If you aren’t familiar with Russell Ord, then you have most likely still seen his work. Circulating across social media, they are images of the unfathomable, giant, thick waves, that marry beauty and death, cloaked in oft mutant glassy form. Some with riders, some without and distinctively shot from positions inconceivably close to the action.
We caught up with the Margaret River based waterman, to find out what drives him to such places in pursuit of his craft.
BWG: Fireman, rescue man, photographer – you have wound quite the path to the respected position you are in today. What was it, that got you over the line from aspiring to full time professional?
Russell Ord: Leaving the fire-brigade was a tough drawn out process, the word security has haunted me for years and maybe, I was just not ready as a photographer to back myself personally and having my beautiful wife and kids supported by my passion, not knowing when the next pay day is coming from.I was also desperate to free up some time, to become a better father and get away from that mindset of thinking, that the more work I do the more I can provide (at that stage I was juggling both career paths), true in a weird way. However, we made the decision that 20 years as a full time fireman was being replaced by “professional photographer” and I am not looking back and thinking, what if, everything life wise with the family has become better and it has certainly freed me up to take on other photo assignments and challenges.
BWG: Every time there is a picture of you, its generally from the photographer sitting safely behind you, in what could be termed the regular “safe” zone. What is it that drives you, to be that guy, deepest in the impact zone where very few normal people want to be? Was it something you always had or did it manifest after you made the jump from aspiring to professional photographer?
Russell Ord: When I first started chasing slabs or wave of consequences, I could be sitting in the channel by myself all day long, shooting everything that came through, empty waves, wildlife, the surfers magic moments, to be honest (at that stage) I thought I was taking incredible photos. More and more photographers were just showing up when the conditions were predicted and I realized, that I could not see a “Russell Ord” in my own photos anymore. Everything looked the same to me, it must be easy! and I started to hate my own work, I had lost the passion for what I was doing. I could not keep working like that. I needed space and where is the space? the only “photographer free zone” at these waves is right in the impact zone. So I changed my life to go venture in to the so called no swim zone. This part of my work is by far the greatest aspect I work on, its not that creative, the actual photos do not do the situation justice and I miss 99% of moments. However the way I feel, after pushing my own boundaries, is beyond amazing, a complete mental and physical challenge. These are the type of photos that I can see apart of myself in, a “Russell Ord” image. (It certainly shows)
the only “photographer free zone” at these waves is right in the impact zone
Ben Rufus - The Right : Russell Ord
BWG: Your shots are insane but I am sure also cost a few serious beatings along the way. What would be the worst one to date?
Russell Ord: I was just talking about beatings, while having a surf today at main break Margaret River with the old boys. We all agreed that it normally happens on the smaller days when you take things for granted or its because you are mucking around. Big days seem to keep you more on your toes, alert or more in-tune with the ocean. This can be said for my photography also. I have been lucky while swimming in the larger surf with just the odd hold down, a couple of stitches in small gashes here and there. One day while I was sitting on the ski, taking a few images and not paying attention because I thought the channel was safe. I got caught by a wider set, became entangled with the ski and wave, broke my leg in two places, had a 30 minute ski ride to the cars, followed by a 5 hour drive home, x-rays and 3 months on the sideline.
Can you spot the fin duck diving? Russell Ord - Great Escape : Gordon Becker
BWG: Understand you do a bit of boxing which must help with the conditioning. What else do you do to keep yourself fighting fit for being rag dolled under 20ft of lip?
Russell Ord: I dabble at best these days with boxing training (to busy seems the excuse), both my sons have taken it up for fitness with the oldest looking really sharp, fast and strong, I know he is looking forward to kicking my ass next time we face off in the gym. I am grateful that I have been able to train with Joe Knight from One Ocean International the last 3-4 years, Joe is a machine in the water with incredible knowledge that pushes my boundaries every second day. Along with all the other waterman that train regularly in Margaret River, lots of underwater breathe hold tables, I could not be better prepared at this stage and best of all, just enjoying that time in the ocean.
BWG: Think I already know the answer to this – but favorite place to shoot slabs from? the ski or the water?
Russell Ord: How good do you feel when you go for a simple dip in the ocean? Completely alive. I try and do this every morning in all types of conditions. Photography for me is exactly the same, so sitting on a ski / boat, standing on the beach is not being amongst the elements, enjoying that feeling the ocean brings. Of course I miss a lot of the surfers magic moments, however I prefer to have one magic moment myself and that cannot be done without getting wet.
Man at work. South Beach : Russell Ord
BWG: Does that also determine the format and equipment you shoot with? as you seem to hover across a lot of different equipment sets. Any favourites or do you like to keep it fresh?
Russell Ord: I tend shoot very wide angle (fisheye) most of time, its not particularly creative, its not arty. What it does is allow me to be apart of the moment, in the tube with the surfer, ducking under waves, breathe holds, getting pounded and experiencing the raw oceans elements. As a surfer myself that’s what I want to feel as a photographer. Not many sports allow the photographer to be this close to the action. That’s surf photography to me, the rest of my work can best be regarded as action sports photography.
BWG: Favorite slab/wave to shoot and why? which is the scariest?
Russell Ord: My focus over the last few years is swimming at the “Right” in Western Australia. A deep ocean bombie with a lot of water, these are the type of waves that I want to try and achieve a certain shot in my head. The type of waves that you will encounter a brutal hold down. I have a number of other waves that I want to have a dig at but like before I started swimming the “Right” with a wide angle, I will not sprout about those locations. I prefer to keep those goals to myself and hopefully one day achieve them, those type of images take time, your whole life needs to revolve around the outcome so you are ready for what possibly may go wrong.
The Search : Russell Ord
your whole life needs to revolve around the outcome so you are ready for what possibly may go wrong.
BWG: You shoot a lot of Mark Mathews at The Right. He charges ok :) but looks like WA is the breeding ground for big wave surfers – any up and comers worth mentioning?
Russell Ord: Chris Ross, Ben Rufus, Chris Shanahan and Cale Grigson would be more than likely classed as “under-ground chargers” and they do it extremely well with an abundance of skill and experience. Jack Robinson (house hold name these days) is just incredible in heavy reef breaks. Along with Jacob Willcox, they both have the skill and balls just to paddle into any heaving slab, I have had the pleasure to work with both of them at various heavy locations.
Mark Mathews - The Right : Russell Ord
BWG: Social media – boon or bane to the professional photographer?
Russell Ord: A lot of professional photographers used it well and saw the writing on the wall, knowing early they required it for part of their future business growth. I did not fall in to that category. I was losing business to so called new professional surf photographers because they had massive followings, followings that companies loved because those photographers could also advertise the companies brand, quantity over quality, its amazing how good an image can look on a four inch screen. Entering the social market as an instant professional photographer by-passed the learning process or trade, working for free to increase numbers, creating an industry standard that has seen rates drop overall considerably and photographer numbers increase dramatically. The money pot became like a flock of seagulls around a hot chip. On a personal level my own belated entry into social media (Instagram) has slowly grown to a level where I can slowly compete on those type of levels, however its forced our hand to develop different directions, think outside the square, focus more on the local market the old fashion way (meeting people) and now business is pretty steady and best of all, enjoyable.
Not all slabs. Rocky Point : Russell Ord
BWG: Lastly, you are taking your family on a journey through the great width of the Pacific. Sounds like an opportunity of a lifetime! how long for and what made you choose that decision over continuing your craft in WA? Taking any passengers/guests?
Russell Ord: It was completely a spur of the decision moment, I called into see my father in-law Colin in Yamba by chance while traveling down the east coast last year. He showed me his pride and joy purchase (an ex-navy gun ship) and was letting me know his long life plan of selling up everything and exploring the Pacific Islands. I simply said “do you need a crew” and five minutes later I rang my wife Catherine and asked “are you ready for the next adventure, sell everything we are off!”. Chances like this come once in a life time and I am not going to pass on the opportunity. Our goals or basic plan at this stage, is to provide the support / platform required for not-for profits, explore and be open to new ideas and possibilities, have my three kids surrounded by interesting people doing great things, documenting the journey and learning on the go. We will be certainly open to any passengers, its going to be amazing to share the experience with whoever wants a challenge!
BWG: Sounds amazing and thanks for the time legend…
For more mind blowing imagery by Russell Ord – head straight over to http://www.russellordphoto.com
All images unless stated are under copyright.
Has spent over 30 years of his middle aged life trying to spend more time in the ocean. Likes to surf, bodysurf, free dive and pretend he enjoys chasing big waves.