Interview speakers 2024

Rob Aarsen: Fairy tales under water

Model photography
Model photography

Text: Rene Lipmann | Photos Rob Aarsen

Hans Christian Andersen wrote about it, Rob Aarsen captures the mermaids. In a dreamy, fairytale way. His photos are colorful and illustrative.

You started taking underwater photographs in 1991. What does photography mean to you?

I always say: I haven't been diving for a long time. For me, photography has become the reason to be underwater. No place on dry land comes close to the variety of life forms, colors and textures of the underwater landscape. The way the light refracts, the sparkle of the surface, the sun's rays shooting through the water. There is nothing more beautiful than photographing underwater. Nothing harder either, but that's part of the fun. So you can say that I'm going for it.


Your photos always showed the beauty and fragility of coral reefs. Quite recently you went in a completely different direction. 

Underwater model photography has always had my attention. Until a few years ago you didn't come across it very often. In this field there are only a few really good photographers that I looked at, like Harry Fayt and Zena Holloway. Shortly before the corona period, a few things came together. First a photo shoot experiment, together with fellow photographers Ron Offermans and Marco Heesbeen. That didn't really result in any good photos. We did have a lot of fun. I learned a lot about the differences between normal underwater photography and underwater model photography. They really are two different worlds. Then there was a meeting with Marijke Pie, Mermaid Crystal, who gave mermaiding in the Netherlands a boost. We once planned a photo shoot together and I went along to the indoor diving center TODI. There I met other mermaids and one thing led to another. During corona times, when diving and traveling came to a standstill, siding model photography has become more of a main track. 

Model photography
Model photography

How does a shoot with a mermaid work? What agreements do you make with a model?

Every photo shoot starts with a concept. You must have already partly thought out the photos you want to take with the model in advance. Such as: whether or not to have a tail, clothing, type of lighting, styling and props that are needed. I also always make a mood board in advance, so that the model knows what the intention is and she can give free rein to her ideas. Furthermore, it is a matter of finding a swimming pool and combining agendas, which is sometimes the most difficult. When I photograph alone, I prefer to work with 3 models, so that they can alternate with each other and a female assistant. Underwater photographer Marlène Terpstra is happy to help and she also takes photos herself in passing. I agree with the models what we are going to do and how I will deliver the photos. As a rule, I also record agreements about the use of the images in a contract. 

Who determines the end result? The model or the photographer?

That's the nice thing about underwater model photography: it's a collaboration. An anemone or nudibranch doesn't say anything back. It just sits there. A model has a major input into the end result by contributing ideas about concept and poses. During a shoot I am more on the surface to give instructions to the model than under water. We always make series of the same pose and then we improve the photos from coarse to fine details, continuously adjusting until you achieve a perfect result together. 

Model photography
Model photography

What does the set look like? Where do you take these photos? What is your preparation? 

I usually photograph in a swimming pool. I think sheltered, warm water in which we can stand is the best location for model photography. I have a few pools where I can work. Such as the diving towers of BC Opleidingen in Enkhuizen and the thirty-degree warm pool of Sub Ocean in Oud Vossemeer. Sometimes I go to TODI, but it is quite chilly and often very busy. In the swimming pool I set up an underwater studio with background cloth and flashes all around on lamp stands. All my flashes are from Sea&Sea: two YS-D3, two YS-D1 and a few old ones that just keep going, the YS-350 Pro and YS-250 Pro. I find them super fast and very reliable. I photograph with a Nikon D810 in a Nauticam housing, usually with a Nikon 16-35 f4 wide-angle zoom and sometimes with the Nikon 24-70 f2.8.

How do you get the beautiful costumes, props and accessories?

That is the input of the models. The mermaids in particular have closets full of clothing, accessories, tops and props that they share among themselves. Some have a collection of tails in nylon, neoprene or a very expensive silicone and can transform themselves into magical personas. Marijke had arranged the armor and crown for the photo of the warrior mermaid. Then your jaw drops open for a moment when she appears at the water's edge.  

Model photography
Model photography

My daughter would also like to have her photo taken like this. Is everyone eligible for a mermaid photo shoot?

Certainly. You must of course be able to swim and be free in the water. As for the poses, I give instructions. The most important and often most difficult thing for the model is to keep the face relaxed under water with the eyes open. I also did a maternity shoot a few times, which was also very special. 

Shouldn't I be able to hold my breath for a very long time? 

No. I take all the photos just below the surface, where I can still see the reflection in the water surface. I always follow the rhythm of the model. She decides how long she stays under. Usually we lower ourselves together, I take three or four photos and then we come back up. I also don't use compressed air during the photo shoot. First of all, it's way too heavy if you're in the water all day. Secondly, it gets in the way of communication with the models. By the way, many models have a freediving license and can hold their breath for a long time. To keep up with them, I also did the SSI Freediver Level 1 training at Freedive school Enker in October. 

Do you take these fairytale photos alone in the pool?

Most do. Occasionally in TODI and in the summer I sometimes go outside, such as De Beldert Diving Center in Zoelen or Zeeland. In Zeeland you can combine an outdoor water shoot with a beach shoot during sunset. 

Model photography
Model photography

What is it like to go on a Mermaid Safari to the Red Sea with eleven mermaids? 

Insanely fun. We had a very nice group of merfolk plus a good ship, the Big Blue, with ditto care and we could work all day. Quite tiring! My dive buddy and fellow photographer Daniel Scott and I were in the water from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM in the morning. The support divers were also demolished at the end of the day. On top of that we did a stand shoot for two days; at five o'clock in the morning at sunrise, and a night shoot. At home I really needed to recover. But super happy with the photos! I think everyone went home with a varied portfolio. The icing on the cake was Jamine's dance with a dolphin who came to greet us. For those who like it: we are planning another safari in the week of June 1, 2024. 

Model photography
Model photography

How big is the mermaid world? Is it a global trend?

Mermaiding is certainly on the rise. It started in Southeast Asia with a number of mermaid schools and spread further around the world via the US. There are lively groups and online communities in the Netherlands and Belgium. It is an inclusive community that is always happy to welcome new merpeople. With the Disney film 'The Little Mermaid' and the Netflix documentary 'MerPeople' you can also see interest increasing here. 

Will you bring a mermaid with you during your presentation at Duikvaker?

Yes! Marleen Schouten. She is already present at the fair, because she is also very interested in marine life. She is on the stand at the ANEMOON Foundation. And sometimes, like Mermaid Shelley, she becomes a resident of the sea herself.


Rob Aarsen

Rob Aarsen started diving in 1982. He has been taking photographs since 1991, when it was still analogue. Rob sees himself as an all-round underwater photographer with a slight preference for landscapes and wide angle with models. In addition to his job as a communications advisor, Rob was until recently editor-in-chief of Onderwatersport Magazine, the magazine of the Dutch Underwater Sports Association. Rob has taken a new direction with model photography in the swimming pool. He believes that nothing on land comes close to the light, colours, shapes and textures that you encounter underwater. The underwater world is an endless source of inspiration and possibilities. For more images, visit

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