I grew up in a very (like one stoplight) small town in northern New Jersey where we spent every Sunday driving over the Tappan Zee Bridge headed to Yonkers and my Italian grandmother’s house for dinner. While we spent a lot of time at the Jersey shore, I was never a fan of the ocean. In fact, I was afraid of the water and didn’t learn to swim until my 20s (more about that later)—no one could have convinced me the part the ocean would play in my life. I wasn’t a good student, but a sole photography teacher saw something in me and helped to place (and keep) me on a path to success. He allowed me extra time in the darkroom, set up an internship with a highly successful local portrait photographer, and believed in me. I found my calling.
Knowing I needed access to photographic equipment I wouldn’t have otherwise had, after high school I joined the U.S. Navy as a photographer, which opened the world to me as I hadn’t experienced many people or places outside of my New Jersey town. I eventually was stationed on the U.S.S. Independence during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, where I ran the darkroom, worked with distinguished visitors, and hung out of helicopters to take photos of battlegroups…mind you I couldn’t swim yet. When we pulled into any port, while many of my fellow sailors headed to the bar or the casinos, I took my camera and explored the towns and countries—from Abu Dhabi to the Philippines to Japan, I observed real people living real lives. From the elderly Philippine woman peeling potatoes, the Japanese monk standing in protest in front of soldiers, to the fisherman in the Persian Gulf who used the same fishing techniques as so many generations before him, I continued to develop my own style and voice in photography.
After leaving the U.S. Navy, I was invited on a vacation where I had the opportunity to scuba dive—I had held on to my longtime fear of the water but for some unexplained reason, I decided to try it and got my scuba certification. Once in the water, I was overtaken by a sense of peace and calm – something I wasn’t used to after spending years on an aircraft carrier with 5,000 sailors. The easy motion of the water, quiet except for the sound of my breathing, and the colors of the reef and tropical fish convinced me I had found a second calling. Not long after, I quit my job and went to south Florida to become a scuba instructor and immersed myself in the scuba industry. After a few years and a few moves around the country, I landed in Charlotte, NC and opened an in-home portrait photography business.
In 2010 I was ready for a change and was offered a job selling underwater photography equipment—it reminded me of joining the U.S. Navy as I would have access to equipment and resources I wouldn’t have otherwise. My underwater photography journey had begun, bringing together two of my passions. I learned the hard way how much different (translation: more difficult) shooting underwater is than topside. Uncooperative subjects, the absence of zoom lenses, and completely different lighting requirements were new experiences to me…not to mention dealing with current, watching my air supply and depths, and all the nuances of scuba diving.
My then fiancé (now wife) and I decided to leave the fog and cool weather of Northern California for the sun and warmth of South Florida, where I continued honing my underwater photography skills. After I had a built a humble but strong underwater portfolio, I was approached with an opportunity to show my work at a large boat show in exchange for speaking about photography. As a kid from New Jersey, I never imagined someone would want to pay me for my photography, but some people did.
Not long after, I applied for my first arts and crafts show and although it was a huge learning curve (I’m still learning) and a hard way to make a living (physically and mentally), I did okay and eventually I carved out a routine where I did art shows and taught underwater photography. It was tough but rewarding, but I wanted to push myself. I decided to mark a trip off my bucket list: an African safari. This trip gave me a renewed excitement around photography. Seeing majestic animals in their own environment (not in a zoo) was incredible—I felt the same way I had at the beginning of my scuba diving career. I wanted to share what I was seeing with my customers. Oceans and Africa – Craig Dietrich Photography was born of that trip (and subsequent trips).
I have as much love for Africa as I do the ocean—thanks to all of you who have allowed me to share those worlds with you.