Around five or so years ago, we chatted with burgeoning West Oz surf and travel photographer Tommy Pearsall – a talent whose commitment to getting the shot in heavy water caught our eye. Back then, Tommy was just getting into the biz and has since gone on to shot some of the more iconic sessions from that part of the world.
That also includes a banger of a West Oz edit called The Serpent's Spine, featuring Luke Saranah.
Forecast: West Oz
Anyway, half a decade or so on, we thought we'd check in with Tommy about what's changed. Using the previous interview as a rudder, we revisit some of those topics, like social media. Then: “[It's] pretty bloody important. For photographers at my stage of development the opportunity to display work to the world for free (except for maybe the price of a little of your soul) is invaluable.”
Vs now: “ Photography wise the ever hungry beast of social media is a necessary evil, but it can (talking from my own experience here) really make it hard to follow your own artistic vision and can even quash your passion as you feel like you are sinking in the quicksand of competing for engagement and eyeballs.” And on shooting in general? "I burnt out pretty badly after last season and didn't shoot a photo in the water for a few months."
Firstly, how did you make it through the pandemic with everything being closed down?
Yeah there were some tough times. Especially being separated from loved ones. But with the hard borders and everything that's been done to prevent COVID infiltrating our state we've been privileged enough to pretty much go about life as normal, besides the travel of course.
It's actually been booming across WA, businesses doing great but the same can't be said for the East Coast over the past few months unfortunately. It's probably a matter of time before reality hits in WA as well. The vaccine roll out has been a shocker in Aus so the future is looking uncertain.
I guess things are still looking a bit crazy in Oz, how have you stayed sane?
Well, we've been so very privileged over here, not a whole lot has changed relatively speaking. It's been heartbreaking to see such devastation around the world, and I think it can be easy for us to forget how real it could or can be.
Personally, after the initial lockdowns and uncertainty in WA I've been really busy with commercial work and we had a really good summer and autumn of waves. We've felt so lucky to be able to surf and move about, more or less, freely. This winter has kind of been a lockdown in itself. Weather enforced.
Furious fronts one after the other since the end of Autumn. As we speak the whole South West is under a severe weather warning. People are escaping up north but it's bursting at the seams up there, gastro outbreaks and all. The infrastructure and environment can't handle it. So this winter I shot up there briefly but I've just knuckled down with work, which has been really rewarding in it's own way.
A few years back we ran an interview with you about breaking into the surf photography gig – I remember your images back then focussed on the adventure/lifestyle side of surfing, how have things changed since then, and what (if anything) caused that change?
Nah I think that side of things is still really engaging and have travelled (albeit a little less) once or twice a year before COVID. I still focus on swimming at the heavier water breaks where possible. And that raw, isolated lifestyle and adventure that pursuit entails.
I burnt out pretty badly after last season and didn't shoot a photo in the water for a few months
I think one thing that has changed is that the decision between surfing and shooting is becoming more and more of an internal battle [laughs] It's actually almost paralysing sometimes when it's pumping. I burnt out pretty badly after last season and didn't shoot a photo in the water for a few months.
I'm still easing back into it, I think. It's important for me as a surf addict to find a symbiotic balance to prevent feeling resentful. To shoot for a purpose or a project rather than just forcing it. With that in mind, I've been focusing a lot more on stories and portraits in the past two years especially. There's so many amazing humans in my own backyard that are doing great things in surfing and otherwise.
Also, we spoke about travel back then and how surfing had opened up new opportunities, pandemic aside, do you feel it’s necessary to travel for the best surf shots or is there more variety and more of an audience at home in WA?
I think the travel side of things was really important for my personal journey. Not just photographically. Probably more importantly I feel like it's made me a much more balanced, compassionate person. So on both fronts I think it is necessary at some point to explore and travel.
For your photography and yourself. However, that type of travel wasn't sustainable, financially, for me. Spending every penny year in year out. Maybe if I'd got my influencer game on point [laughs]. But, yeah nah. I'm so fortunate to live in such a varied, dynamic state in an even more varied and dynamic country.
Is it hard to not just focus on the Box?
What a wave. It's jaw dropping to see what the guys and girls can do out there. It's kind of all been done out there so it's a challenge to try to find a different approach. It's also a challenging wave to shoot, there's big nuggets of rock that are almost dry even on high tide, sneaky down currents and at your back is a very deep channel. This year saw only a few small windows so it wouldn't sustain you year round.
Do you still feel social media plays an important role in your business and surf photography in general?
Social Media. Where do I start. I actually have a startup company with my wife, Amalei, called Marlei marketing and we specialise in social media management and marketing. So it's become ever more important as my business expands (an expansion highlighted as necessary during COVID).
Photography wise the ever hungry beast of social media is a necessary evil, but it can (talking from my own experience here) really make it hard to follow your own artistic vision and can even quash your passion as you feel like you are sinking in the quicksand of competing for engagement and eyeballs.
I've definitely been caught up in wasting time scrolling when I could be creating or planning (or anything more productive, like doing my laundry), as well as being truly inspired by so many talented artists. It gives you an opportunity to network and establish contacts you otherwise would never have. As long as you use it to serve you and not the other way it can be extremely beneficial.
And again, the important question! Talk us through your NEW top five shots.
A big thing I've focused on since we last caught up is trying to find those 'peak moments' that are a sum of focus, body language and action. In a tight frame. I feel like these images best sum up the vision of what I've tried to pursue - Emotion and facial expression of surfers pushing the limits in waves of consequence.
The master of the Box. No one plays with the box like Jack Robinson. About to ride over one of the notorious boils and probably looking to the next one. Cool, calm and collected
The body language speaks volumes about Matahi's connection to this fearsome wave.
A hard charging local lad. I really enjoy Kael's expression as the explosion chases him into what was a super heavy barrel section
Jack Robinson (part II)
This is the last frame of an extremely technical and consequential barrel sequence. There's few people who'd still be on their board after riding through multiple shocky's. You can see his focus and poise and even the strapping on his toes if you look closely.
This was a day I was experimenting with depth of field. It really payed off looking straight down the barrel at Griff trying to manage a deep Box barrel and imminent shock wave. It seems like he's looking straight through the lens. These moments are happening at such great speed it's great to see a frozen moment like this, especially when there's such a connection to the viewer.
And to show the difference five years can make -- here's Tommy's previous top five shots from 2016.
Jay Davies at North Point, Margaret River. 25mm
This was approaching the heavy end bowl and I love his casual yet precise form at this critical moment. It was also a good test for my nerve whether to dive early or capture an image of the situation.
South Aus, undisclosed location. 25mm
This was a scary shoot for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was my first time down that way and I'd grown up on horror stories about locals destroying cars or equipment if you're taking photos. Secondly, it was my first swim in these parts and I'd grown up on stories of monster men in grey suits. It didn't take long to have my mind taken off all my worries with such beautiful colours, perfect waves and scenic backdrops!
Desert Point, Indonesia. 25mm
Light and action. The previous set had washed me in and I ended up in the perfect zone. I love the colours
The Box, Margaret River. 85mm
It's not often you get the chance to see Kelly Slater in the water in WA. He only got a couple while I was out there but it was obvious his approach to wave riding is in a league of its own.
Shaun Manners at North Point, Margaret River. 50mm
This was a super spooky session. It was pretty inconsistent and I was floating in deep water, far from the pack. It was getting very dark and paranoia had long set in, but it's not often I'm in the water the same time as Shaun and his style is gold so I had to stay out. I gradually reduced the shutter as the sun had set and Sean perfectly picked the gap in the clouds to create an image that is probably my favourite to date.