Kasia Biernacka has spent 16 years underground. Every spring, Biernacka participates in a long term project led by the U.S. Deep Caving Team, exploring Sistema Cheve in Mexico, which, at 1,484 meters deep, is currently the second deepest cave in the western hemisphere. During the rest of the year, Biernacka seeks out the world’s most remote and picturesque caves. Since the beginning of her caving career, Biernacka has documented her adventures under the surface of earth. And the resulting photos are, ahem, deep and deeply moving.
Crafting skill and style in craggy, wet depths hasn’t been easy. “I started cave photography back in 2001 on slides and films with my Nikon FM2,” remembers Biernacka. “At the beginning, all my frames were just pure black or very dark. The cave environment wasn’t very indulgent either. And on my learning path I drowned a DSLR and destroyed many flash units.”
Like most outdoor folks, Biernacka fell in love with nature during her childhood. She’s a fervent outdoorswoman whose passions run the gamut. She’s a climber, sailor, surfer, scuba diver, ice swimmer, kayaker, trail runner, and snowboarder. On childhood family camping trips in her home country of Poland and around Europe, her parents would speed past overcrowded campsites and find wild, free, and remote locales on which to pitch a tent. Biernacka has never loved crowds. In fact, she hates them and hates them so much she’s made a career out of finding those isolated and inaccessible locations deep underground. Bring the wonders of the cave to the people rather than the people to the cave.
The action, shapes, water, and colors of cave photography are beyond the scope of most adventurers’ understanding. The caves are pitch black, save for what a headlamp illuminates. Biernacka uses electronic flashes, which takes quite a bit of setup time, a DSLR, and two to four flash units; one of which is usually backlit. The flashes are triggered by assistants though radio communication. Caves are wet, mysterious, and filled with danger. But in that lies beauty.
“I’m the happiest when I’m in nature, exploring the world with adventure-loving and
passion-driven people,” Biernacka explains. “This keeps me inspired. During trips to new environments, when I’m faced with artistic and physical challenges, my vision becomes crisp, my brain gets creative, and my body is ready for an unusual effort. I take pictures because I love to see the world through the lens of my camera.” And what a world it is.
This is an 80 meters deep sinkhole in the middle of the rainforest in southern Belize. I traveled there as part of a scientific expedition. At the bottom of the pit we searched for species that would be new to science. Landing on the floor of this wild and uncommon geological feature felt very special, like getting back to the beginnings of the Earth. Caver: Pawel Skoworodko from Poland.
This is the entrance to an amazing cave that is located in a wall of the Grand Canyon. To get there, we had to rappel down with thousands of square metres of air around us. It was like a movie scene. Cavers: Tiffany Nardico (on rope), Ian Chechet, David Harris, and Graham Schindel from the U.S.
I call this “little cave.” It’s under a glacier high on a mountain in Picos de Europa, Spain. That summer the snow cap was quite thin so the sun beam went through easily and gave the snow this unusual color. Caver: Ester Molina from Spain.
My favorite cave topics are water and people on rope. This is in the Mexican cave Cheve. The strobe that was my backlight had to be placed under the waterfall and got completely wet. But I was able to rescue it with some silica gel. Caver: Mimi Alexander from the U.S.
J2 cave in Mexico is part of Sistema Cheve. It’s more than 1.2 kilometers deep and quite challenging, lots of water, many vertical pits, some squeezes, and big boreholes. You’re almost constantly wet but if you keep moving, you don’t get cold. Caver: Hugo Rodrigeuz from Mexico.
Cheve in the Mexican state of Oaxaca is a world class cave in terms of dimensions, difficulties, and beauty. One of my favorite sections of Cheve is East Gorge, where the river gets quiet and you can enjoy walking along the walls of this incredible canyon. Caver: Jola Sikorska from Poland.
Gypsum needles are very rare cave formations so I didn’t mind spending 15 minutes to get the
strobes set correctly for this shot. I didn’t want the strobes to burn out the very delicate and transparent gypsum.
If you try to document the whole cave expedition, you have to be ready for a picture anytime, even if you’re tired, cold, and at 1000 meters. And you’d better be quick with your settings because the emotions can be gone fast, that’s why I used only one flash here. Caver: Morgan Smith from the U.S.
Zumbo is a river cave in Puerto Rico. To get to our lead in the bottom of Zumbo, we had to swim for an hour, which was fun and also meant lots of opportunities for the pictures. To have the water lit up, I asked my assisstant to put the strobes into it. Caver: Jose Luis Gomez from Puerto Rico.
A behind-the-scenes image at a bivvy. The photographer is always the last one in bed and the first one up. I was happy the boys let me hop inbetween them so I was warm at night. Cavers: Daniel Ballesteros and Javier de Felipe Pitcairn from Spain.
Sometimes you can get surprised. I was setting my strobes for a shot of this passage in San Agustin cave in Mexico when one of the cavers suddenly did a handstand. It was a blast. I only asked him to repeat the pose a couple times for the shot. Caver: Derek Bristol from the U.S.
I love the darkness of the caves and the adventures they offer. But it’s always a relief to get outside safely and to see the daylight again. Cavers: Fernando Pinto, Nuno Felipe Gomes and Miguel Pessoa from Portugal.