Mark Tipple is a talented Australian surfer/photographer/filmmaker who is the creator of “The Underwater Project.” Instead of your standard surf photography, Mark’s images reveal the power of the ocean and his subject’s raw emotion. We spoke with Mark to learn more.
What was your childhood like?
My family moved around a fair bit when I was young, my father was heavily into ministry and we ran a few churches in out of the way places. The constant changes in schools and locations meant my brother and I grew pretty close, we’d always fight like any brothers but when we were on the road we’d stick together. My mum has always been super supportive in whatever we were into, from surfing or sports to terrible garage bands – she’d always be stoked with a smile.
When did you get your first surfboard?
When I was about 4 years old we ‘settled for a while’ in an outer suburb of Brisbane, Oueensland, which was just over an hour to the Gold Coast. I remember dad taking his paddle ski to the coast and putting Luke on the front and me on the back, and paddling out to sea a few hundred meters, then turning around and catching a wave in. We’d always get dumped in the shore break and come up laughing, which I think made dad happy as surfing should come naturally to us. He’d been a surfer most of his life living out of a Kombi wagon and working a few odd jobs to make money to travel and surf, so when we were comfortable in the ocean he gave us boogie boards for Christmas one year, then we moved to a surfboard later on.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
I had been riding a body board for a few years but chose to take a longboard out one day when I was about 13, I remember it was a pretty fun small day with waves rolling down the sand bank with no one out. As I got to my feet on the first wave I looked around and almost fell off as I was so high above the wave compared to riding a bodyboard. It was super different, but made me appreciate all sides of wave riding. Now I ride different forms of boards and body surf whenever I can. I think there’s so many ways to ride waves – every wave caters to different crafts.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a child?
I wanted to be in the NBA playing for the Chicago Bulls. I used to shoot around in my backyard with friends and I’d always be Michael Jordan. It was a dream for most of my youth; even when I hated school I didn’t realise that I’d need it to get into college before getting into the NBA.
As I grew older and moved away from basketball, I played drums in a few punk bands, went through the Nirvana stage and the Millencolin stage before I moved away from that. I went into film making and starting with a series of surfing movies. The main inspiration was the No Friends bodyboarding movement as their filming and editing was much more progressive than surfing videos.
Who/What inspired you to begin shooting images?
When I was finishing high school it was just as the digital video camera market was about to explode. I was surfing almost every day in pretty crappy waves where my family finally settled in a coastal suburb of Adelaide in South Australia and I was looking to get away and just surf. My friends were spending all their money at the bars on Friday and Saturday nights while I was at home watching surfing videos, rewinding the VHS tapes, and watching it start to finish again, dubbing the sound tracks to cassettes and listening in the car.
When I wasn’t watching videos I had the visuals running through my mind, trying to emulate the perfect turn or the perfect barrel fade just mind surfing all day. I started traveling and after a few trips of amazing waves I thought of capturing it, editing each trip throughout the year to sell and pay for the next trip.
It was a pretty simple business plan, and about a year later as my film was ready to hit the market the industry exploded and shops went from 4–5 videos a year to that many in a month, and I looked for other avenues to document what I was doing.
Tell us about your recent work, The Underwater Project…
At the time of making my own surfing videos I was watching a lot of other videos to see what’s happening in the industry; and after a while it all started to look the same. The locations and people changed, as did the waves, but the style didn’t really change. I remember the first board camera surfing footage I saw and went nuts, started me on a search to capture something different.
I tried a bunch of different shooting styles, from board cam to shoulder cam to holding the camera and shooting back towards myself, but the only images that resounded with me from these tests were the ones of either myself or people wiping out underwater. The way the waves were thrashing them and passing over them left me wondering how to capture this better, which led to getting off the board and trying still photography, and eventually away from surfing to focus on swimmers.
It’s amazing to see how people interact with waves through the seasonal changes, from summer where it’s all boardshorts and bikinis to winter where it’s wetsuits and surfboards, although the images of people swimming stand out the most to me.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
I’ve been to Fiji a few times now, after dropping out of University I was looking for a way to break into the documentary photography field and wanted to get back to basics and live with a family on an island without electricity or cars or any Western need other than shelter and food and education. The second day after landing in Nadi, I stumbled into a village while they were in church and was treated like a VIP with a translator and a girl to fan me down from the 40 degree heat, and stayed in their village for a few weeks. They still had electricity and a TV and a few modern conveniences, and wanting to find a more remote village they sent me to an outer island which was just what I was looking for, no roads, no electricity, just family and genuine interactions. I try and go back about twice a year, with no real plans just to spend time with them and see how they have changed since the last trip.
Who/what inspires you?It’s a broad statement but anyone who is progressing in what they want to do inspires me, it could be a business man wearing shoes and a suit every day but making the way up the ranks or an artist being able to pay bills through their art, basically people dedicating their time and hearts to whatever they’re passionate about and succeeding gets me stoked.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Just to keep the faith and to go with it. Generally it’ll work itself out, especially with stupid things like money. The start of each year is always slow for assignments with me and I get nervous wondering if the phone will ring and looking for a job, but after three years of just going with it, it always seems to work out.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
I don’t think the word ‘regret’ is conducive. It closes it off, and doesn’t allow for anything to be learned or gained from the situation. However, there’s a number of things I look back and have learned from… so I guess that’s the same thing.
The desktop image on my laptop is of a man I spoke with in Jakarta in early 2009. I was working on an urban based poverty documentary and after jumping through hoops to get an interview with English speaking academics, I met Tono on a street corner who said he could take me through the train tracks and talk with the people living there, most importantly with respect. As a tall white guy with a camera and stupid hair doing it by myself wouldn’t end pleasantly, let alone the interviews wouldn’t be genuine.
I met a man who had been living on the tracks for 3 years collecting plastic to recycle and send money to his family in their village about 6 hours from Jakarta. His story was just what I was looking for, and personally made the trip with the back story leading up to meeting him, but through all my notes and video footage and voice recordings I never asked for his name. Looking at his photo every time I turn the computer on reminds me to not only connect with people, but to remember their name.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my friends, family, and my girlfriend. Having travelled a fair bit and met a whole bunch of people it’s pretty cool to know I can pick up the phone and talk to them as if I saw them yesterday – even if it’s been years.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing started as an obsession, a way to push myself and a purpose to keep fit and maintain a high level of self awareness. I used to give everything to waves, be it my time or my mental focus, which at the time was everything I cared about. A side result to this was if the waves were bad I didn’t have anything else to turn to.
Now that I’m shooting and being in the ocean a lot more than surfing, I appreciate what surfing has given me — the wave awareness and the sublime feeling of being immersed in a greater entity than yourself. The ocean has provided for me and affected me in ways I can’t describe. It’s something that I know I’ll be involved in and hopefully progressing with until the day I die.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Knowing that something I care about has had a positive impact on others. At the moment it’s through photography and film, seeing my work bring positive change to people is amazing.
Happiness will always be an evolving thing, if I can stay on the positive side of life and remain open to change and opportunities that emerge I think that happiness will follow.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
I worked on a longboarding film a few years ago with a group of ten surfers, ranging from 12 years old to 60 years old. I was primarily shooting fisheye from the water so I had to be close, and I learned a lot through watching them surf and interacting with the waves. On the trip was Sage Joske, who shapes Valla surfboards with his father Paul. He brought a quiver of 10 boards, a mix of fishes, guns, logs and an alaia, spending two weeks shooting with him opened my eyes to riding the craft that suits the waves, and not following what everyone else does.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surfspot?
I don’t have a favourite board. In Sydney I could easily ride an SUP or foam soft top, or a bodyboard, or bodysurf. It really depends how I feel at the time and what the waves are like. When I’m back home in Port Lincoln (where I moved a few years after school) there’s a number of shallow reefs that we know of, which are super hard to ride a surfboard but are perfect for a bodyboard, barrel to airbowl. Then usually around the corner are perfect points for a longboard, with a beach break on the inside, you can literally take every board you own and ride them all in the same day on waves that suit their shape.
What’s your favorite meal?
Can’t go past muesli, banana and yoghurt.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I’m in the final edit of the first Ocean short film so it’s a mix of post rock and ambience, from Explosions in the Sky to Sleepmakeswaves, also after seeing M83 live last week they’re making a regular appearance as well.
What are you most grateful for?
Similar to what I’m most proud of, friends, family and loved ones. To have a connection with another person that strips away the walls of hesitation or uncertainty and have it returned is the greatest feeling I’ve ever had.
What’s next for Mark Tipple?
I’m currently hiding in my studio with the first batch of books coming out of the printer, last week I posted a blog and Facebook updates about a handmade book of the Underwater Project that took off, I had orders within minutes of it going live. I hadn’t really thought about how long each book would take me, but stoked I limited it to 250 copies. There’s still a few left to order, so I’m stocking up on paper and ink for when they come through.
I’m also working on a series of short films about people who have based their lifestyles around the ocean. From surfers to lifeguards to photographers and marine biologists etc I’m intrigued to find out what the ocean means to them, and how their lifestyle has evolved through their interaction with the ocean.
Find out more about Mark Tipple and “The Underwater Project” here. All photos are © Mark Tipple.