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Photographer helps cancer survivors heal with underwater pictures

Photographer Erena Shimoda has always enjoyed marine life. The avid scuba diver has been exploring the underwater world for more than a decade, taking pictures of the creatures that inhabit those regions.

After she lost her father in a car accident and was critically injured herself, she realized she wanted to use her efforts to help people heal emotionally.

"I broke everything," Shimoda told "Physically and emotionally, I had to learn how to deal with myself, but by helping other people, I was helping overcome my painful experience."

Shimoda started volunteering with the American Cancer Society's "Look Good, Feel Better" campaign. She worked with cancer survivors, teaching them how to put on makeup and wigs. The photographer then realized she could combine her passion for the water and her desire to aid people through these tough times.

Shimoda's Underwater Healer project works with people who have dealt with traumatic experiences and helps them rebuild their self-esteem through underwater photography. She decided to focus a subset of her project to working with cancer survivors. She thought that if she could learn about how these women overcame their health problems, she too could learn how to cope with her new reality.

Shimoda's personal journey coming to terms with her injuries was a rocky one. Her father had come to visit during a family reunion, and they were traveling together when the car accident happened. She was knocked out and was in danger of losing her vision and her left arm as a result of her injuries.

"Even after 12 years, I have a hard time realizing what had happened because I didn't see anything and I don't remember," she explained.

The photographer started an Indiegogo campaign and partnered with with the goal of raising $17,000 so she could shoot 10 cancer survivors underwater.

Even though she didn't make her 30-day goal, she raised a bit over $10,000 and decided to go ahead with the project. Ideally, she'd like to shoot seven subjects with the money. The women have to be 100 percent healthy to be in chlorine water, so she's focused her efforts at finding people who have beaten cancer. So far, she's photographed four people in the San Francisco area and two more in Seattle.

Her recent Seattle shoot was particularly special for her because she got to document two cancer survivors together. The two women shared a special bond, and they were able to communicate that with Shimoda.

"When I asked them about how they felt doing two people at the same time, they actually loved it because they helped each other out through their cancers and also because they went through similar experiences," Shimoda said.

However, it's hard for her to pick a favorite.

"I learned from every shoot," she explained. "Every shoot was memorable because they all had different experiences."