in the pool are moving towards it. Although it can be assumed that there are two teams, the situation is so chaotic that it is impossible to tell who is on which one. It’s just a mêlée of men competing for the ball.

What Can We See?

The bodies and arms of the three closest players create strong diagonal lines that lead your eye straight to the ball. Another important element is the negative space that surrounds the ball. It heightens the sense of competition as no one player has possession. It also separates the ball from the chaotic mass of players and makes it the focal point of the image.

The colours (and lack thereof) further pull attention to the ball. The red of the leather contrasts with the muted blues of the rest of the image. Other than the ball, almost everything else has a heavy blue tone. Even the skin of the students has a blue cast from the water. This blue cast is one of the characteristics of underwater images and can either be compensated for or embraced. In this case it’s been included as a part of the composition. I suspect that the wall behind is, in real life, white or very light grey.

One of the most powerful parts of the composition is the out of focus player in the right third of the image. Without this player, the image would be much weaker. It’s an interesting example of how blurred foreground elements can contribute to the overall image. He creates one of the strongest leading lines and significantly increases the sense of motion and competition in the image. Underwater football is played in three dimensions and the foreground player makes that clear.

How Does the Image Make Us Feel?

While the larger compositional elements are important, even small details in the image add to the feeling of intensity and competition. The air bubbles coming from the players show their exertion and motion. They’re not static in the water, they’re pushing hard enough that even in an environment without air they’re trying to breath heavily. You can see that movement in the player closest to the ball. The bubbles trail back from his face showing the direction he’s swimming. Similarly, the air bubbles between the legs of the player in the centre of the image are a result of how hard he’s kicking to try and reach the ball.

The ten other people seen through the viewport add another interesting, almost incongruous, layer to this image. They appear to be wearing a uniform and standing in ranks, presumably for a senior officer of some kind. This provides a contrast to the dynamism of the players in the pool, and shows the two sides to the Navy. On one hand you have near-naked young men fighting underwater for possession of football, but on the other, when they get out of the pool they change into uniform and stand around in ordered lines. This sort of dichotomy has always been a part of military service and it’s fascinating to see it represented so well in a single image.

Your Turn

This untitled image of a man diving jumping into the sea is a similarly natural and active image. What do you make of it? In some respects it’s got a lot in common with the students playing underwater football but in others it’s completely different. How does this image make you feel? Share your reading of it in the comments below.

untitled jumper
Untitled. Public Domain.

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