Ericka Hart, Breast Cancer Survivor, Featured Survivor

One of my favorite childhood memories 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, I have always had an affinity for the underwater world, and became a certified scuba divemaster.  I survived a traumatic car accident in which I lost my father and suffered severe injuries. As a part of my healing process, I 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 me. I combined my interest in underwater photography with recovery.  My goals are 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, I spearheaded the successful Underwater Healer – About Face fundraising campaign with, an online support community where cancer survivors, fighters and supporters connect with one another and shared 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  The survivors — from San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Hawaii and Canada — attest that the powerful and transformative underwater portrait sessions helped them rediscover their beauty, regain their confidence and self-esteem, and provided an experience of transcendence. The campaign ended successfully, and I met 13 survivors at the end of 2013 and 20 more survivors today.

Meet Erika Hart, breast cancer survivor.   I met Ericka and her partner -also a business partner- Ebony before our photo shoot. They were open, confident and powerful. Super funny, too! Perfect couple! I knew we are going to have so much fun in the water! We certainly did! Ericka is beautiful inside and out.  Ericka says, “When I was in the water, I felt beautiful and free in the underwater world. I was a bit tired after a while, but I did not want to stop! I usually do not want to smile in photo shoots, but you couldn’t help but smile.”  She goes on to say, “Water means a lot to me. I have always been very connected to water. The beach is probably one of my favorite places on earth. I feel healed when I am near or in water. So, this shoot was special to me because I got to be in my happy place. That same night, I couldn’t believe but I slept like a rock! I definitely felt relaxed going to bed.” What an honor it was for me to work with Erika and facilitate this healing experience.

Image provided by Unconditionally Her contributor Erena Shimoda

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.

I am grateful to work with survivors to help heal their painful memories, and to be supported by friends, family and all supporters with warm hearts. My 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. 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.

I plan on continuing to spread my story, and inspiring the world with philanthropy and creativity. I’m fortunate to be part of medical/health field because it was one of my dreams to see where my project will be landing. I was recently able to showcase my work at a medical conference, and that was really an exciting opportunity.  I am so excited to see “what’s next” for me and my photography that provides such a sense of healing.

Erena’s work featured at a 2017 medical conference