How Freediving Revealed My Deeper Self - Kohei Ueno & The Wonderful World Of Photography
“Everyone is unique, and not everyone needs to have a ‘passion’. I don’t even know if I can call freediving and photography my ‘passions’. It’s just what I enjoy doing for the time being. I don’t think it’s very healthy to live life constantly pursuing a single passion or trying to find the right fit - just do what you enjoy and it's okay to change as you go. ‘Freedom’ may be the more appropriate word.
Kohei stopped by our Singapore office while on a recent trip to visit his family home. His casual appearance and approachable personality doesn’t remotely give away his impressive achievements as a multiple-award winning photographer and avid freediver. The latest member in our polymathic Brand Ambassador line-up, we couldn’t wait to dive deeper and see life through his lens.
After leaving a highly sought-after job at Google in 2014, he picked up a camera and traveled the world; capturing images that helped him obtain his first ever trip to Tonga to swim with humpback whales, under the tutelage of a legendary photographer. From there, he delved deeper into his interests and shaped his very own path of working independently. His office? Pretty much any part of the world that beckons at the time.
In addition to a formidable list of photography awards, he now serves as a freedive instructor, underwater photographer, and occasional athlete, while inspiring others to explore pursuing their interests through workshops and expeditions.
Tell us about your early life - where you grew up, family, etc.
I was born and raised in Tokyo until I was about 6 years old. My memory of Japan and early schooling is quite vague, but I remember certain things, like the small apartment that we lived in with the 7 of us (5 kids), and the park in front where we used to get stickers each morning by attending the daily communal morning exercises. My Dad worked really hard, commuting to work by train that took 2 hours one way, to sustain the family until migrating to Singapore in 1990.
My Dad was involved in several Singaporean businesses before starting his own logistics company. I guess his business was booming because we started to live way better (laughs). The area in which we grew up was occupied mostly by Japanese people, and the school I went to as well, so it felt like I never really left Japan. I did all my schooling there and wasn't the most disciplined kid - in fact I had to do an extra year to graduate high school.
Did you enjoy schooling?
I loved school, but for all the reasons except academics. I enjoyed meeting friends, playing sports, and hanging out. I remember having a strong dislike toward formulas and rules, and memorizing the correct answers, etc. Not that I was bad at it, but I had a greater sense of satisfaction and enjoyment from playing sports and arts which gave me the freedom to move and express without boundaries.
I hung out with my older brother a lot, going rollerblading, playing soccer, jumping off things that usually ended up with me getting hurt. He would always push me to do crazy things, like jumping down a flight of stairs with roller blades, grinding rails and doing flips off self made ramps, etc. I think this probably gave me a whole lot of confidence and courage in my youth, about taking leaps of faith and venturing into the unknown.
It was also really inspiring when my brother became a top class university student in America studying piloting (he loved planes), despite performing his high school antics that got him expelled. After his studies, he became a successful investment banker and eventually ran his own businesses.
When I look back, I think this dynamic taught me about change and how essential it is to our lives. It doesn’t matter how you perform in school, or what happened in the past - success is about finding what interests you and wroking hard at it.
How did you end up on the set of the American TV-series, The Pacific?
During my 3rd year at University, I had to find myself a year-long internship, something related to marketing (which I was majoring in at the time in RMIT, Melbourne - long story don’t ask why!). There was a big Hollywood production going on in Australia where they were hiring extras to play Japanese soldiers from WW2.
I gathered all my Japanese breakdancing friends and went into the audition for fun, knowing it had nothing to do with my marketing internship. However, all of us got offers to participate in the production. I had to make an ultimatum - give up and get back to reality, or somehow find a way to convince my university to allow me this chance to act as a WW2 soldier for HBO as part of my internship. I went full-force to obtain a letter of consent, and somehow succeeded in convincing the principal.
It was a really big production. They flew us into Port Douglas (Queensland, AU) and dedicated the first two weeks to getting us into character - shaving our heads, wearing the uniform, sleeping with only a sheet as a tent out in the wild. There was an actor playing a Shogun General shouting at us and giving us orders as though we were in the Japan Imperial Army.
Those two weeks were really intense - we got up at 5 am every day, did morning workouts such as push ups, crawling, weapons training, digging & manning foxholes, eating 1-2 meals a day, and even speaking in old Japanese dialect. They were simulating World War 2 with as much precision as possible, and had the ‘American soldiers’ on the other side of the hill doing similar things.
Sometimes we would meet the Americans on patrols just to see how we’d handle the situation. To me, this 2 weeks of bootcamp got me brainwashed mentally, physically, and emotionally, to feel as if I was experiencing life in 1945, even though we were in the middle of nowhere in Australia.
Once the bootcamp was over, we were treated really well and put up in a resort for the whole duration of the film production. Whilst on set, we breakdanced to kill time, and from that the directors took notice, and eventually upgraded us to become minor stuntmen for the film. Most of us continued doing it for a while after - then I began looking for a steady job.
How did you get your first job for Google?
I sent out about 20 resumes, and the first company to send me a reply was Google. I think the WW2 Japanese Soldier casting got their attention as the first thing on my CV, and the breakdancing and stuff. I went through several rounds of interviews and within a few weeks, I was packed & ready for a new chapter of my life in Sydney, working for supposedly the best company in the world.
My role was onboarding and training up resellers in Asia, to make sure sales were high. Cloud computing was a thing back then, and I was genuinely interested in the cloud based movement, where Gmail and Google Docs started attracting attention. I enjoyed working there very much, but the comfort of having a steady job and lack of exploration became uncomfortable to me over time.
After 4 years, I begin questioning myself; ‘What else am I not seeing in this world?’. I could easily spend my life in this company, but that thought scared me. I eventually took the leap of faith and submitted my resignation.
The story about how you met your girlfriend is pretty bizarre, could you share it?
I started writing a blog about my escapades and preparing my solo trip around the world. She was one of my readers and had a similar journey. One day she emailed me with some questions, and we started sharing information about how to keep earning income on our travels, where to go, how to be prepared for eventualities, and so on. We kept in touch via email only.
Not long after I was in Columbia doing some shopping and I flipped my backpack to the front to reach my wallet, only to find that my bag was already open and my wallet was missing! I panicked and immediately called home to cancel all my bank cards. I had to get a new card sent over to Columbia but it was going to take several weeks to arrive from Australia - not very handy for a solo traveler without a fixed address.
Then I remembered that she was from Melbourne where my bank card is from, and coincidentally she was planning to head towards where I was. I quickly emailed her to ask “When exactly are you coming to Columbia again?” and she replied “Next week”!. I asked if it was possible to send the new cards to her address to help me bring it over. She replied 'no problem', as long as they reached her in time. They didn’t arrive on time after all, and she called to let me know. I thought “well, that was that” - but then on her way to the airport she gets a call from her colleague saying that the cards just arrived! Her sister turned the car around to collect the cards and she made her flight, found me in Columbia, and that’s how we met. (laughs)
The most bizarre thing of all is, my wallet wasn’t actually lost after all. It was in a separate compartment in my bag all that time.
How did you discover your love for diving?
I had been scuba diving since I was 12 or 13 years old, but I didn’t fall in love with it right away. I just accompanied my brother and got a license for the heck of it. Only after leaving my job at Google and traveling around, I discovered freediving and decided it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I saw a picture on Instagram of a freediver - she was about 20-30 meters below the surface without any oxygen tanks. I sent her a personal message asking “How are you able to dive like that without any tanks?”, and she replied that she’s an instructor and was teaching people in Singapore! I immediately signed up for her course. That was in 2015, when things really begin to kick off.
When did you decide to pursue photography as a career?
When I came back from my year-long trip, I submitted a photo that I had taken in Bolivia and it happened to win a major photography competition. This was the pivot as it gave me an upgraded camera and a free trip to swim with whales to learn underwater photography.
I set off on a workshop under Craig Parry from Byron Bay, one of Australia’s most prominent photographers. He taught me everything that I know about underwater photography. I realized how much I loved the marriage of freediving and photography.
What was diving with humpback whales like?
It was absolutely bizarre. It was my very first dive in Tonga, AND first time using an underwater housing for my camera. On my very first dive I got treated to a pod of 14 humpback whales slowly coming towards us. I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of it all that I forgot to click any photos whatsoever. I managed to turn around and get a last minute shot once my wits returned. I learned later that it was a rare heat-run of chasing a female to mate.
It was surreal looking into their eyes which were as big as my head. And they were looking right at me. They could have very well swallowed me whole (laughs) - their sheer size is dumbfounding. I also saw the baby humpback whale kind of copying my movements as I was swirling around trying to get a better look at them. That was an unforgettable moment of connection.
What separates an award-winning photograph from a regular one?
To be honest, I am surprised when my photographs win awards. It’s not like I studied photography, or vested that much time. I shoot what I think looks nice, and edit them in a way that satisfies my eye. I guess a great photograph always has a story, and my photos generally have a meaningful caption. Practicing the craft, having patience, and setting up the context will deliver good captures.
How long does it take to be a competent freediver?
To me, competency is the ability to be completely relaxed in the water and ready for any challenges or mishaps that may occur. Of course there are skills to learn over time, but overcoming the fear of being in the water is the key to getting good at freediving, as I learnt during my first freediving course.
Can you share a freediver’s breathing technique?
This easy breathing technique is done before we dive, and it helps to lower our heart rate. Breathe-in 4 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. You can also do 5:10, or 6:12 if you’re more comfortable. This relaxes the body and gets you ready for a good dive.
Walk us through a diving session.
It starts with breathing to get in tune, settling into an almost sleepy state of relaxation. There are many ways to achieve this state - but slow shallow breathing is the way for me.
Then the dive begins. Headfirst, pulling along the line as you go deeper and deeper. Once you’ve passed around the 10 meter mark on the line, it's no longer necessary to pull so hard or kick so hard because your body becomes negatively buoyant - denser / heavier than water, so it falls on its own.
This is called a ‘free fall’, where you relax and let it take you down. The ocean will continue to exert pressure which can be quite crushing to the body and ears, but you have to stay relaxed and conserve energy & oxygen. Center your thoughts on equalizing the ears as you fall even deeper, letting your body neutralize the physical adaptations that are occurring. It's about controlling your mind - like a meditation.
That's essentially how it is. Allow everything to happen. On the way up, it's the opposite; lungs start to expand and the ocean slowly loosens its almighty hug. At the 10 meter mark you become buoyant again, so you don't have to kick/swim so much. Just enjoy the ride and watch the world get brighter and brighter, warmer and warmer, and take that fresh gasp of air as you break above the surface. You’re smiling before you know it. It feels that good.
Are there any safety measures to keep in mind?
It’s a must to never dive alone, to have a diving partner who understands your capabilities and is always on-hand if anything goes wrong. Freediving is actually a very safe sport if practiced safely. Avoid overdoing anything too quickly - take your time to understand your body, and get more comfortable with the water. Slow and steady.
Can anyone learn to hold their breath for long periods?
Absolutely! The first time I held my breath, I only managed 1 minute. With consistent practice and training, I was able to hit 3-4 minutes in a few months, and after a few years I’m now able to do 5-minute breath holds. The training required is not physical as much as it is mental, and that is why freediving is quite special.
What are 3 key lessons life has taught you?
The first is that change is inevitable. I’m learning, growing, and letting go of things to move forward. The second thing is also related - to be adaptable always. That helps overcome the fear of new situations. If your baseline is ‘be adaptable’, then you’ll be ok no matter what challenge comes.
Third is to be OK not knowing anything. It’s very important in all aspects of life. Thinking you know everything just kills the opportunity to learn. Go with a blank canvas and find out what's happening.
Any advice for someone going through a rough period physically or mentally?
It’s much easier said than done, but here are my thoughts - ultimately all we really need is air to breathe, water to drink, and some food to stay alive, everything else is an absolute bonus, and we should all be grateful to just be alive. Cherish being able to live in a country that allows this. You already have what you really need, the rest are choices that we're all free to make.
Of course there will be tradeoffs, sacrifices, decisions & consequences, but that is what makes life interesting. Don’t get too caught up with the details and just keep going - see what happens. Start with your breath, slow it down, keep calm and take ownership of it, and be in charge of how life happens for you.
What is one quality you respect / dislike about a person?
I love non-judgmental people who are easy to talk to, and have deep and meaningful discussions about all sorts of topics. The inverse would be true too (laughs), a close-minded person who thinks that they know everything is usually a quality that I try to stay away from.
Has your profession shed any light on the nature of consciousness?
I think so - both freediving and photography requires a lot of stillness and being right there in the now. It just helped me separate myself from thinking. That’s not where life happens - what you focus on presently is where life really is.
What do you think happens after we die?
I don’t know, but I'm pretty sure there is a continuation of some sort. We should be excited about the whole other adventure that’s coming.
Kohei wears a brand new Odyssey Freediver GMT, our quintessential ‘True’ GMT watch built for the globetrotting diver & adventurer. Keep up with the latest happenings via his Instagram page, and visit https://www.koheiueno.com/ to view his full list of services and accolades. #beBOLDR