Julia Wheeler: Photographer, Explorer & Conservationist

Australian photographer Julia Wheeler describes herself as an ‘adventure addict’—she’s also a competitive champion freediver, and an ambassador for Take3ForTheSea. Here, we discover more about her life as a photographer, conservationist and explorer.

Champion Freediving couple, Michael and Emily Bates in Indonesia.
Image by Julia Wheeler

When was the first time you picked up a camera?

When I was a kid, my dad used to take us away on family holidays down the coast of West Australia. Whenever he pulled out the camera it was always a special moment. I ended up sneaking off with Dad’s camera and going on my own adventures to find my own moments—even if it meant disappearing for hours and finding my way home again, having a camera in my hand meant that I was going somewhere awesome.

How has your work evolved over the years?

I wouldn’t say that my work has evolved, I think my patience and appreciation for how photography allows us to experience new worlds, situations, perspectives and opportunities has given me a greater view in that life really is what you make it. I’ve always loved being underwater, photographing my brother and sisters and loved animals. After I went to NIDA and also finished my degree in media and communications when I was 22, I moved to Thailand to learn underwater videography and freediving. This led to a natural progression of shooting underwater a lot which was later mixed with motion, light and my breath held. Over the years, I’ve still avoided using a flash at all costs and love to be able to use natural light to enhance my subject’s emotions, whatever I am shooting; a wild lion, a newborn baby or a freediver surfacing from a dive 20 meters underwater.

Image of Champion Freediver Yoram Zekri walking the blue line between a paradox of pressure.
Image by Julia Wheeler

How did your journey with freediving begin?

I used to hold my breath in the bath as a kid and growing up in West Australia meant big waves along the coast. I loved holding my breath while the sets rolled over me and staying close to the ocean floor. My parents enrolled me into the swimming squad at Challenge Stadium where I trained for a few years as a competitive swimmer. I’d still sneak off and attempt to swim laps underwater on one breath. Ten years ago I curiously explored the sport of freediving after venturing into underwater photography and two years ago found myself in a Freediving competition by pure accident where I placed third at the Australian Death Nationals in Bali. From then on, I represented Australia in World Championships last year in Honduras and ranked 11th overall female for AIDA in the world in 2017 for Freediving. I just love being 50m underwater—especially ship wreck diving. It’s the best!

What motivates your conservation work?

We have a responsibility as humans to protect this planet. It is that simple. We also have the responsibility to speak for those who don’t have a voice and be able to help them with what we have to make their lives better. Having a camera and being able to share those stories is a massive contributor to what motivates my conservation work. Images are everything—portals to worlds that most don’t have access to and yet photographers can action and inspire change with.

Image of a young Aboriginal girl.
Image by Julia Wheeler with Getty Images

Can you tell me about Take3 For The Sea?

Take3 is an awesome organisation. It is run by a few incredible individuals actively making change and spreading awareness about the plight of our oceans. They have a great way to engage everyone with the issue without making it depressing and rather celebrate the uplifting vibes that community can have when they come together and create change.

Image of Sea Lions
Image by Julia Wheeler

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m filming the first season of my show, WildShots. It’s a series that follows my personal journey as a photographer behind the scenes of endangered species conservation where I work with some of the most motivating and fascinating humans on the planet doing their part to make a difference. The first four episodes will cover the issues facing the plight of the Lion, Elephant, Shark and Bonobo. I’m based in South Africa for the next 6-8 months working with my incredible, talented and dedicated team. I’ve spent the last 4 years conceptualising this show with my cameraman and with the most incredible support now aiming to direct and present a series that will connect humans with a world that we are all so detached from and yet it’s the world we came from; we cannot separate ourselves from nature, we are a part of it.

Julia Wheeler and friends

You have called yourself an adventure addict, what are some of your future plans?

I will literally go anywhere that anyone will allow me to go with my cameras. I’m super keen to get back into the Amazon Jungle—what a mind-blowing place! Also I have a little incline to visit Yellow Stone National Park. For now, I’ll be heading into the Congo, Mozambique, Botswana and potentially Gabon. There are a number of conservation stories I would like to tell in these areas.

An image of a Rhinoceros.
Image by Julia Wheeler

Who are your heroes, the people you admire?

My heroes are the people who actively make a difference—those who get up and speak up. A lot of people in the first world are so sheltered and protected from what is happening on the frontline of endangered species conservation for example or the plastic pollution destroying our oceans. There are over 25,000 endangered species and over 8 million metric tonnes of trash entering our oceans every year—it’s time to turn things around but we all need to play our part.

An image of Zebras
Image by Julia Wheeler

What’s one piece of advice you would give to others?

Don’t ever give up on your dreams—no matter what. Back yourself and believe in yourself and eventually you will connect with like-minded people who will support you greater than you could even have known to exist. You have one life, it’s there to be lived and a life lived in fear is definitely a life half lived!

Watch Julia’s story ‘A Single Breath’ here.

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