“I almost got the cover of an American magazine,” says Russell Ord, a West Australian photographer who turns human pinball when conditions get ugly at Australia’s heaviest wave. “The photo editor said my submission contained one of the best fisheye shots he’d ever seen and that he wanted to put it on the front page. Five minutes later he rang me back and said they don’t run tow stuff. At least they’re honest and stick to their policy I guess, but I still like the photo!”
“The photo” is the closest Ord has come to fulfilling what has become his all-consuming mission lately. “I’ve been swimming out at The Right for about three years,” says Ord. “My whole life revolves around chasing it, really. I’m glued to the forecast, I’m training a lot, I’m doing breathing exercises, all with one goal in mind.”
The goal is simple; Ord wants to capture what he considers the perfect surf photo. “There’s an image I see in my head, shot wide angle with a fisheye, looking straight through the barrel. If the surfer backdoors the wave it could be incredible, but I still haven’t quite nailed it yet.” It says something about Ord’s thirst for perfection that the shots we see here he considers “close”, but not enough to sate his thirst.
With 12ft double-ups slamming onto a very shallow ledge in the middle of a very deep, dark and sharky Southern Ocean, there’s good reason nobody has swum at The Right before. A fireman by trade, Ord needs no lessons in putting safety first, and can see the irony of laying his life on the line in pursuit of pixels. Rest assured he’s not taking anything for granted. “At first I was thinking of wearing body armour, but lately I’ve been doing breath control training instead. I’m pretty relaxed out there, which breeds confidence, I feel like I can take a beating.” What do the surfers think? “They just laugh at me, they think I’m an idiot.”
Has Ord ever been roughed up at the hands of a rogue set? “Yep,” he grins, “plenty! You need to be really careful out there, keep your guard up. Problem is there are no landmarks other than watching where the surfers are sitting. I’ve only ever got in trouble when I thought I got complacent. I’ve gone over on the end bowl twice and been caught in front a couple of times too. You’re not taking photos when that happens so you can dive and try get under it. I tuck the camera into my body so I don’t smack myself in the head, take three really quick breaths and relax on the last. I try and think about the training I’ve done to keep my mind positive, and then look for pockets to help me get under. You get pretty deep and you’re generally fine.”
“Fine” sounds a stretch at a wave that has broken plenty of vertebrae and eardrums, but Ord claims he’s at an advantage over the surfers. “They get driven down hard and can burst eardrums and whatnot because they’ve fallen and haven’t had the chance to prepare properly. I’m more in control and can equalize on the way down. I also pay a lot of attention to my energy levels now too. If I’m feeling too tired I come in, instead of pushing it. It’s not like the surfers who catch a wave then sit on the ski, I’m swimming for hours at a time. If you’re really tired and go over the falls on one, it’s not going to be pretty.”
Ord made his name as one of the best all-round surf photogs in Australia, but admits his recent infatuation has dulled his interest in day-to-day lens work. “I get bored shooting 10-foot North Point now,” he says, though he quickly corrects himself, not wanting to sound cocky. “Maybe it is just the rush I’m chasing though, ’cos you get pretty excited when you step back onto dry land afterwards.”
Want more from The Right after this? Check out our Who Shot That? with Trent Slatter after a very heavy Easter session.