Jane Palmer: Overcoming Fears

Updated: Oct 30, 2018

Author Jenn Mishra

This week I interviewed underwater and nature photographer Jane Palmer. Jane has a lot to teach us about photography and overcoming our fears. Afraid of the water, Jane set out to learn to scuba dive and that led to her obsession with underwater photography. She reminds us that it’s never too late to try something new and no challenge is too big.

Jane had a camera when she was in college, but then got busy with life and put photography aside until she started going through a difficult time in her life – what Jane calls an existential crisis.

"When I was about 50, I needed to reevaluate life; find something that had meaning. I bought a DSLR and started taking photographs for fun. I took a few workshops. I was always the least capable! People were talking about aperture and such. 6 people knew how to do it and I didn't - that ‘s not going to happen again!

I took a left-brain approach. Did my research - rules, exposure, that sort of thing. On the next trip, my photographs were well exposed but not beautiful work, not meaningful. When I would get home and see the photo of this majestic waterfall. I would be able to remember how I felt, but no one is getting that from the photograph. I wanted to learn that skill. I wanted to produce photographs with soul, that made me as well as the viewer feel something. Studying with different workshop instructors I began to discover a more contemplative side of photography."

Hummingbird Photograph by Jane Palmer

The turning point for Jane came on a workshop in the Smoky Mountains. She stayed an extra day and on a misty morning she set off on her own for a 2-mile hike into the woods

"There was this creek and it was dead quiet except for the trickling water. There was a tiny breeze and drizzly rain. I just stood there knee deep in the ice-cold water. I was teary – it was a spiritual experience.

It was a turning point. This is the first photography location that I found by myself. I had an emotional connection to the spot. I remembered exactly how the cold water felt on my legs, how the light shining through the trees in the distance made the water sparkle, how the water trickling over the rocks made a sound not unlike distant bells.

I used a long exposure because I wanted to photograph how the water sounded – not how it looked.

I remember thinking – I get it now. This is the photography I want to do. I don’t need to do the iconic photographs of whatever. I want to photograph something that moves me. Finding it was the spiritual part."

Autumn Stream in the Smoky Mountains Photograph by Jane Palmer

Jane is known for her underwater photography, which may be a surprise as she spent most of her adult life afraid of the water.

"I spent my whole life afraid of water. I was scared to death. I couldn’t swim. I wouldn’t even get my face in the stream of water in the shower!

I took a swimming class when I was 30. I was going to a mom someday and I needed take my child to the pool. There were 8 of us and 7 learned to swim – all except me. The instructor finally gave up and said, “I can’t help you”. I couldn’t put my face in water."

This changed when Jane was about 50. She and her husband were at a resort in Jamaica with scuba classes. Her husband tried them out, loved scuba and then convinced her to try a class. Jane laughs, “I spent the whole dive hanging onto the arm of a very handsome Jamaican man.”

Jane didn’t let the experience get the better of her. She decided the world is full of people who scuba dive and she enrolled in a local scuba class.

"The first 50 dives were the worst. I cried a lot and kept hoping the boat would break down and we wouldn’t have to do the second dive!"

Jane’s tenacity amazed me. 50 dives! She was terrified and yet she kept diving. I’m sure I would have stopped at 5. This was a woman intent on overcoming her fears.

At first, Jane wasn’t thinking of photography when she was underwater. “I can barely survive the dive!” But her husband got an underwater camera to try and capture some of the amazing sea life they encountered. This all changed on a dive in Honduras.

"We were diving in Honduras and there are these little fish that live in rubble - yellow headed jawfish. They are so cute! The male incubates eggs in his mouth. During that time he doesn’t eat. His job to protect eggs. Every once in a while, he comes up out of the rubble, spits the eggs out to aerate them then sucks the eggs back in.

It was the last dive of trip and I had to get a picture of that. But I wanted the jawfish photo to be mine, so I took my husband’s camera from him, I went and got the camera, got really low and quiet and waited. Wait. Wait.

Then my mouthpiece broke – my biggest fear! My mouth was full of plastic. I couldn’t breath. My husband just knew I was going to panic and head for the surface. But I spit all the plastic out of my mouth, got my spare regulator, blew it out and lay back down to wait.

I knew then that I was an underwater photographer."

A yellow headed jawfish Photograph by Jane Palmer

A yellow headed jawfish Photograph by Jane Palmer

When Jane is scuba diving, she is a member of another world for an hour - a world that existed since before there were humans. She talked about the balanced community where little things get eaten by big things, but there are a lot of little things. There’s no agenda. She can watch life play out and capture that with her camera.

The way Jane feels when she’s photographing underwater translates to a contemplative approach on land when she’s photographing landscapes and flowers.

"When I’m underwater, there’s no gravity and you can’t speak so there’s not a lot of communicating. It’s very quiet and introspective. You see amazing things, but you can’t talk about them. Removing the sensory input is a big deal. There’s no gravity, you’re never able to experience that on land. You just hover as a scuba diver, there’s no effort to it. It’s like magic. Because of the no touch policy of diving, you are a total observer of all the life around you. You don’t participate, you just watch.

When I’m photographing at home, the flowers in my back yard, I see the light hitting the flower, the shape of the petals. Nothing else is important but the essence of that flower. There’s such a sense of peace. It’s just me and the moment and the camera and the flower.

You can’t go to amazing landscape locations every day after work, so I transformed my back yard with a koi pond and lots of flowers and hummingbird and song bird feeders. It’s a perfect escape from stress, and capturing the beauty with my camera is like an added bonus. I can go outside my back door and be transported to a place of peace. That means a lot when you have a stressful job."

Our chat then turned to talking about incorporating photography into our lives and how photography can be therapeutic especially as we age. Jane talked about the need to challenge our brains as we get older to stay healthy.

"Photography for me is very global brained. My job is very math, number-oriented and so is scuba diving, very left brained. Photography for me is very global-brained. There are numbers and exposure and kinds of calculations, but it’s also very creative thing. So I end up using both sides of my brain and I think that is not just important as we age, but it’s also a big part of the relaxation that I get from photography.

I’m taking something 3D and that exists in space and put on it on a piece of paper or a monitor. The challenge is to make a moving experiences for the viewer.

It’s important to stay vigorous as we get older and try something new."

Jane now has over 350 dives under her belt and she’s hooked. Jane’s experiences teach us that it’s never to late to learn something new and we can overcome any fear we have with enough tenacity.

Jane has recently started teaching Principles of Photography as well as Lightroom and Photoshop classes, so she can share her enthusiasm for the art of photography with others.

"It’s such a joy to watch students grow from week to week and really embrace photography as a way to capture the moments of their lives."

To see more of Jane’s underwater and nature photography, go to her website or follow her on Facebook Jane conducts classes on underwater photography and teaches classes on post-processing in the St. Louis area.

For more about Jane’s underwater photography, read her article on Visual Wilderness

More Interviews from Influential Female Photographers >>>

** This post may contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.

Article Written by Jennifer Mishra

Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

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