Seth Casteel

The photographer on stumbling upon his signature style, handling overnight success and pressing on when shit happens

mg7626colorprint.jpgYou may not recognize the name, but you probably recognize the work: captivating photographs of dogs frolicking underwater (see the front cover of this magazine). What you almost certainly don’t know is the backstory. Prior to this past winter, Seth Casteel was, essentially, just another starving artist. In 2009, the Southern California resident and film-school graduate quit his day job in creative advertising with Walt Disney Studios to pursue his dream—photographing pets both on land and underwater—full time.

For the first couple of years, business was, Casteel says, “hit and miss. I never thought about ending it, but I thought, ‘Geez, am I going to be able to do this and not have to worry every single month if I can pay my rent?’ But I said, ‘I don’t care; I have my dream job. Whatever! I can pay my bills next month.’”

He laughs, because, well, it’s funny in retrospect. Since Feb. 10—when Casteel’s underwater photograph of two dogs staring at a tennis ball went viral and changed his life literally overnight—about the only thing the 31-year-old can’t afford is more time to devote to his passion (a passion that will be on full display when his book, Underwater Dogs, is released Oct. 23).

What happened the morning of Feb. 10?

I woke up at 2 a.m. to all these calls from Europe from all these magazines and newspapers and agents who wanted to represent my portfolio. I didn’t know what was going on. Just call after call was coming in. … I had this print shop set up on my website, which had, approximately, zero orders up until that morning. I had opened it a few weeks before, thinking, “Well, maybe one day I can sell a couple of prints.” There were dozens of print orders. It was just an overwhelming response.

Then the media inquiries started coming in—all of a sudden I’m on the phone with Good Morning America while CNN World Report was on the other line. And I’m like, “What? Do you have the right number?” … If you would’ve asked me two days before, “If you could imagine a dream scenario, what would it be?” I wouldn’t have guessed this. I wouldn’t have even thought this was a possibility. I was just hoping to sell a few $30 prints and make enough money to pay my phone bill!

What was going through your mind?

My big concern was, “Oh my gosh, I’m only one guy!” I got thousands of e-mails—I haven’t even responded to a lot of the e-mails that originally came in because I just didn’t have the time. So I was trying to filter through the e-mails and try not to miss anything big, thinking, “Shoot, this is an opportunity here; I’ve got to make the most of it.” I didn’t know if this was just a couple-hour window.

Why did you choose to photograph animals?

I started to pick up the camera when I lived in Australia for six months back in 2002. I fell in love with Australia and photographing animals. Not a lot of dogs and cats, but definitely a lot of wallabies and snakes and birds, you name it—anything in Australia I’d chase after it.

And how did you stumble upon photographing domestic pets?

While I was working with Sony Studios, we found a litter of kittens that were maybe like 5 weeks old, and I volunteered to take some pictures of the kittens to help get them adopted. We snuck into this executive’s office at Sony, and we let the kittens jump around all over the furniture—we probably shouldn’t have done that, but it seemed like a good place to take the photos. Well, all the kittens got adopted, which was really cool. And I got a lot of really nice feedback, people saying, “These pictures are really great!” We ended up taking more pictures of another litter of kittens; this happened a couple of times. Then I started volunteering at this local animal shelter in West L.A.; I photographed dogs and cats at the shelter to help them get homes, just a volunteer thing. That was really when my new career started—although I didn’t really know it.

How did you come up with the concept of shooting dogs underwater?

Just a happy accident, man. It was 2010, and I was at a routine photo shoot in a backyard in Orange, Calif., with a little Cavalier King Charles. And the idea was just to get some on-land, routine lifestyle shots. Of course, within minutes, the dog is in the pool and knocking the ball around on his own and chasing after it. It was cool to watch him. And it was time after time, just having a blast—he didn’t even need us to play with him.

So I thought, “Well, I’ve got to tell this dog’s story in a series of photos, and clearly this is a big part of this dog’s story right here. So I need to get this shot. But it seems like a cool perspective might be from under the water.” That’s when I ran off and got a little point-and-shoot hot-pink Sony camera that goes underwater a few feet, came back and just started taking some snapshots of Buster diving in.

Did you know as you were taking the pictures that you had something special?

Nah, I had no idea. I was just shooting as many pictures as I could. I went underwater for a little while with some goggles, and I was watching him jump in, and you could see these moments happening. But I’m like, “Am I getting these pictures?” I had no idea it would work out, but it was cool to watch him, because sometimes he would knock the ball down deeper and look around for it. It was hilarious. Later I got home, started going through the pictures and realized I had a couple that were pretty cool. I thought, “Wow, this is interesting. This could be a really good way to show the range of emotion in dogs.” And that’s what I’m all about: [Capturing] the emotion and personality of dogs.

How much was that camera you bought?

Probably around $300, which for me was a pretty steep investment. I didn’t even know if I could afford it. So I put it on the credit card, what little room I had left.

What’s the process for getting an underwater shoot?

The locations vary. Usually it’s private pools, but sometimes it can be a dock-diving competition pool or a hydrotherapy pool for dogs. So usually I’ll show up, meet the dog for the first time, get to know them for a few minutes and try to develop a friendship with them and earn their trust. Then once they’re swimming, we start to play a series of games.

The dogs have to like the water, and they have to be interested in retrieving something—a ball, a toy, treats. You’ve got to have those two elements. If you have both, I like the odds.

People will call me all the time who have dogs that hate the water, and they’ll be like, “We’d love to do an underwater shoot.” Some dogs are meant to do on-land shoots. That being said, I’ve seen dogs that have never been swimming, never been under water, jump in and dive to the bottom, and have a good time. That’s the other thing. The No. 1 rule with underwater dog shoots is safety, and No. 2 is fun. You’ve got to have both those things, in addition to the dogs wanting to be there.

What’s the best underwater shot you’ve captured so far?

I’ll tell you my favorite because it can’t be re-created. A lot of these shots, I can go in and do some similar stuff. But the shot I can’t re-create is the shot of Nevada and Bardot that went viral. And the reason I can’t—and this is why I think it’s my favorite—is because the relationship of the dogs is now more established. At the time, these two dogs were friends, but they hadn’t yet established a hierarchy in that situation. “Who gets to get the ball? Do I get it, or do you get it?” There wasn’t an Alpha and there wasn’t an Omega. At the time, I had just a few minutes … to convince them both to go under water next to each other, which is really tough. And the only reason they did it was because they didn’t have that hierarchy. If I do that now, Nevada won’t go under with Bardot; Nevada will be submissive and say, “No Bardot, you go get it. I’ll get the next one.” So that’s why that shot is so cool, because it’s a moment in time that is gone now.

Is there a particular dog that has performed beyond your expectations?

The most talented dog I’ve worked with is Nevada, a border collie. She’s absolutely incredible. In fact, I shot a motion picture of her—it’s on YouTube, it’s called “Nevada the diving dog.” But she’s brilliant. It’s like you’re hanging out with a person. She understands everything that I’m trying to do—it’s really almost kind of creepy, because she’s that smart. She’s my favorite to work with because she’s just on-point.

Have you ever had water-savvy dogs that just won’t cooperate?

Actually, one of my favorite dogs—Bardot—doesn’t cooperate at all. She is a wonderful dog, she is hilarious and she’s an excellent diver—she’s just a water dog at heart, and she’s in a lot of my photos. But she can be tough, especially if there are other people around. She’s very ADD. She’s probably one of my best dogs to work with, but also one of the most challenging. She’s just got a mind of her own.

What’s the funniest or most amusing thing that’s happened during a shoot?

Well, I don’t know if you want to put this in there or not, but … a dog shit the pool. You don’t want that to happen, man. And I was doing a shoot with three dogs—one was Nevada, one was Bardot and then I had a new dog I hadn’t worked with yet who was a ginormous Chesapeake Bay retriever, and also a really great dog, but he just decided he was going to have an accident.

Naturally you want to get out of there and hit the road, but I needed to get these shots. In fact, the shot of Nevada and Bardot where they both have their teeth going for the ball and they’re coming from opposite sides, that was shot about 30 minutes after that dog had that accident. So I’m prepared to go to pretty great lengths to get these photos! All the owners were there and were like, “Oh my God, you should get out!” and I’m like “You know what? Whatever. Fuck it. It’s now or never.”

What’s the most dangerous encounter you’ve had?

I got jumped on in Colorado by a dog named Rowdy—of course. This dog, a golden retriever, wouldn’t jump into the pool; he’d only come down the ramp. Well, I never look through the viewfinder when I take pictures; I shoot everything blind, because safety is No. 1; I always have to watch what the dog is doing. So, my mistake, I look away for a second—because Rowdy wasn’t jumping anyway—and Rowdy, 65 pounds, five feet above me and about five feet away from me, jumps onto me, directly onto my chest—boom! But Rowdy was fine; I think he was just trying to give me a hug. He was a really friendly dog, but I don’t think he understood what was going on.

Did you get injured?

I thought I was having a real problem; I couldn’t breathe. I was like, “Should I go to the hospital? Something’s wrong with my chest. Or should I keep shooting?” So I kept shooting—and got some great shots!

You’re releasing a book of your underwater dog photos in a couple of months. What can people expect?

It’s a collection of some of the viral shots that many people have already seen, plus dozens of never-before-seen photos starring new dogs, ranging from a pug to 12-week-old puppies to a wolf, among so many more. It’s a very complete collection, 80-plus portraits. There’s a very short forward written by me about the experience and why I’m drawn to this, and then—boom—we jump into the photos. The photos themselves are what people want to look at; they’re the entertainment value. That’s why I opted not to [include] any weird quotes or gimmicks or life lessons. Each page will have the name of the dog, the breed and the age.

I traveled all over the country, to nearly a dozen metropolitan areas, to shoot pictures for the book, and … the range [of breeds] is really cool to see, because some people might think, “Yorkshire terriers would never dive under water!” Oh, I got Brady the Yorkshire terrier diving under water 6 feet deep! And he’s in the book, and he looks awesome.

You started a nonprofit last year and are passionate about volunteer work with animals. Why?

I got my start with this career through volunteering, and that’s all I thought it was going to be, which would’ve been great—hey, I’ve figured out a way for me to do some good and make a difference for some animals. Then I got this career out of it. But I’ve always consistently been volunteering.

In the last several years in the United States, the efforts to increase adoption rates have been fantastic; it’s been unbelievable what people are doing to help animals. But I thought the marketing and photography element of it could maybe use a little help; I was noticing that there wasn’t a lot of people volunteering to take better pictures of the adoptable dogs and cats, which I think is such an important part of increasing adoption rates—attracting attention and improving the image of the shelter and the cause. So now I teach these workshops to staff and volunteers at different animal shelters around the country about what I’ve learned—hey, here are some ideas on how to get some better shots to help increase adoption rates.

After doing that, I thought, “I should have an official nonprofit,” so I put up a website offering my suggestions and tips [while] continuing to do a shelter workshop tour here in the United States and other places. The No. 1 goal is obviously to save specific lives through better pictures, and No. 2, to improve the image of rescue and adoption. Rescuing a dog or a cat is such a positive experience, but some people are a little intimidated by going to a shelter and going through the process. But ultimately it’s a win-win situation.