A man who’s incredible work should need no introduction to anyone with an interest in surf photography, Russell Ord is an absolute legend of a bloke to go along with it, and could not have been nicer and more giving when I contacted him.
Russell has spent a career putting himself in the impact of some of the most dangerous waves on the planet producing countless unique and iconic images along the way.
He is now partnered in Vagabond Photographic where he is able to utilise his years of experience to provide both product knowledge and workshop teaching to the new aspiring generation of wave photographers.
For someone like myself who chose to leave the safety of a reliable income and now constantly lives in a state wavering somewhere between freedom and excitement one day, and complete uncertainty the next, this interview and researching all of Russell’s other interviews has been really inspiring.
He has known what he wanted and gone beyond the limits of most humans to achieve it. But also, has assessed the risks both in the water and in his life and career and ensured he is as prepared as anyone could be for what may come.
Further to that, when there have been times that something hasn’t gone to plan, his ability to adapt and reset is possibly the thing I admire most.
For the best insight into Russell’s world, be sure to watch his Documentary – ONE SHOT which is linked up at the end of the interview.
For the answers to the questions I wanted to ask him, please read on…
Margaret River, Western Australia
Was photography always the plan or what first made you pick up a camera?
I injured my knee surfing (1999), and instead of just sitting on the lounge I picked up a camera and started taking photos of my mates (surfing). The passion grew from there, surfing had become quite competitive and crowded so being reunited with that feeling of freedom especially when you’re swimming out alone was more of an incentive than jostling for waves. The learning curve was steep especially at the start being self-taught and using film, so I gradually progressed my camera skills, and I was lucky enough to have 20 years of ocean experience to call upon which I have always said is the hardest skill to learn regarding surf photography. At the moment it’s all reversed again, with most of my time spent in the ocean would be surfing with the occasional swim with the camera.
When you were shooting surf and big waves intensely how much of it was about the experience vs the final image?
Being a surfer myself it's all about having an experience hence why I spent so much time shooting wide angle, like surfing you get the feeling of salt water on your skin, breathe holds, beatdowns, the cold etc. I have no interest in just capturing moments, having a tiny moment myself and getting as close as possible to that feeling of surfing is what it is all about for me.
You have spoken before about dreaming vs doing. Do you have any thoughts on what stops people from just getting out there and going after what they want?
Fear, the fear of giving up a secure job, the fear of what other people think, not knowing exactly what they really want or are they just doing it for other reasons that in the end are really not necessary - competition, self doubt (the list goes on). I have gone through all of them. When I was deciding to leave the fire brigade, however, the feeling of security (not having any) was by far the hardest to overcome, especially because I have a family to feed and that weekly wage comes in handy to put food on the table.
When shooting in potentially dangerous conditions in the ocean, how much of it is mental vs physical preparation?
With all the things I have done in my life being mentally prepared or as they say ‘mentally tough’ is the most important. Being physically fit, relying on experience, being aware of your limitations, knowing how far to push and when to back off, being aware of your environment all contribute significantly to that mental side of preparation.
Outside of Western Australia, what has been your favourite wave to shoot at?
I shot a lot of amazing waves in NZ and of course, they are all named ‘Spot X', but it was more the experiences I had along the journey. Being able to spend time with my family, the great people I met along the way and the incredible environment. The wave, in the end, is just the cherry on top of the journey along the way which is more important to me hence why I like to try and find other spots to shoot (which is difficult). That's also why I don't name or give directions (to remote places) because you're just ruining it for someone else’s journey. I can never get my head around why crew want to shoot the same tree in the middle of a lake, the same wave over and over again (I am guilty of that). It’s boring, where is the journey!
How much of your shooting now is work related and do you have much of a chance to just explore and shoot with no agenda?
Surf Photography wise I am only picking up a camera when it’s work related 99% of the time. At the moment I have no major goals as a surf photographer and to be honest I do get bored with it if it’s work [although] I will certainly shoot to the best to my ability. I do have a number of personal projects I am working on which I think is essential to keep my self motivated, they do revolve around the ocean but are not surf photography related, and I enjoy other forms of photography especially documenting peoples stories.
Can you tell us a bit about Vagabond Photographic and the idea behind it?
Vagabond is a photographic shop (online) that I am partners in with Dan Morton (CEO and equipment), Damian Martin (Marketing) and world-class photographer Warren Keelan (like me content creation/educator). To us it is about the art of giving, collaborations, inspiring, educating, and giving access to world-class photographers all in one place. It’s a fantastic feeling being able to advise about water housings, equipment and talking from experience to a customer that would never get that from the typical camera shop - especially with Vagabond having so many ocean photography specialists to call upon. We have some amazing people (most importantly)/photographers coming on board soon that I am looking forward to, genuinely inspirational and fit in well with what we are all about.
Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, that you would love to shoot?
One camera, one lens, a waterhousing, a backpack, no agendas, no expectations. To travel around Peru and beyond with my wife and see what happens.
You’ve spoken a lot about the effort required to get a shot as being a differentiator. In the current world saturated by so much photography, is this the key to standing out?
For me being a full-time photographer is tough because it's not all about the photo, not only do you need to be producing consistent quality work you need to be good at business/marketing (including social media), building good work relationships. It may even be where you live and who you bump into, your best mate gets the head job at a major media house/magazine and next you know you have that advantage ( a little bit of luck). I have shortfalls in all of that and standing out is not as important to me as having a quality healthy lifestyle. All I know is if you are doing the same shit like everyone else and you are trying to be Insta famous so you can then get work, good luck with that and you can have that life. Sorry I didn't even answer the question in the end, what is standing out any way. I know so many amazing photographers that standout in front of the right people that matter (that pay the bills) ... I am still rambling on? Next question I am lost.
Any other parting advice for aspiring surf and wave photographers?
Be patient, learn your craft and don't get caught up in the perception of the social media photography world. The best thing about photography to me is meeting incredible people. I truly get inspired by people's backstories and having as many new experiences as I possibly can in my lifetime. From that, everything is just a bonus.
Dive into Russell’s world further here
ONE SHOT Doco - http://www.russellordphoto.com/one-shot-doco/
Vagabond Photographic: https://vagabondphotographic.com/