There's a lot about Australian Mark Tipple's career as a photographer that appears backwards. Take, for example, his beginnings. The then 21-year-old had already been filming for years before he attached a lens to his first still camera and took his first photo, a shot of himself looking into a mirror. The next day, Tipple drove four hours with a few friends to a remote beach where he planned to surf and take pictures. There were no waves, so the group turned around and drove home. "But I remember shooting the colors in the sky and the flat calm ocean," he says. "So I could at least have something from spending eight hours in the car."
Tipple loved to chase waves. At 19, he started working day jobs for four months at a time so he could earn enough money to travel during six-month stints to film surfers and bodyboarders. The gigs were rewarding, but by 2002 he had become frustrated at having to wait until he could get back to a computer screen or a TV to see his results. Then, his father offered him that gift that inspired a simple reflection. "A print on the wall doesn't need a screen to be viewed," he says. "My dad bought me a camera for my 21st birthday and I was hooked straight away."
His father was a traveling surfer and his brother was a marine biologist. Tipple filled the space in between by focusing on filming and photographing the ocean. I called him up to talk about his series The Underwater Project (on Facebook), in which he captures the contorted expressions and shapes of swimmers diving beneath waves. He's gotten a lot of attention for the series, and has used it to transfer eyes to his less publishable projects, like the Ocean film embedded below about an aid worker in Tanzania.
How did your father affect how and what you shoot?
My father spent a number of years traveling and surfing when he finished his apprenticeship. I remember being in awe of his lifestyle. He'd just pack up his Kombi van and travel for 12 months at a time to surf, and work when he needed some cash. His life revolved around the ocean. When my brother and I were old enough to hold our breath, he'd put us on the front of his surf ski and paddle out past the breakers into the open ocean. (It could have been closer to shore, as I was just three years old, but it seemed pretty far.) On one trip, I remained on the beach and my brother, Luke, saw a shark and asked my father if they could swim with it. I can't exactly remember what happened, but it set Luke on the path that he's on now. He's a marine biologist and shark diver who recently hosted and produced the "Underwater VW" commercial for Discovery's "Shark Week."
Through my father and brother's interest in the ocean, and my surfing pursuits, the ocean has always been a focus. I try to capture it through whatever medium is close at hand. I guess that every surfer tries to replicate the connection to the surf through stories or images, just to keep that feeling of immersion in the waves at our fingertips.
Was there a specific moment when The Underwater Project started?
I finished my film studies at Sydney Film School in mid-2009 and almost straight away jumped on a plane to Los Angeles to talk with Luke about an opportunity he had to swim with "untouched" white sharks in New Zealand. We started production in November at Isla Guadalupe in Mexico. We worked on the backstory by filming the region's tourist boats. I purchased a small Canon HDSLR and water housing to get closer to the sharks than our broadcast cameras could. The housing sat in a box the entire trip. I was too stressed out to think about switching cameras, let alone having Luke risk getting bitten while he tried to get a closer shot. When I came back to Sydney, the camera hadn't even seen the water. In between editing "Shark Diver" and other freelance shoots, I started shooting small shore breaks and surfing, but didn't think much of it. I was always looking for something different, to capture something new in the surfing industry, but couldn't quite find what I was looking for.
While shooting some standard surfing at the end of 2009, I was in the wrong place to shoot and started to dive under the wave when I noticed a young man swimming close to me. He needed to dive to escape, just as I did, so I turned the camera on him to see what he went through underwater. The pretzeling of his limbs and the strained expression on his face was something I had never seen before, and I thought of focusing on swimmers underwater, rather than surfing. A number of photographers have done the same in the past, but have usually done something to enhance the image through hyper contrast and/or silhouetting. I wanted to keep it more real, closer to what I'd see if I was wearing goggles. Or if I were a fish.
What exactly are you trying to capture in these pictures?
After being involved in the ocean for close to my whole life, it's so interesting to see how people interact with breaking waves. There can be a sense of arrogance or anger as the wave passes, or complete panic that results in terrified expressions. The series is basically an observation of what people do underwater. I'm sure I've pulled my fair share of funky facial expressions or weird poses while swimming or surfing in the past. Again, it just really interests me to see what other people do while underwater.
What's your toughest shot?
I started seriously working on the series in June 2010 after playing in the warm summer water earlier in the year, but quickly realized that no one swims in winter around where I lived. There are always the older guys who swim 365 days a year in the early morning, but for what I was looking to shoot for the winter series, I'd have to travel and chase larger waves. I linked up with a friend who I trusted in waves of the same size, and hit the road to find something different. We ended up at a reef in South Australia that closes out after a super fast right hander. After swimming out, we realized it was double the size of what we thought it was from the beach. We only managed to link up for three waves before getting caught by a bomb set and pushed all the way in, but on each of those three waves we got what I was looking for. It's called "Deep," and shows Scott spreading his arms to swim just under a massive cloud of white water directly above him. I wished we had linked up for the following wave that was even bigger, but we were both scrambling to just get under and make an image.
Do you have a favorite shot?
My favorite to this day is still "Escape," the first of the series—maybe because it's been with me the longest or because I continually kick myself that I didn't ask what the boy's name was so I could give it some context. It's almost like everything I was trying to capture in the early 2000s came together for that mere two seconds —expression, drama and story are the main things I look for in a photo for connection; the technical elements like composition and focus/exposure are secondary. That picture pushes me to keep shooting under waves to see if there's any difference in the images as the seasons change or the locations change, basically trying to go one better than "Escape."
What did you hope to get out of these pictures when you first started taking them?
During my film studies and in the lead up to production of "Shark Diver" I was working at a photo agency and sourcing newspapers and magazines with reported photo essays from photographers worldwide. We were linked with the top agencies and the quality of content was amazing, but as much as I sent out, the constant reply was: "We can't run this. Do you have any human interest content?" After a year of that I thought the underwater series could fill their requests, and could help to promote the other side of what I do when working with humanitarian organizations. My business model has and probably will always be to help people who help others through photo and film—having a higher profile through a human interest series would help the attention flow onto these "less publishable" projects. The publicity and profile of The Underwater Project transfers to other projects, like the Ocean film I worked on this past June in Tanzania (embedded below).
Has taking these shots of people in the underwater project helped or informed your other photography?
Shooting The Underwater Project has led me to start the Ocean films, which are shorts about people who use the ocean for unique purposes. At first, all I wanted to do was shoot photos of people under waves. But after a while, I realized that apart from the few friends I shot underwater, I had no idea who the people in the photos were. I generally don't say much while shooting. I try to keep a low profile and the camera hidden so it doesn't affect what people do underwater, which allows their true reaction to be shown. This is great for the final result, but has left me wanting to know more about them and what the ocean means to them, just to give the series more context. I've completed three shorts at this stage and am planning another two for the next few months. I just talk to people about their experience and why they choose to do what they do, where they do. It keeps me stoked and wanting to continue.
What do you hope people get out of viewing this gallery?
I've had a number of emails over the years from people saying that one of the photos reminded them of a time from their youth when they visited the beach. They have thanked me for bringing back that memory, which is something I never considered when I started swimming with a camera. I think every photographer wants to have their photos make an impact or leave an impression to some degree. If the underwater series can assist people in remembering a happy time from their past, then I'd consider that an amazing end result from a few mistimed poundings and overestimated breath holds.
Check out a gallery of The Underwater Project.