SIX TIME WORLD SURFING CHAMPION STEPHANIE GILMORE HAS SPENT MUCH OF HER LIFE IN THE OCEAN. BUT SINCE PICKING UP A CAMERA SHE HAS GAINED A WHOLE NEW APPRECIATION FOR ITS POTENCY.
As one of the world’s most elite athletes, rarely does Stephanie Gilmore let a challenge get the best of her.
The woman many endearingly refer to as ‘Happy Gilmore’ drew world attention when she won her first world title while still a rookie. Since then, over a stellar career spanning 13 years, she has amassed a prestigious Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year award, entry into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame, an unprecedented 27 world tour victories and most recently, her 6th ESPY Nomination for Best Female Action Sports Athlete.
Her humble attitude both in and out of the water has afforded her a legion of fans all around the globe and led to numerous high profile artistic and commercial collaborations including the award-winning documentary Stephanie in the Water and surf-dance short film series The Water Dancer.
In between competitions and during the three months each year she gets to spend in Australia, Stephanie likes nothing better than picking up her camera and capturing her adventures for future prosperity. A key fixture on the Nikon Brand Ambassador roster, the popular water conservationist says while she enjoys trying her hand at landscapes and taking portraits of interesting people, her favourite place to shoot is, unsurprisingly, in the sea.
Drawn not just by its movement but also by its moods, Stephanie says the thing she loves most about water photography is the fact you never quite know what it’s going to throw at you.
“There’s something about just capturing this surface level imagery of the ripples on waves. It’s almost like trying to grasp, or to bring life to such a small part of the ocean when it’s such an incredibly large part of our world. [Noted fashion columnist] Diana Vreeland famously described water as ‘God’s tranquiliser” and I would agree with that. You go into water and it has that effect. But while it is at times calming, through surfing you also discover its other qualities. At times [its ferociousness] can challenge you and make you fearful. It definitely humbles you.”
Yet as much as Stephanie enjoys indulging her passion for photography, she concedes it can be equally as punishing as taking on the world’s largest waves.
“Because I am consumed by the ocean I am forever trying to capture it yet I never feel like I ever do it justice. Even on the days when the ocean is doing its thing or you see a surf shot someone else has taken and you think ‘oh wow, this is going to be amazing’ and then you see the photo and you’re like ‘awww man [that didn’t work out so well]’. It’s hard.”
Stephanie says she was around 13 years old when together with a small group of other promising surfers she was sent on a surfing camp and was issued with an instant camera which printed images on the spot. Stephanie says this spurred her to begin a lifelong fascination with cataloguing each trip in a journal, using her images as a way of referencing places she’d been and people she’d met.
“When you travel so much it becomes so normal that you don’t think to take that time to write about it and capture those images. But when you do it’s so rewarding to look back,” she says.
While still building up her kit, Stephanie says her favourite piece of equipment to date is Nikon’s waterproof and shockproof KeyMission 170. Only too aware of the difficulties in holding a camera still while standing on a surfboard, Stephanie has had a custom mouthpiece made, complete with breathing hole, that enables her to surf with it in her mouth, producing more stable vision.
Famed for her incredible work ethic, Stephanie says her desire to push her own limitations in terms of her photography efforts has been galvanised by many of the industry’s leading lights.
She was inspired to purchase an oversized print of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols living the rock n roll lifestyle aboard a plane, taken by Bob Gruen, after accidentally stumbling upon a Gruen exhibition while on a trip to London. Treated to a meet-and-greet with the man himself, Gruen regaled her with the real stories behind his iconic images with the print now taking pride of place in Stephanie’s Tweed Heads home.
A huge fan of the photographic prowess of well-known shooters Luke Shadbolt, Trent Mitchell, Jon Frank and teenage superstar Leroy Bellet – the latter of which she credits with “changing the whole surf photography game” – Stephanie says the lengths they go to, to capture the perfect shot both inspires and excites her.
“These guys are just pushing themselves into crazy waves to capture that shot. They’re basically pushing aside their fears and just letting their passion of surf photography go over the top of that.”
Having announced just days ago that she still feels she has at least another world title in her, the defending Roxy Pro champion is unlikely to turn her photography hobby into a second career any time soon. Yet despite all the other demands on her time, she is adamant she will continue to try to evolve her talents both in and out of the water.
“I think it’s about keeping yourself open to learning things. I feel like when you’re willing to learn about new things all the time you can kind of take that into your profession, into your craft. It keeps me inspired [and] keeps me motivated. I’m not a professional photographer at all but who doesn’t love to take a good photo!”
[Words: Tracey Porter]