Ray Collins Redefines The Decisive Moment
“You’re insignificant at this place. It’s so deep, a submerged mountain… the tip is barely under the water. There’s no idea how much it drops off. It’s black and way further than I can see. People are always fishing off the cliffs and you can see things churning through the fish. Birds diving, whales flapping. It’s just crazy. Two seals always come up and nudge us, a mother and a pup, I think.”
Meet Ray Collins. He’s talking about a photography location three hour’s drive south of his home. Ray and Jason – his solid, ocean-loving Kiwi assistant – left home at 4.00am in order to be there for the sunrise. They’ve scaled down a cliff to get to the point of the hop, skip and jump. Ray uses either a Nikon D4 for its 11 frames-per-second speed or the D800 for its big file sizes and they’re usually coupled with 35mm, 50mm or 85mm prime lenses. When they’re not in the ocean taking photographs, both men are coal miners and their office is under the Illawarra Escarpment… literally.
Windang Island, located at the mouth of Lake Illawarra, is another location for Ray’s wave photography and a notorious site for bull and hammerhead sharks.
“I’ll see something there, and know it’s a fin” relates Ray. “I’ll say to Jason, ‘Did you
see that?’ And he’ll say, ‘It was just a couple of fish, don’t worry about it’. But I know he’s seen it too. We both try and calm each other down through positive reinforcement. Recently, nearby fishermen were screaming at us while they pulled up a half-eaten fish. That happened three times one morning, and they were whistling at us from 50 metres away. Whatever is happening over there! I don’t ever say the ‘S’ word when I’m in the ocean. But it’s knee deep where I am, the waves churning and exploding with the help of the backwash off the cliff. The sharks don’t want that, they want deep water and fish. Hopefully, I’m not even a passing thought to those sharks.
“I expect to get caught out by the wave at least three times when I do a shoot here… otherwise I’m not close enough! I have to be on this fine line between the backwash and the barrel of the wave. Getting caught out means I get shot about 20 feet into the air.”
To understand how this all started for Ray, we must go back to mid-April in 2007. He was working dayshifts in the mine, relocating a 30-tonne longwall chock and, while negotiating a tight squeeze around a corner, stepped out of the machine to check the clearance, his foot landed three feet down on uneven ground. His knee buckled, making a terrible popping, tearing sound. Lying on the coal floor in agony, he knew something terrible had happened.
A week after his accident, Ray realised how much spare time he now had, but as he couldn’t do anything physical, he decided his best bet was to exercise his mind. He’d dabbled with photography and a lineup shot of waves in Sumatra – taken with a $70 digital camera – was his screensaver. He knew photography was something he wanted to “…delve deeper into and try to have a proper understanding of the complexities of light”. So, a few weeks later, Ray bought a D-SLR in a twin lens kit from Harvey Norman.
He confesses he had no idea what was good at the time, he just knew he wanted to start taking photographs.
“The salesman knew I was starting out and tried to push me into an extremely basic ‘SLR-looking’ camera,” Ray recalls. “But I had my mind on the Canon EOS 30D. I had seen one before… and it looked bigger and blacker and more professional than the others. But I was just a clueless kid and I wasn’t even sure they made water housings for that body. Fortunately, they did or I would have been screwed. There was no planning, just some consequential happy accidents along the way. I approached
I expect to get caught out by the wave at least three times when I do a shoot here… otherwise I’m not close enough! I have to be on this fine line between the backwash and the barrel of the wave. Getting caught out means I get shot about 20 feet into the air.
Aquatech – who were just around the corner – to buy a waterproof housing. They didn’t make lens ports for the kit lenses, so I bought a 15mm fish-eye and a dome port. I was set. Off I went to do some rehab in the water. Swimming was part of my rehab.”
Six weeks later, in July 2007, he sent some surfing pictures to Surfing Life magazine and a quarter-page image was subsequently published. Tim Fisher was then the editor of Surfing Life magazine.
“During a particularly good run of surf for the east coast of Australia and we were looking for images that told that story. We didn’t have many shots from Ray’s particu-
lar part of the coast, and his photos ticked a lot of boxes – they were well-composed, well-lit water shots with great action, taken at an offshore reef break which, at the time, was rarely seen in surf magazines.”
“It’s a bombora out in the ocean,” Ray explains. “It’s a one kilometre swim that takes about 40 minutes with the currents. One day I was half-way out and the water felt like a boat had dumped fuel… like I was swimming through petrol or oil. Then I saw something that looked like a log, but it was a seal had just been bitten in half! It took about three to five seconds for that to sink in, but it felt like 30 seconds. Absolutely terrified, I turned and swam back to the beach. I sensed primal fear. It was too close for comfort to me. And it rattled me for about 12 months.”
Trent Mitchell was Tim Fisher’s photo editor at Surfing Life, and it was he who flagged Ray’s shots immediately and asked him to submit more.
“I remember Trent shaking his head because the second email from Ray contained a shot that was even better than those in the first!” relates Tim Fisher. “It wasn’t long – maybe only a month or two – before Ray submitted a photo that we thought was worthy of the cover. Trent and I both loved being able to publish the first photos from a guy with such obvious talent who was documenting his backyard so well. That’s what we were really looking for. There are always young, green photographers who can take great action shots, but not many who understand that to set themselves apart they need to recognise what’s unique to them. Ray responded well to feedback, and he really got that what we wanted to see from him were images of waves in a part of Australia’s coast that not many photographers are able to access. A lot of young photographers are one-trick ponies, in that they may be strong swimmers and great with a fish-eye, but they don’t have the patience to compose a great landscape or a great portrait. Ray wasn’t one of those guys.”
A Beautiful Show
Ray started looking for the best guys in surf photography and two that he really looked up to were the Californians, Todd Glazer and Chris Burkhart, who had won a Follow The Light Foundation grant. This grant is awarded annually in the spirit and memory of Larry Moore who was (USA) Surfing magazine’s photo editor for more than 30 years.
After submitting a 21-image folio, Ray was awarded the grant in 2009. The judges commented that there was “…a profound depth to the quality of his photography for somebody only shooting for such a short time. Nothing gimmicky, no smoke and mirrors, just a beautiful show of waves and surfing”.
Most of the images Ray submitted to Follow The Light were of unknown surfers and empty waves. He didn’t realise it then, but that’s how he would shoot in subsequent years. However, at that time, Ray was trying to chase professional surfers around, think like them, turn up to the right spots and network. He was getting ads, editorial space and cover shots.
The Other Office
From Ray’s loungeroom at his home between Thirroul and Austimeer on the NSW coast south of Sydney, I’m looking southwest towards the escarpment and Mount Kembla. He points out a far feature to the left of Mount Kembla and com-
It felt like I was swimming through petrol or oil. Then I saw something that looked like a log, but it was a seal had just been bitten in half!
ments, “That’s where I work, in that mountain. It’s given me discipline and awareness. A hardened backbone, not sure if that’s the right term… but a rudder in life. It’s shift work so it’s allowed me more time to shoot waves which is a blessing.
“Coal mining is pretty crazy. You’re in a room like we are now, but it’s kilometres and kilometres long and, if something goes wrong, you’re a long way from the fire brigade or an ambulance. It’s just you and your mates, and everything you do affects them. There’s a high gas content so, if you took an aluminium can underground and it scraped against something creating a spark, there would be a massive explosion. You have to trust your mates.
“These southern district mines are the gassiest pits in the world. Methane is soaked into the coal and, when you cut the coal, gas comes out. It’s usually at two percent, but if it gets up to five percent it could be curtains. But there are also another five or six COT [colourless, odourless and tasteless] gasses that you have to look out for. It’s a horizontal mine; the oldest operational pit in Australia with a massive network of roads. There’s even a petrol station and traffic lights.”
Dog Day Afternoon
The enthusiastic Morrison Media editor and designer, Graham Murdoch, became familiar with Ray’s work through his submissions to Surfing Life magazine and through his posts on the “almighty and ubiquitous Facebook”.
It was 2011 and Murdoch was working on the concept of a publication which subsequently became White Horses magazine.
“It was time to take the leap from speculation to execution. One idea I was excited about was combining portraiture and scenic shots; specifically blending a portrait of a surfer’s beloved dog with a telling ocean or surf line-up. For all the energy and joy dogs bring to the beach, they strike me as having been vastly under-appreciated. So the very first actual brief in White Horse’s history went to Ray Collins. I’d seen his Facebook posts devoted to his dog, Chantic. Ray never hid his feelings for his beloved pet so I sent him the brief to shoot the dog/seascape hybrid image.
“The odds weren’t promising. Ray was grinding through a run of shifts underground and the brief was for a magazine that didn’t yet exist. And Chantic has trouble sitting still unless she’s snuggled up to her master. The window of time and tide for a good surf line-up image is always fleeting. But Ray managed to pull himself out of a post-nightshift afternoon coma and captured Chantic down at Sandon Point in front of an epic, barrelling right-hander. He sent me an iPhone pic of his camera back. As soon as I saw it, I knew that White Horses was going to happen.”
As it happens, 2011 was epic for Ray Collins, his best year work-wise. He won the Nikon Surf Photo Of The Year competition and the Emerging Sports
Photographer Of The Year award from Capture magazine. He also achieved three silver point scores in the sports category of the AIPP’s annual Australian Professional Photography Awards (APPAs).
By contrast though, 2012 was a year with no direction. Rays says he was “wandering in the wilderness”. He didn’t shoot a lot, having lost both the passion and desire. He decided to take a break from photography for a few months and surfed solely to keep fit. He also decided to give up alcohol and subsequently found that his motivation went up, and he had more energy.
“I don’t think I will go back now,” he says. “It’s been the biggest contributor to my ‘warped waves’ project. I have a clear head all the time which has allowed me to focus and do the things I want to do.”
He had been chasing professional surfers around the world, but now the motivation for that had waned, he asked himself, “Where to now?”
Portraits of the ocean became his calling. Raw, organic wave sculptures. Not anything surfable or anything a human would want to be part of. His future direction was locked in. “It’s both a gift and a curse because it occupies so much time. Bizarrely, a book about nude photography which was given to me by my stepmom was the influence for me to start photographing just waves.”
Aquatech’s Alan Love knows Ray Collins well as he lives just a stone’s throw from the company’s office in Thirroul. Aquatech also has an office in California.
“This is unusual because our customers are mostly spread all over the world,” Alan says. “But being so close has allowed me to watch Ray’s growth more than I would that of our other customers. He has a great work ethic, rarely missing a morning with good light. And he has a good outlook on the modern world of photography – where it can appear you have to be a slave to social media.’
“How does he do that? Where does he do that? I’ve never seen a wave behave that way,” thought Chris Duczynski, one of Ray’s newish Facebook friends. “These impossibly beautiful peaks captured in perfect moments.”
Duczynski worked at Qantas as a cameraman and producer for 15 years, but now has his own production company. Last summer Ray Collins was part of a Q&A night on surf photography in conjunction with The Green Cathedral exhibition at the Wollongong City Gallery. Chris Duczynski was in the audience and was really impressed with the way Ray spoke about his photography and his work ethic. After the talk, Chris approached Ray and asked him if he was interested in having the creation of those “perfect moments” documented.
So, a few weeks later, they all met at a service station in Bulli at 4.30am in bucketing-down rain. They arrived at the filming location before sunrise overlooking what Chris describes as “…a shoal where the waves break at all angles at once and one of the least camera friendly places I’ve even seen”.
The sun did eventually come out and the light was sensational.
“Every wave was completely different in pitch, throw, rise, power and luminescent backlit peak,” recalls Chris who filmed from the cliff with two cameras while his son, Jake, was in the water with a GoPro.
“Jake couldn’t wait to get out there with Ray. He’s a surfer and really confident in the water and without his GoPro footage, the video wouldn’t have had anywhere near the impact it did. It put the viewer out there with Ray.
“I contacted Qantas with the finished product as I still had a few contacts there.”
“The early indication was that Qantas liked what it saw,” Ray adds. “So the original three or four minute clip has grown to a seven-and-a-half minute clip. To date they have licensed it for three months on all domestic and international flights so that’s an approximate audience of three million and it was shortlisted as a finalist for the San Diego Surf Film Festival in 2014. Pretty good for a coalminer who shoots lumps of the Pacific Ocean, I reckon.”