Interview by Glenn Sakamoto
Fran Miller is a surfer/photographer originally from Sydney, Australia who now calls Coolangatta her home. Inspired at a young age by surf magazine photography, Fran's work deftly captures the many moods and colors of the ocean's waves and the people that play on them. We spoke with her to learn more.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in Sydney, Australia. I was really fortunate to grow up right next to a river so I spent my days playing with my friends in the water, swimming, fishing, collecting rocks and shells. Every 20 minutes, a ferry would go past in the river and it actually created these Little waves which were about half a foot in size. My friend Michael and I would take out windsurf boards and try surf the waves in. I learned to surf soon after when my parents bought a house south of Sydney in the beach suburb of Woonona. That is where I took my first photos and where I stood up for the first time on a real surfboard. I guess my childhood was very idyllic. I surrounded myself in nature and was always playing a lot.
When did you get your first surfboard?
My first surfboard was this old 6’4 Byrne thruster that was left in the backyard of the house my parents bought in Woonona. It was yellow and had dings all over it. I was about 9 or 10 years old. I loved that board more than anything. I would take it out and catch whitewater whilst my dad sat on the beach watching to make sure I didn’t drown! The board is still in the house… I’m keeping it forever! The first board I ever bought was on my 12th birthday. I was given $150 for my birthday and I took it to Cash Converters that day and bought the only surfboard in the shop. It was a 6’6 Maurice Cole. That board lives next to my first Byrne down in Woonona still.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Joy and pride. It actually makes me emotional thinking about my first waves. I can remember everything. Being in the shorebreak in the southern corner of Woonona, pointing in a straight line to the beach, jumping off at the end and seeing my dad smiling. No-one helped me on my first waves. I had to paddle and push myself up. That taught me a lot about taking responsibility for myself.
Who/What inspired you to begin shooting images?
My sister and I shared subscriptions to every surf magazine available at the time. Every month we would get Tracks, ASL, Underground Surf, Waves. I was immersed in surf photography before I even really knew what it was. Photos in magazines made me dream of the world out there past my own door. Bali, California and Hawaii were these exotic destinations that promised perfection. My sister was a keen photographic hobbyist, so I ended up taking her camera equipment and trying to recreate the perfect waves I saw in the magazines. I still have the film photos I took from my childhood locked away in a safe place!
What do you look for in a good photograph?
I think the term ‘good photograph’ is very subjective, so this is really my personal view, not necessarily the law! The first thing is simply visual impact. When I see a photo and I am compelled to stop in my tracks, I know there is something unique about the image. But what this is can vary greatly. There might be something in the colors or composition that attracts me. Or it might be the poise and style of the surfer within the image that is great. I guess a good photograph has a combination of all of these elements.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
Well I grew up in Sydney which is 10 hours away from where I live now, so for me, my home in Coolangatta is the place that has stood out to me the most in all my travels. Coolangatta is a dream. I can remember the first time I went surfing here, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The winds were light, the water was warm and crystal clear, the reflection from the sun was beaming off the sandy ocean floor and the waves were running perfectly for hundreds of metres. Then witnessing the love of surfing by the community here was something I have only seen in a couple of other places around the world. It was impactful enough to make me move my entire life to Coolangatta. There are also a lot of secret natural wonders in this area which many people don’t know about. If you drive only 30 minutes inland from here, you enter a jungle world of rainforests and waterfalls.
“I live gratefully every single day. I don’t know how my life turned out like this, but I am very aware that to this point, I have had a very fortunate existence, and I am even more aware, that it may not be like this forever.”
Who/what inspires you?
I am massively inspired by any person brave enough to pursue their passion despite facing the immense walls of social and physical constructs that exist around us. Whether pursuing art, sport or something else, the path laid before us, in my experience, tends never to be the one that leads you where you actually want to go. My photographic art is somewhat unique to other types in that it involves a significant degree of physical exertion in the act of creating each image. As such, I have taken on a lot of diverse inspiration. People such as Lydia Lassila and Anna Segal have fought through tremendous physical and mental battles as athletes on their path to success and having known them personally for years, I have become acutely aware of the sacrifice, dedication and commitment required to get there. It’s easy to see the product of success, such as a trophy (or in my case, a great artwork) but there are a lot of scars both emotional and physical to get there. Unwavering commitment to one’s art form inspires me.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
The perfect day. Wake up, surf, eat a good breakfast, surf, eat a good lunch, nap, take surf photos, surf, take more surf photos, gather with friends for after surf drink, eat a good dinner with family and friends, read, sleep. I’m pretty simple.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
I think girls like Makala Smith and Dimity Stoyle are currently shaping women’s surfing, or perhaps my ideal of what I like in surfing, perhaps without any overly conscious thought in doing so. They respect the history of surfing. They respect diversity in surf craft. They incorporate classic style into both logging and shortboarding, and are in the upper echelons of their respective specialities. There are also the more obvious girls like Courtney Conlogue and Sally Fitzgibbons who are redefining athleticism in surfing, or Paige Alms and Keala Kennelly pushing (still) big wave surfing to new limits, or groms like Caroline Marks, Sabre Norris and Brooke Carlson who are so technically proficient at such a young age that I am constantly left in awe.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
Every board in my quiver is my favorite! I get rid of boards I don’t like after one surf, I know straight away if I like something or not. I love my 9’2 Dead Kooks pin tail shaped by Eden Saul, and my 5’10 Duranbah rounded thumbs which I get replicas of every season for Snapper. My favorite surf spot is ‘Inside of the rock through Mali’- you either know or you don’t haha.
What's your favorite meal?
I don’t live in absolutes! I like Saos with vegemite and cheese. I like Pho. I like Miso. I like Pasta. I like bread. I like avocado and feta on toast. I like vegemite on toast even more! I like french fries. I really like french fries. I don’t like chocolate or cake. Don’t make me a birthday cake, just bring me french fries.
What music are you currently listening to?
I’ve been rotating mixes by Owen Royal for the last five years. Also, I have a CD I made in like 2009 which I am still playing. It is a mix of house music from the years I spent in Ibiza, Formentera and Barcelona. I mix that in between Sabbath and Metallica haha.
What are you most grateful for?
Freedom. I live gratefully every single day. I don’t know how my life turned out like this, but I am very aware that to this point, I have had a very fortunate existence, and I am even more aware, that it may not be like this forever.
What’s next for Fran Miller?
I have a couple of art exhibitions coming up, and I’m making a movie. Other than that, eating, sleeping, surfing, making art. Just a regular kind of life.
Find out more about Fran Miller and her work @franmiller.com.au on Instagram.