For years, Ray Collins earned a living in a place far, far away from the ocean – a coal mine. That all changed after a workplace injury left him physically limited. A knee in healing meant no working, no driving and little mobility. So he picked up a camera as a way to keep his brain engaged. His subject? The ocean’s waves.
Ray Collins was the latest guest on My Ocean podcast. Below is an excerpt from our conversation with him and you can listen to the full episode here or in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
Q: Can you tell me about the process of getting the shots that you do? Because most of the ones I have seen are of a wave cresting, and in that moment, it is as if you have hit pause on it. I am wondering, where are you when you are taking that picture? What is that process like?
For me, just interpreting a wave, I think it is almost unlimited the way that it can be done. In all those shots that you are referencing, the mountainous kind of pre-crashing, the moment before the moment, I am 95% of the time just swimming with a pair of fins on. And yes, getting really intimate with breaking waves.
The camera that I use is a regular camera that you can buy from any electronic store, and it slides into a waterproof housing. Once it is in the housing then it is airtight and water tight. It weighs about 8 kilograms. It is like swimming with a pillowcase full or rocks or something. And if it’s cold weather then I’m wearing a wetsuit. If it is warm weather, I am probably just wearing shorts and I am swimming, kicking, and I am lifting the camera up to take a photo. It is different to other photography in the form that my studio is not static. It is constantly moving. You are getting pulled towards the wave, you’re getting pushed away.
You are in an angry, boiling, bubbling ocean. So yes, it can definitely be challenging and you learn along the way, for sure.
Q: When you are out there, are you just so focused on the act of taking pictures and making those images? Are you also able to appreciate the fact that you are out in this beautiful ocean? What is going on in your head?
A lot of the times, I am floating, laughing, hollering, screaming and just really enjoying myself. I just happen to have a camera as well. Sometimes I feel like that is an extension of the whole moment and that is why some of the photos mean more to me than others. Because of the day that it happened, and these certain things, and if I had a friend with me. But yes, sometimes I can just swim out there and not really even shoot and just absorb it, soak it in, and just be part of it. It is so grounding. Being in the ocean is like a big hug. It is my safe space and it is kind of all I have ever really known.
Q: When you think about people looking at your photos and your imagery, what do you hope is the message that they take away from it?
I want to stir a response and an emotional reaction to my work and sometimes those feelings aren’t necessarily nice and it might well up something a bit darker or deeper. And that’s great. Because all art should create a response, a reaction. My greatest fear is that the images that I am making now would be referenced in a 100 years for a time when the ocean wasn’t totally ruined. A plastic floating pit of just absolute pollution. I would hate that. I would hate for this to be a snapshot of a different time. I hope that my work can show people, who do not normally see the ocean, people who do not have access to it, I want to show them the beauty. Not only the power, but also how delicate it really is. Because a lot of the images I’m showing, you know, rough waves and explosions and force and fury… there’s so much more – a delicateness about it that we kind of have control over as consumers. And I think the power is with us to kind of make a change now.
Q: You are out there all time. What have you seen?
I unfortunately have seen a change. Especially in places like Indonesia, where there is not such a good waste management program or awareness, really. And you can’t fault the people, individuals, for this. It comes from the top down
You know, as an artist…, all I can do is kind of use my work as a platform. But in my day-to-day life it’s picking up trash at the beach or calling someone out if you see them throw a cigarette butt on the ground. You know, because it all ends up down stream. It all ends up in the ocean. I feel as though, in my bubble, that I communicate with, and my friends and family, and the kind of western society that I live in, I feel like there has been a huge change. Which is really good.
It has to start with knowledge. You have to be aware of this thing before you can change it. Hopefully all of us playing these little parts can help move this big thing. And, I feel, you have to be positive in your outlook. Otherwise, you are going to make this prison in your own mind and you are going to be bound by those rules.
Q: What advice do you have for the next generation of ocean advocates? People like you, but who are just starting out.
If you’re a creative in whatever way that you express yourself. Just be true to yourself. There are billions of people on this planet. Don’t try to copy someone else’s vibe or style or aesthetic. Just be true to yourself. Shoot or create what you want to create. Don’t create what you think others want to see. I think that your voice should be heard and you’re an individual, you’re unique, so just be you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.