This story actually starts back in February, earlier this year. I had just started posting a new series on my instagram feed on Monday mornings called ‘Monday Muse’ – where I share an old photograph of a particular woman who I felt drawn to, and who should never be forgotten.
I’m not talking celebrities or the like, I’m talking the kind of women who really changed the world – the ‘firsts’ in their fields.
Women who were fearless – not because they didn’t feel fear, but because they felt fear and continued on anyway.
Valerie Taylor was one of these women I posted on instagram. She was a big part of my early childhood, especially on a Saturday night before Magnum PI on Channel 7. I would watch her in complete awe as she spoke so passionately about the conservation of sharks and our coral reefs in Australia.
She would always have a pretty hair ribbon in her blonde ponytail to match the colour of her wetsuit. Though, however ‘cute’ Val appeared, ‘cute’ she was not. Valerie would plunge into the middle of the open waters, to come face to face with deadly sharks, as her filmmaker husband Ron Taylor documented what would unfold underwater in the depths below.
I would watch Valerie on the TV dive with every kind of shark, from reef sharks to great white sharks. I would be terrified. Though, whatever the scenario, I always felt as though Valerie Taylor had it covered.
Like a siren of the sea, Valerie was always committed to sharing what she and her filmmaker husband Ron saw in the ocean with us all at home and around the world.
Through their discoveries and films of the unknown ‘underwater world’ they became an integral duo of sea life knowledge.
They were even asked to assist Steven Spielberg on the set of JAWS contributing their expert advice on how to film the mechanical shark scenes. Many say the shark scenes are the best part of the film, as they were so terrifyingly life like.
Filming underwater was virtually unknown until this pair started experimenting and capturing the oceans, sharing with the world what they saw.
After the Monday Muse post on instagram I became rather determined to somehow track Valerie Taylor down and photograph her. I would bring Valerie Taylor up in random conversations with people and they too would remember her and remember how fearless she was.
Until one such conversation, while I was on a job on Kangaroo Island at Southern Ocean Lodge, someone said – ‘Valerie Taylor? – Val? Yeah, Hayley is very close with her, they travel all over the world diving together, just ask Hayley’. (me – whaaaaat? I nearly fainted)
Long story short, a lovely client of mine who co-owns Baillie Lodges – Hayley Baillie, is like a daughter to Valerie, and this is how I came to be in Valerie Taylor’s home, in amongst her wetsuits and film gear last month in Sydney.
Hayley sure made it happen and I was able to go through everything at Valerie’s home, Val was completely open with me. I rummaged through every drawer and cupboard, documenting what I saw and what Valerie had kept after all these years.
Valerie kept diaries from 1969 through to only a few years back, each year a new diary, all in the same red Collins 3880 Minute Books.
There is an entire archive of Val and Ron’s high sea adventures, detailing what they would come across on their trips, their discoveries, how the weather was (there was always a cyclone apparently) and the everyday occurrences.
All documented in Valerie’s handwriting, with random dockets, scribbled notes and photographs stuck into these diaries, even some pressings of leaves and seaweed.
I found an early red diary and asked Valerie if she would like to read it. We went out to her patio and she read the pages to me. This diary entry was about her reflecting on her upbringing in New Zealand, as the family lived there for a few years, as her father was stationed in New Zealand during the war.
The diary entry recalled how Valerie’s father would say to her as a child to look up to the sky to see the alphabet birds, they are flying in the letter V, – V for Valerie.
She told me she had a wonderful upbringing, even though it was tough with the war, she had very special parents and there was a lot of love in the household.
A corner of Valerie’s bedroom with her suitcase open and packed. Valerie had just arrived back from a dive trip in Indonesia on the morning of our shoot and was heading away again the following morning.
Her body at 83 years old feels at ease in the warmer waters of Indonesia where she still dives regularly.
Illustrations and watercolours of sharks and shells are piled up on Valerie’s desk.
What isn’t well known about Valerie is that her first career was actually as a cartoonist and illustrator. At 82 years old, Valerie released a children’s book called Melody the Mermaid last year.
I thought this was extraordinary – I found these copies of the magazines in a cupboard in the spare room. Valerie featured on two covers of National Geographic, both covers shot by Ron her husband.
What an achievement to be featured in such a celebrated and trusted publication, twice!
Something else happened before this shoot. I was talking to a writer friend of mine, Sheriden Rhodes, about the upcoming Valerie Taylor shoot and Hayley Bailie being close to her, like a daughter and how excited I was about the shoot.
Sheriden said to me – ‘Kara, this is a great story, why don’t you pitch this story to the Good Weekend – for ‘The Two of Us?’ the page which celebrates unlikely friendship’?
So I pitched it – and they came back and said yes! Ohmygosh! So now the shoot had become a personal project with a slight work twist.
I would photograph Valerie and also Valerie with Hayley.
So the day before our shoot I hopped on a plane to Sydney. I needed to find a location which was very natural and had elements of the ocean for what I wanted to achieve visually, with good light in the afternoon.
I also had to keep in mind that Valerie is 83 years old and probably wouldn’t want to go clambering over rocks and cliff faces.
I scouted about six different beaches near Valeries house, becoming rather nervous until I came across beautiful Shelly Beach.
It’s like a cove with gentle water and beautiful rocks on the sand and feels very Australian, plus it was very easy to access on foot. Tick!
Observing the love which these two women feel for each other was so emotional.
Valerie didn’t have children and met Hayley when Hayley was about 3 years old. Their bond is based around their shared love for adventure and diving, which Valerie introduced to Hayley early on.
And here are some of the portraits of Valerie I captured. The moment she put her wetsuit on and we went down to the water she became a different person.
She honestly lit up and somehow ignited the same energy and spirit I recognised from all that time ago.
Capturing these moments in a few seconds was the heart of this shoot. Something really special happened in this moment.
I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to share a few hours with Valerie at home and document the special bond of these two women. I can’t wait to pick up a copy of the Good Weekend today and read their story of friendship.
Hope you enjoyed!