Behind the Lens
Meet Ray Collins, the man who pulled the trigger for The Big Issue cover
Ray Collins, introduce yourself.
Hello, my name is Ray. I know the name makes me sound like a Winnebago-driving retiree, but that I am not. I am a 31-year-old man with a deep affection for my wife, my family, my dog, and the ocean. I spend a good chunk of my time in and around the Hawaiian and Indonesian island chains, but my hometown is Thirroul, a sleepy beach town a little more than an hour south of Sydney. Close enough to utilize the city’s resources, but far enough away to not have to deal with the hustle and bustle of it all. You see, we have a massive geographical buffer called the Royal National Park, and we are the starting point of the wave-rich southern coast of New South Wales. From here, there are so many possibilities for every combination of swell, tide, and wind.
On to the cover shot: what are we even looking at? Where was this taken, and what exactly are we seeing?
We’re looking at the top of a really large and powerful wave breaking onto an outer reef with tremendous force. It was taken on the first big south swell of the year—it looked like a Third Reef Pipe swell on the charts—but instead it was aimed directly at our peaceful coastline. You see, this bombora magnifies and shapes the raw Pacific energy into a big triangle, and for some reason perfectly sane men attempt to paddle and tow said triangles, with varying degrees of success.
How the hell did you pull it off? It’s an unseen angle, and seems like you’d have to put yourself in jeopardy to find it. Talk us through getting the shot.
It almost didn’t go down. I couldn’t find a boat with room in it to shoot from so I was a little disheartened the night before the swell was set to arrive. I made a few calls to some mates from down that way, and it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. Amber, my wife, was having none of it and told me to just do the three hour drive and it would all work out, to just get there. I left at 3 a.m. with the intention of swimming over a mile out to sea to sit on a bodyboard and shoot. I had never been to that wave before and didn’t really know what to expect, only that it was going to be of the XXL variety. My mate Corey was filming with Dylan Longbottom and said they could drop me in from their ski, of which I was so thankful and stoked. I swam in the strongest current of my life for four hours shooting 70mm and 200mm from the water when my mate said it was “go time” for the big whirlybird.
So you got in the chopper.
Our pilot Brett maneuvered the flying piece of metal as if he was a surgeon and it was his scalpel. We pulled the doors off it, strapped ourselves in, put the water skids on in case of an emergency landing, and just let him use it as an extension of his body. He would ask me to tell him exactly what I wanted, where we need to be and how to do it. Tilted? Rotated 27-degrees? You got it! He could do it all. The spray from the top of the waves was raining into the cabin, and he was surfing on the wind-waves funneling over each set. He’s a good bloke, and he sure knows how to adequately position a chopper.
Is going out of your way for a new perspective something you hang your hat on?
I’m not really sure, I just want to document more than someone getting barreled, you know? I want the wave to be the star of the show. I like lines, textures and movement. Waves are an endless blank canvas, you don’t have to convince them to get up early for good light, they don’t age, trend, or change sponsors. And then lens choice, you can’t use the same wide-angle lens as everyone else and expect to stand out. I have been a big advocate for using short/medium telephoto and prime lenses in the water—but keeping the same positioning as if I were shooting fisheye. It’s really challenging, and thus really rewarding. For me, to be in the energy of the curve, where the lip is landing on the reef right next to you and you have to focus and compose an image with a narrow field of view while sticking your face on the back of your water housing, using your other eye peripherally while keeping a flat port dry…that’s what it’s all about, I reckon. I’m a firm believer in the saying, “To have something you’ve never had, you must do something you’ve never done.”
Surf photography in general…what’s your take on it?
I can only speak for the last seven years, I’ve been shooting since 2007. It’s changing pretty rapidly, but so is all technology and the way the world communicates as a whole. It’s all new territory, and it’s all exciting. We are pioneers and the people who embrace that will flourish. As for me, I want to make art! Can I say that without sounding like a pretentious dick? Where does “surf photography” end and “art” start? I’m going to continue to develop my signature style and keep it evolving. I don’t want to get too comfortable. I’ve got so many ideas it keeps me up at night (It’s 2:23 a.m. right now, actually). Always, I want the wave to be the focal point first and foremost. I want to let my images do the talking on my behalf, to let people interpret my seascapes in their own way, so that hopefully a connection will be made. That’s what fulfills me as a surf photographer.
And the cover: no surfer, no stickers, no sponsors, just pure, unadulterated nature with a foreboding theme. What’s it mean to you to get this cover of the Big Issue?
I think it is a really bold move and I was really surprised. Pleasantly, of course. With just the wave…Heck, the magazine’s name is “SURFER,” isn’t it? I’m pretty biased, as it’s my image, but I think it’s fresh and the image fits the theme of the issue, so it works. Good on ya boys for taking a chance and stepping away from the safety net. I’m thrilled to bits!