When Joseph Tepper was 10 years old, he went snorkeling at his hotel in Hawaii. Scared by the 6-feet of water in the pool, he insisted that the instructor give him a life vest. Days later, he was crawling out from the ocean with 60 pounds of scuba diving gear strapped to his bony back.
Tepper, who has completed more than 1500 dives since that day, won third place in Nov. 2012 for his underwater photography in the Festival Mondial in Marseille, which “is like the Academy Awards of underwater film making and photography,” says Tepper. Last year, Tepper won the Young Underwater Photographer Award, which earned him a paid trip back to Hawaii in March 2013 for an underwater photography shoot and connections with the field’s leading photographers at magazines like National Geographic, and the Cayman Free Press Award. Tepper is also a full-time journalism and anthropology student at New York University, an associate editor for DivePhotoGuide.com (the leading media in underwater photography), a photojournalist for Scuba Diver (DivePhotoGuide.com’s magazine counterpart) and a contributing writer for The Daily News.
Tepper, however, quickly shrugs off the scope of his accomplishments. “I deal with photographers who win every single competition. Some of my best friends in the industry and some of my closest colleagues have won hundreds of competitions,” said Tepper.
From colleagues to those closest to Tepper, all have all taken note of his modest attitude towards life. “He’s not full of himself,” explains Tepper’s father, David. “It’s interesting because he has so many talents, gifts and accomplishments, but he’s just very normal in most respects.”
Nick Young, who has been close to Tepper since they met at their high school, freshmen orientation at North Shore Country Day School in Chicago in 2005, describes Tepper as “light-hearted and eclectic.” “He’s got so many different talents and things that are just really important to him and they just don’t intercept at all, like magic stuff [Tepper performs card tricks], how much he loves baseball, how much he loves hockey and the diving stuff and the singing. It’s all over the place,” says Young.
Despite his success in underwater photography, Young says that Tepper rarely shares more than brief anecdotes of his time in the water: “He’s a pretty humble guy. He doesn’t walk around talking about the fact that he’s basically a prodigy.”
Tepper’s humility can be partially attributed to the years of hard work he put into his underwater photography before he considered going professional. In fact, Tepper learned to dive before he ever wielded a commercial camera. “On my first dive, I bought a little, goofy, disposable, Kodak camera and did that for about two to three years,” says Tepper. “Then, for my 14th birthday when I got certified, my mom finally got me a nicer, higher-end camera. Nothing special, but it wasn’t disposable.”
On Tepper’s 18th birthday in the summer 2009, his mom finally invested in a commercial grade underwater camera. Shortly after, he experienced a fortuitous career break while surfing DivePhotoGuide.com.
“It is one of the most well-known sites in the underwater photography world, and I was on the website, just like you’d be on Facebook, and they sent out a call to see if there were any writers. Just writers looking to do news stories,” says Tepper. “So I sent the editor a sample of my writing and my photos—though I didn’t have to because it was just a writing thing. He liked my writing, knew I could edit and liked my shooting, so he brought me on board as the associate editor. And since then, I’ve really grown.”
Through his connections at DivePhotoGuide.com, Tepper has steadily earned the love and respect of other divers and underwater photographers across the world. Allison Vitsky, an underwater photographer and photojournalist from California, has noticed his rapid development in the field.
“The stuff I’ve seen from him in probably the last year… the improvement is phenomenal,” says Vitsky. “I don’t know what happened, but he hit on something that just made his stuff just get exponentially better almost over night. It was really neat to see that, especially because he’s so young and in school full-time, so I know he’s not out diving every weekend like we are [her and husband].”
Part of what makes Tepper’s photography so unique, according to Vitsky, is that he does a lot of self-modeling. Modeling in underwater photography is the process of using a person in the background of your image to provide scale to the subject, be it a shipwreck or a clownfish. Instead of always using other people, Tepper will often set up his tripod underwater and swim to the right position in time for the shot. “Not a lot of other photographers would have the wherewithal or the tolerance to do that,” says Vitsky.
Vitsky met Tepper, who she now endearingly describes as “the best kind of smartass—sarcastic in a sweet way,” when she hesitantly accepted an email request from him to dive with her and her husband in San Diego. The water in California is much colder than in the Caribbean, which can be dangerous to divers who are only familiar with warm waters. “He comes out and he gets in the water, and it’s like he’s always been here. He’s an incredibly awesome diver, and he’s just really relaxed,” says Vitsky.
The goal of Tepper’s dive was to see the sea lions, but instead they witnessed an entire school of sardines circle them for almost two hours. “I got out of the water and apologized to Joe, and he was just laughing and really excited and saying, ‘Oh, that was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,’” says Vitsky. “And that’s one of the things I’ll never forgot about Joe, knowing that he had that attitude. I just remember thinking that this a great kid, and he’s really going to make his mark in it if he wants to.”
On that same trip to California, Tepper, who considers himself a little bit of a hypochondriac, believed he had the “Bends,” a rare illness medically known as Decompression Sickness. The ailment is caused by air bubbles in the blood that expand due to pressure when the diver comes up towards the surface of the water. If he or she comes up too fast, the air bubbles expand at a rate that can’t be diffused through the body, which can cause anything from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death.
Tepper was alerted by his sore shoulders, a common starting point of the illness’ symptoms, and the cold, Pacific water, which is more conducive to the illness. “I’m a dive master, so I’m trained to know the signs of it, so it can be very nerve wrecking. You just come up from a dive and wait to see if the symptoms happen or don’t happen,” says Tepper.
Unbeknownst to his diving companions, Tepper checked himself into a hospital in San Diego that specializes in the rare illness. He was cleared after extensive testing but never shared his suspicion. “I guess he didn’t want to worry us,” says Vitsky, who first heard of the incident upon questioning of the accident. “Tell him, ‘shame on him.’”
While Tepper has confronted sharks, komodo dragons and crocodiles, the Bends remains one of his biggest diving fears. “In some ways, dying is preferable to living your whole life with paralysis or living your whole never able to dive again,” says Tepper.
While many of his friends wonder how the same guy that sings musicals can swim intrepidly with sharks, Tepper insists them that underwater photography is not that extreme. “I think people tend to think of diving as a thrill seeking thing, like jumping out of a plane, when it’s really not. So, for me, a scary moment is something like when I’m 90 feet down and I can feel my tank empty,” says Tepper.
Cara Brockman, Tepper’s live-in girlfriend, explains that Tepper’s time in the water is less about bravado and more about a few hours of serenity. “While on the outside it might seem that Joe has an extremely laid back personality, people close to him know that isn't always the case,” says Brockman. “He cares very much about things that are important to him, and sometimes that puts added pressure on him. In fact, Joe doesn't consider diving an extreme activity. Often times, he feels very tense, and diving helps him to relax.”
But diving is more than an escape from the day-to-day activities. As an underwater photographer, the ocean is often a break from people altogether. “As a photographer, you do a lot of diving alone,” says Tepper. “You go into the water with other people, but you want to photograph a tiny, little shrimp for 45 minutes. Everyone else is like, ‘Screw that, I’m going to see this beautiful wall of coral.’ So everyone swims off and you can be on your own at 60 to 80 feet.”
Susan Klingenstein, Tepper’s mother, says that while Tepper tells her very little about the competitions he enters and the awards she wins, she knew that diving was becoming serious for him when he continued to beg year after year to spend each spring break somewhere he could get in the ocean. But his skills at underwater photography, according to Klingenstein, have less to do with his personality and more to do with his general determination.
“When he tries something, he always does it to completion,” says Klingenstein. “He’s just always wanted to do things on his own. He’s always just wanted to—not prove himself—but show that he knows how to do something. He’s done that since he was a little.”
Tepper’s father agrees: “If it’s something that he’s set his mind on, he’ll just work at it methodically until he’s perfected it.”