Izumi, one of Erena Shimoda's clients in the Underwater Healer project. All images courtesy Erena Shimoda.

Izumi, pictured here out and inwater, is one of Erena Shimoda’s clients for the Underwater Healer project. (All images courtesy Erena Shimoda)

OAKLAND, Calif. — For the non-aquaphobes among us, life underwater can be incredibly peaceful and relaxing. Sound often feels denser and calmer, and the experience of buoyancy literally takes the weight off our shoulders and puts us in a difference state of mind. It’s not an accident that astronauts conduct extensive training in the water. San Francisco-based photographer Erena Shimoda, who takes surreal, dream-like portraits of individuals underwater, understands the healing power of water in her art.

Erica Yee poses underwater.

Erica Yee poses underwater.

A scuba driver by training, Shimoda began with fish photos but soon moved to people. Some of her popular works include a series of portraits of people of Japanese descent re-enacting stories from Japanese culture.

Her most recent project, Underwater Healer, focuses on cancer survivors. After raising $10,000 on Indiegogo, she has been traveling up and down the West Coast to photograph women who have participated in the American Cancer Society’s Look Good Feel Better project.

Bernadette Leno underwater

Bernadette Leno underwater

“Most of clients for underwater portrait gain their confidence and enjoy the freedom of space in the water,” she noted in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I thought I could connect cancer survivors (they have to be 100% ok to be in the chlorine water) and my creative UW portrait session. I truly believe that the water heals their mind and spirit.”

Her work comes from her own deep understanding of pain and healing. “I was in a car accident 12 years ago and I lost my father, almost lost my vision, and my shoulder. To overcome the injury and the tragedy, I wanted to help people who are going through physical and emotional pain in their lives,” she says.

In a recent post by Bernadette Leno on I Had Cancer, Leno explains that the portraits helped her find her strength after the ordeals of chemotherapy:

I traveled to San Francisco for the session, and as the photos were being taken, I wasn’t sure how they would turn out or even if any would be worth using. But when Erena showed me afterward, I was surprised. Not surprised at her talent, as she is clearly extremely talented, but at how great the session translated into these amazing photos and how I felt as I was looking back at them. After having so many surgeries and needle pokes, the session with Erena made me realize that I am a beautiful, strong woman — and that was an incredible realization.

Shimoda continues to raise money and welcomes support on her website. As of press date, she has worked with the six women who appear on this post and is heading to Seattle to continue the project.







AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.