The dark and cantankerous images of Ray Collins have been plastered all over the Internet of late. The unique style in which they are shot sees two polar opposites, rock and water, become confused of one another in the ominous concert of the still image.
The South Coast based, born and bred photographer has been finding the niche of his art for the last seven years, on his days off from coal mining. Collins’ photos have been used by Tracks, Surfer Magazine and even Apple, not to mention recent viral features on e-tabloids such as Buzzfeed.
Wondering what might be going through the man’s mind when he is in and out of the water, we grabbed a coffee with him to ask. Sitting on a bench at McCauley’s Beach, right out the front of Collins’ humble home, the man in question told me about his undying respect for the merciless Mar he spends so much time in.
Horse : Ray, you’ve said in previous interviews that some of your earliest memories are from and around the ocean. Did your parents introduce you to the ocean? Did they spend a lot of time in the water?
Ray: Well, one of the first memories I have is being in a backyard pool, around my mum’s neck. I must have been less than a year old and she was swimming to the bottom and doing laps in the water, and she’d come out and see if I was all right and I’d be like, “No, do it again, do it again.”
I was born in ’82, and there was a photo of us on Coledale Beach and I’m on a little blow-up cushion thing, floating on a wave and I’m still like one-year old. I guess that’s contributed to me feeling comfortable in the ocean.
Horse : Looking at where your work’s being published now, what do you think a 16-year-old Ray Collins would say to you?
Ray: I don’t think he would believe it. I still have to pinch myself with the fact I get to do what I do. Like my heroes and stuff, like Kelly Slater for example, wrote the introduction to my book.
‘Getting photos on covers of magazines and stuff, it’s surreal.’
I try not to dwell on it too much, but it’s crazy when I think about it, yeah. So, I’d tell the 16-year-old kid this is going to happen and I wouldn’t believe me. I wouldn’t believe me.
Horse : Looking at some of the photos we’ve seen, people have described them as mountain-like, ominous, raw, moody, etcetera. These are all powerful descriptors. You’ve also likened your water photography to taking a portrait of a living, breathing thing. Do you ever feel like at the mercy of your muse and how do you control this?
Ray: Every time I go in, I’m at the mercy of the ocean and realize that the best I can do is minimize and understand the risk, because I can never actually remove it.
I can never leave it, so I take it to an acceptable level and have the reward bigger than the risk. I mean, I’m always fearful and respectful of the ocean because it could turn on you in an instant. I think one of the ways I do it is turn fear into excitement.
Just visualize how it’s going to be when I get it there and stuff like that. Drawing on past experiences helps in controlling the fear too.
Horse : That’s very interesting because you have also said that the ocean has taught you respect, harmony, and patience. How do you think your relationship with the sea has evolved over time?
Ray: I think consciously, the more that I’ve been asked, as my works become bigger, the more I’ve actually had to stop and think about it.
The realisation has only come the last decade, but then I think back to certain incidents when I was 5 or 10 or 20, they were the lessons being sowed but I just didn’t realise until I became a man and had to draw back on it or get questioned about it.
The lessons were always there, I’m still learning lessons every time I go in the water and it’s ammunition for a problem down the track.
Horse : Does that help with handling stress and hardship, do you find the ocean to be therapeutic?
Ray: Yeah, definitely. It’s like almost resetting, like pressing reset when things get built up.
When the business side of things become too much, that first submersion under a wave, it just kind of cancels everything out and resets and restores the balance. That’s how I feel about it.
Horse : Awesome. You’re a coal miner, not a weird occupation to have, but-
Ray: It’s a contrast.
Horse : It is a contrast. So, do you think that as an occupation it influences your work?
Ray: It definitely does. It’s another parallel that I really didn’t become aware of because I don’t break bits of my life off and do things separately.
I’m just one thing and everything I do is that one thing, and I think that it has to be an influence because I’ve worked in the pits for 10 years.
If I was a tradesman or if I was an artist or if I was a painter, that would influence me, so yeah..
I think the dark and the ominous and the mountain and the rock-face look of the waves has definitely rubbed off from working in heavy industry.
Ray: And I still do it three days a week. I work Friday, Saturday and Sunday from midday to midnight. It means I can be in the ocean seven days of a week. That’s pretty cool.
I always get asked why do I still do it, and it’s like yin can’t exist without yang, you need the good and the bad, the dark and the light. For me that’s what it is. I don’t dislike going there, I like the guys and I don’t mind the work. It’s the other part of what I do. It’s the other part of the photos that you see.
Horse : Do you think that it’s a source of inspiration?
Ray: It could be a lot of things but it’s also a financially fixed amount of money every Thursday, no matter what.
Where as photography, although it can pay really well, it can be like this much this week, none for a week, a great amount for two weeks then nothing for six weeks then three big weeks.
Horse : So on that topic of having a creative business, there are quite a few challenges as a photographer such as licensing, copyright and intellectual property. What are your thoughts on these issues?
Ray Colllins: Depends how you view it because it’s the ultimate cliché of a double-edged sword.
‘Do you want the world to see your work? If the answer is yes then you have to get it out there and it’s going to be abused.’
That’s the bottom line, people are going to take it, they’re going to rip it off, they’re going to print it, or whatever. I can’t control that.
Ray: On the other hand, you are this great artist who lives for the craft and no one ever sees your work and you die and then 50 years later they discover your stuff and everyone thinks it’s great, but you’re dead so what’s the point?
Just push it out there, it will always land in the right people’s hands, and the right companies or clients always want to buy it in the end.
Horse : You didn’t start taking photographs until 2007 so things have moved relatively quickly, considering you could probably just take photos full-time. Do you think some of this success is via social media apps like Instagram?
Ray: Yeah, man. It’s the best way I found to get work out there, I’ve had a lot of brands say they ‘we follow on Instagram’ and ‘that’s where we’ve seen this’.
I check my analytics for my website and I think 30% of all traffic comes from my Instagram or Facebook.
A lot of it is shared through sites like BuzzFeed or CNN or Yahoo or whatever, but I think those things peak and trough whereas the social media for now is the consistent referral to the site that in turn has people buying it, which is the end goal, I guess, apart from making it.
Horse : When did it really take off for you? Has there always been a solid fan base for your work?
Ray: I don’t know, all I wanted to do was see something that I like and shoot a photo of it and kind of block everyone and all the thoughts out of it and just shoot what I want to see.
I think the surfing community has always been a pretty tight nucleus and I’ve been accepted into that community, but I think in the last two years, that audience has opened up to people who don’t surf, a broader community of people who still love nature and appreciate it.
That and articles on big news outlets over the last two years, that is probably when this stuff’s started happening.
Horse : So, going from being a coal miner and just kind of taking photos within that surf community to dealing with big companies, one of them was Apple for example. Did you ever feel out of your depth?
Ray Colllins: Fake it till you make it. I’ve had a lot of good mentors in the industry who have kept my thinking within the industry standard.
Because I’m not too proud to ask, I don’t know all the answers to everything, so yeah man, I just ask people who have trod the path before me because there’s always a lot to learn from experience.
‘You can’t buy experience, you can only get it through living. So yeah man, I just respect and appreciate all my mentors.’
Horse: Thanks, Ray.