Erena Shimoda’s favorite childhood memory includes floating in an inflatable pool, daydreaming about mermaids and singing a children’s song:
“海は広いな 大きいなー The ocean is wide, the ocean is huge… “
Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, Erena always had an affinity for the underwater world, and became a certified scuba divemaster. She survived a traumatic car accident in which she lost her father and suffered severe injuries. As a part of her healing process, she volunteered at the American Cancer Society’s Look Good Feel Better program, where patients support each other and learn about makeup and wigs. Seeing cancer survivors marvel at their transformations deeply affected Erena. She combined her interest in underwater photography with recovery. Her goals: to help cancer survivors experience the healing effects of water immersion…, and to encourage survivors to see themselves as beautiful through portraits.
In July 2013, Erena spearheaded the successful Underwater Healer – About Face fundraising campaign with IHadCancer.com, an online support community where cancer survivors, fighters and supporters connect with one another and share their stories. All funds raised benefited cancer survivors — 60% covered costs to provide 13 portrait sessions at no cost to the survivors and 40% was donated to IHadCancer.com.
The survivors — from San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Hawaii and Canada — attest that Erena’s powerful and transformative underwater portrait sessions help cancer survivors rediscover their beauty, regain their confidence and self-esteem, and provide an experience of transcendence.
Steve Melen, from San Francisco, says, “I was diagnosed with stomach cancer in January 2008. I went through chemo and radiation treatment, and I had several complications and unexpected challenges over the next couple years. I wanted Ava in the photos as I thought it shows a great father-daughter bond to both be underwater floating together. She is the main reason I am here today as she is my angel. I think the underwater campaign is a great way for survivors to see themselves in a new and different light. I would recommend this to other survivors to give them a picture of freedom and a worry-free life.”
Like him, other cancer survivors celebrated regaining health and life in underwater photo shoots. “The underwater portrait session was AWESOME!!!!” exclaims two-time breast cancer survivor Duwenavue Sante’ Johnson. “I feel like the photo shoot went well for me, and it was a new experience that definitely challenged me to think and be more open and creative. I would recommend this experience to other survivors because after the cancer treatment, many people tend to hibernate and hide their body due to the pain, and/or self-image. Being in the water is a very nurturing experience.”
The underwater portraits are full of symbolism. Water gives the planet life. For the people photographed, the water gave a moment of affirmation, freedom and a fresh start. The Underwater Healer Project gave cancer survivors confidence as well as the courage to face new challenges. They were able to feel free and let things go — in the unique way that being underwater provides. These sessions helped participants gain self-esteem and improve their self-images, almost serving as unofficial therapy sessions.
Erena is grateful to work with survivors to help heal their painful memories, and to be supported by her friends, family and all supporters with warm hearts. Her dream is to help people all over the world heal their mind and spirit with underwater portrait photography. In fact, the Underwater Healer – About Face project continues through much-appreciated donations. A 14th cancer survivor received a photo shoot at no cost in March 2015.
- You can directly sponsor a cancer survivor/patient or anyone who endured a traumatic life experience so that they can experience a life-changing, healing underwater photography session without financial obligation.
- You can also sign up for your own photo session. All proceeds go to the Underwater Healer – About Face
Erena will continue spreading her innovative story, and inspiring the world with philanthropy and creativity.