Ocean photography

Interview Chasing Slabs With Phil Thurston by Katherine Nielsen

Firstly, can you start with a little bit about yourself?

I'm the youngest of three brothers, we grew up on the far south coast of NSW, and I'm now currently based in Ulladulla. My brothers got me into the ocean at the age of about ten, we lived close to the beach, and it just so happened that our choice of craft at that age was a bodyboard. Bodyboarding during my younger years and the pursuit of a career riding waves built the foundation for my ocean knowledge which I value more than ever today. I exchanged my bodyboard for a camera in my late teens, which was a transition that took a few years. Eventually, by my early twenties, my choice of craft in the ocean was predominantly a camera.

Phil Thurston Interview

This transition was heavily influenced by my personality, I'm a very passive person, and I struggled to compete with wave-hungry surfers which hindered my progression in a competitive environment. That is not to say I still did not do my best to rival my two older brothers, and continue that healthy competition to this very day. In fact, one of the main reasons I train a lot these days is just to be fitter than my brother Glen, who's a bit of a machine, but his commitment to family and work life has given me a bit of an edge on him, I think. Well, it is arguably.. and it always will be! Ha, but seriously, I have a lot of appreciation for them both. Glen became a professional big wave surfer in his early twenties, and I accompanied him on a lot of his pursuits which developed my confidence in the ocean. I carried this experience into my career as a photographer. My brother, Bryce, became a designer and built some great brands and products that powered me in the water for the majority of my life and still do assist me today. They have their own families now, which has made me a proud uncle of 6 nieces, the most beautiful and precious girls in the world, whom I cherish. It's fun to come home from my travels and see them all!

What else, let's see, I'm a sanguine, I have a sensitive heart, long curly hair and I love green juices!

Circle Of Life -Phil Thurston

What equipment do you use to create your images and why did you select it?

I use a Canon 5D4, not sure why I started using Canon but I've found them to be very reliable in the field and have grown to trust them to perform in any conditions. When I'm in the ocean, my camera is housed in an AquaTech Elite 2 housing. AquaTech are the industry leaders and have generously supported my photographic endeavours ever since I bought my first DSLR many years ago, their products are reliable and durable, but their service is second to none. For land supports and carry solutions I use Manfrotto gear, they have been such an incredible asset to my career and also help my photography and storytelling passion more than anyone else.

Shine - Phil Thurston

What inspires your creative vision?

Getting out into nature. That's a simple response, but for me, it goes a lot deeper than just a walk in the woods. I've had some experiences in my life that I couldn't explain without a million words. I didn't grow up with anyone necessarily influencing a faith in me of any kind, but through my own encounters in life, I have grown into a man of faith. I'm a firm believer in God but not because someone taught me about Him, but because I've experienced his presence and power in my life in such a significant way that it's changed who I am, over and over again. I can't answer this question any other way than to explain the context around the fact that my creative vision comes from my time spent with my heavenly Papa.

Like any relationship though, it's been through communication and time well spent connecting with him, that my spirit has been enriched, my vision sharpened and my purpose in life determined by the direction that my soul and conviction have to lead me in. My photographic pursuits come from the idea of pursuing moments of beauty that I identify with. I find it fascinating that every human being resonates with the concept of beauty when light hits something in a certain way, it's like a little portal opens up and connects our soul with something that we cannot explain. I personally, connect these moments with the nature of God, beautiful and wondrous, and he teaches me about his character through what I see and feel. With a camera in hand, I seek moments like that when I'm in and around the ocean.. to capture that split second, where I can see a little bit more of his magnificence.

There's a Psalm that says "Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvellous deeds." That's essentially what fuels me in the wild.

Sirius - Phil Thurston

Have there been photographers that have inspired your journey?

Sure, but most of my inspiration comes from the last answer. I'm inspired by people who I can see that have similar motives to me, often it's not even a photographer, it can be any artist that pursues a greater connection and relationship with God. Bringing it back to photographers though, I love the work of my good friend Warren Keelan, he always manages to find and embellish the hidden gems of the sea. I also love Benjamin Everett, he sees in shapes and colour palettes that bewilder me every time I see a new piece of his work. There's a lot of photographers these days, producing a lot of imagery that, to be honest, is just a bit overwhelming, but I have to mention this one man that I met at the opening of my good friend, Craig Parry's gallery in Byron Bay. I initially got into a conversation with a little old lady that had a sweet soul and was very talkative. She introduced me to her husband, who was a very elderly man, but still youthful at heart. As our conversation continued. I discovered that he just so happened to have invented the Jet Ski, yes, the Jet Ski!

I have literally stood on this mans invention to create a large part of my portfolio, and I was grateful to have had the opportunity to thank him for it. You see, there's a lot of creatives and photographers out there, and we are all part of a large pool of recycled influences, we take little ideas from here and there, and subconsciously absorb a little bit of everything we see. We are all standing on the shoulders of our predecessors, and I find it a little hypocritical to really claim originality of a style or concept because unless we spent our entire lives in a dark room, we owe a lot of credit to those that became before us. What we are responsible for, is taking the ideas of our predecessors further than they could because we have access to the technology that empowers us to do so. For it's not so much a matter of where we get an idea or inspiration from, but rather where we can take that idea too.

Manta Tow - Phil Thurston Interview

Can you recommend the best way to develop your watermanship skills?

Definitely, spending time in and around the waves for sure. Surfing, swimming, just being out there! The ocean has a rhythm to it, the more you're around it, the better you can feel it, and develop your capacity to operate within it creatively. If you learn to recognise and understand how the ocean behaves, you can go out in dangerous conditions and be relatively safe. I also did a watermanship course with my good friend Joe Knight, he trained me to understand my body and what I'm capable of in testing circumstances. Confidence in the ocean is simply a well-trained body and mind.

Blakers - Phil Thurston

What has been your proudest body of work to date?

I would say the one I'm still working on. However 'to date' it would be my slow shutter work, it's is a constant evolution, being an artist at heart, the concept of painting with my camera has really captured my imagination, I used to be precarious about dabbling with my settings in fear of missing a shot, but you cannot create great imagery without risk. So, I'll slow the shutter down most of the time I'm out there these days.

How would you describe your current photographic style?

Oh, that's a tough one. Hopefully unique, vision inspires output, but there are so many photographers these days that it's becoming increasingly difficult to stand out and be unique. Descriptively though, my photography would be, or at least I'd like it to be, something that allows people to resonate with a moment in the same way that I have. I also think, that if as artists pursue what captures our individual attention the most, eventually we will stand out as unique.

Alexandrite by Phil Thurston

Have you ever had any experiences in the ocean that really scared you?

Yes! So many in fact, fear is ultimately a lack of trust and faith in our ability which is why it is essential to train your mind and body. It is understandable that as human's we struggle with spiritual concepts and qualities. I'd say the scariest situation was in Hawaii, I was only 17, and I had a huge wave break on me and held me down for too long, then the next wave literally finished me off, I was inexperienced, overconfident and way out of my league. That was not necessarily a bad thing because under the ocean, in all my fear and hopelessness, I found grace and favour that my life now stands firmly upon. That's not to say I still don't get afraid in the ocean.

Spinel - Phil Thurston

Do you have any tips for remaining calm in the ocean?

Preparation. I mentioned it earlier, but we are complex beings, and when it comes to physical challenges, we can build our confidence and composure through a gradual increase of exposure to testing conditions. The mind is so powerful, it can override almost any physical test that the body is forced to deal with. An unprepared body and mind will cause irrational panic. I'd honestly say that is the key to remaining calm. For myself it's a faith-based solution, and that can definitely be a part of it, but the craziest waterman I know, seldom have faith, they just have a lot of experience dealing with large ocean environments and understand how to make calculated risks.

Where is somewhere you have yet to photograph ?

Tahiti has been a goal of mine for a while. But honestly, I like the idea of discovering places that no eye has seen before.. and I have my eye on a few of those places.

Once I have photographed them the goal would have been reached, so the idea is a fleeting luxury, it's a finite world, with limited resources and destinations. I guess one day it will all be exposed, but regardless of what I see on social media, every time I visit a new place, I see it's beauty through a fresh set of eyes. That will always motivate me to get up and go!

Phil Thurston

Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring ocean photographers/videographers?

Yes, I do! Do something. If you're not moving, and not out there shooting, you cannot be steered in any given direction. If you step outside with a camera, you will gravitate towards what you love, the human heart is custom designed to lead you into your best life and purpose. The craft of photography can be the reason why you start moving, but the heart will determine the direction in which you travel. Be lead by what you love, and inspired by the moments that make your spirit come alive, everything else will fall into place.

Be inspired by others, but don't follow in their footsteps for too long, if your instinct leads you into the unknown, go boldly in that direction.

Phil Thurston

See more of Phil’s work here www.thurstonphoto.com 

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