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I’m Sam Tokita, 27, born in Fairfield CA and grew up on air force bases around the country. I’m a congenital amputee – born with fibular hemmimelia. No one knows why it happened, but my mother found out about my condition during what was supposed to be a routine ultrasound. My father was away for work that day, so he couldn’t be with her when she got the news – it was tough for both of them. However, they raised me to always try things that scare me, never give up, and that I was just as good and worthy as anyone else.
What inspired you to be involved in the Underwater Transformation Project?
Especially being a photographer myself, I was inspired by Erena’s work from the moment I first saw it. My sport is very aggressive – Muay Thai is war, and it’s all about surviving brutality. What I love most about the Underwater Transformation project is that it’s serene, healing, and slow – very opposite of what I’ve spent years focusing on. It was a wonderful way to experience healing in a completely new way.
What were your plans for the photo shoot?
My plans for the shoot were primarily to connect with Erena and enjoy learning about the process of underwater photography and modeling. There is so much more that goes into the production than I would have ever thought about on my own: the water temperature, underwater lighting, the way garments float and sink, how hair moves, how to breathe, etc. I saw a lot of flowy, lightweight styling in previous images in the Underwater Transformation portfolio, so I wanted to do something a little different. I brought a metallic corset, heavy beads, and a prop sword. I’ve always felt empowered by female fighters, both real and fictional. I loved Xena: Warrior Princess growing up, so I tried to pull inspiration from her.
How was the experience with an underwater portrait session?
It was so scary at first! I practiced breathing at the pool, but once it was combined with the mental pressure to pose right, wearing heavier materials, and having more chlorine, it was a totally different experience. I definitely inhaled some water when coming back up! But Erena was so calm and encouraging, and I knew I was in a safe space. We laughed, we got excited, and we got to play. Once you go under the surface, all senses are dulled. Sound is dampened, vision is blurry, so it was a test of trusting myself. There were moments when I felt like I truly was an underwater warrior princess.
How was your mood after you finished?
I was soooo relaxed. I had no idea how much energy I was burning until we got out of the pool and I sat down. I could have fallen asleep right then and there. Even when I’m photographing a shoot, I’m moving around a lot and get so pulled into the experience that I forget to eat. This was similar, but instead of feeling sore and exhausted, I felt more…calm and sleepy, if that makes sense. It was a child-like kind of tired, where the day was fun and you’re tuckered out, but not carrying the weight of the adult world on your shoulders.
How did you sleep the night of the photo shoot?
I had just gotten back from a fun-filled, highly active weekend in some Colorado mountains, so I slept like a baby. I knew that the photoshoot would be a nice, creative ending to a very intense week.
What does water mean to you?
I used to be pretty afraid of water, but I have so much respect for it now. This experience has shown me that it can be a tool for healing, a creative outlet, and that it has so much power. My mother loves the ocean, and, even though this shoot was in the pool, I now better understand her love for it.
What is your dream? What’s your future?
I love using creative outlets to connect with people. I meet a lot of other people with disabilities in my community and take creative portraits of them, learn everything about who they are, and try to express that. I am hopeful that my future contains more, and more, and more of that. <3
Do you think this experience could help overcome your trauma?
I think this experience reminded me of why I first started training Muay Thai. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not easy to make it LOOK easy. I definitely think that’s a powerful healing tool, to challenge yourself. And this is such a unique way to do that. I would absolutely do another underwater photoshoot with Erena, and I’d maybe try to strip away the wardrobe a little more next time – really make it an experience between just myself and the water.
How was Erena working with you?
Erena is the calmest, smartest, coolest, most intelligent and talented human I have ever met! There were moments I felt stressed, but she erased that feeling immediately by being uplifting, giving advice, working through obstacles with me, and honestly just being there. I felt comfortable from the moment I met her, and that immediate trust was carried into the experience. Everyone should have the pleasure of working with her. What an honor.
Would you recommend underwater transformation to other survivors or anyone?
I would recommend underwater transformation to literally anyone. It’s such a unique and incredible experience.
Because I’m fortunate to know people with disabilities and chronic illnesses as well, I know so many people that I would gush about this experience to.
It’s like therapy. Everyone is going through something, so everyone benefits from it, no matter how great of a place you think you’re in.
Sam is a portrait and product photographer, fitness model, disabled Muay Thai practitioner, and interested in all things creative and connective.
Please check out her creative work from here!