What defines your ‘Australian for Life’ moment? – Interview with Mark Watson

‘Australian for Life’ is this summer’s competition in which we invite everyone who owns a camera to get out and capture the essence of ‘Australian for Life’.

There are no limitations – just be creative and find your own unique definition of what ‘Australian for Life’ means to you.

Mark Watson, one of Australia’s most prolific adventure photographers and a Nikon ambassador, was happy to take some time out to share his thoughts around what ‘Australian for Life’ means to him.

Photography by Mark Watson

Which subjects or scenes have you most enjoyed photographing over the years?
I’ve been fortunate to photograph a plethora of incredible athletes, amazing locations and intriguing identities over my last ten years as a professional photographer. It’s a challenge to choose favourites, but I do love the Kimberly region of Western Australia. One of my favourite assignments of all times was living on a boat in the Upper Ord River, surrounded by glowing orange Kimberly cliffs, photographing the worlds best cliff divers. A project photographing hang gliding in a rare ‘morning glory cloud’ (also referred to as the ‘tsunami of the sky’) was a recent highlight. Internationally, shooting in South America and Patagonia is amazing, as was a recent assignment in the Cordillera Huayhuash Mountains in Peru. On the flip side, the chaos of the Melbourne Formula One Grand Prix, especially when assigned to photograph global rock sensation Pink, was a blast . . . I told you it was hard to pick just a few! I live to photograph anything where I can blend Australia’s spectacular landscape with adventure sports.

Burketown Aboriginal identity ‘JY Yanner’

What images from your personal collection best reflect your ‘Australian for Life’ moment, and why?
‘Australian for Life’ to me must reflect ideally what is great about Australia, but also portray uniqueness. The image must create feeling and emotion. Some of these moments are found in portraits or landscapes. Others are captured in scenes or activities that define us as Australians. From my collection, a candid portrait of Burketown aboriginal identity ‘JY Yanner’ is a favourite moment in time, as is a dramatic studio photo of Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Klim. On a recent project for Surf life Saving Australia I was commissioned to photograph a variety of beach scenes and my beach cricket photo is one that stands out as an iconic ‘Australian for Life’ moment. I also wanted to capture the action of surf life saving and one image of a female lifesaver sprinting towards the water with sand flying from her feet is also a favourite. In the end I think the portrait of ‘JY’ wins my ‘Australian For Life’ moment from my personal collection.

Burketown Youth

What has been one of the most challenging photography jobs that you have ever undertaken?
A lot of my job is about getting to where you need to be to get the right photo. Sometimes this means mountain biking, other times getting in the surf with a waterproof housing, or even trekking for days on end, living in a tent and out of a rucksack.I’ve spent days in remote Chilean Patagonia shooting an adventure race in the pouring rain, navigating by GPS, while most teams had pulled out. I ended up documenting the adventures of myself, another photographer, a journalist and a mountain guide as we were forced to crawl through rotten undergrowth to the coast where, luckily, we were collected by a tiny fishing boat. This adventure was a challenge on mind, body and equipment but was also amazing – I got to live my own National Geographic style adventure and even learnt about Luga (oceanic algae) harvesting from the Chilean fishermen.

A more recent assignment saw me trekking at 5,000m in the Peruvian Andes. Severe and debilitating headaches from altitude sickness over a few days made it pretty hard to concentrate and shoot.

A few months back, on a big mountain back-country ski photography assignment in the New Zealand Alps, I managed to develop mild hypothermia and first-degree frostbite on my toes. It was extremely painful when they thawed and I lost all sensation in my toes for the next month. A storm also meant the planned helicopter pickup was abandoned and the team and I had to ski, snowboard, snowshoe and trek our way out of the glacial terrain. I was carrying an additional 35kg of camera gear in my pack, which affected my snowshoes, so I sank deep into the snow with each step . . . it was a pretty brutal mission out. But it’s these experiences that make my job so enjoyable and I can’t imagine doing anything else . . . the bonus is that when plans go wrong and things get tough, it creates intriguing articles for magazines.

I’ve had severe rope-burn which nearly had me shipped out of a two week assignment, I’ve contracted Guardia, had allergic reactions and broken numerous pieces of camera equipment . . . but it’s all part and parcel with my job and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

What was it like shooting the campaign for SLS ‘Australian for Life’?
Photographing the SLS ‘Australian for Life’ campaign was a blast! It was fantastic to be contributing to a campaign aimed at saving lives and to be supporting such an iconic Australian brand. The schedule was pretty manic, the shoot had to work around weather and surf conditions plus the co-ordination of multiple talent . . . but it all came together. We hurled ourselves in and out of inflatable rescue boats, photographed in and around the amazing Gold Coast beaches and met some real characters of the surf life saving scene.I remember swimming with my camera through the Surfers Paradise shore break a cloudless day and thinking “this is my job . . . I get paid to do this!”. I am definitely one of the ‘lucky ones’.

Dawn surfer

Did you spend much time on the beach growing up? What do Surf Life Savers mean to you?
I was raised in Torquay on the Surf Coast of Victoria – home to Rip Curl and multiple other surfing brands. The beach was my life and I spent all summer and half of winter on the beach . . . I loved it!Most of my local beaches were surf beaches and patrolled. It wasn’t until high school that I joined the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club for the first time. Receiving my bronze medallion was a proud moment and then going on to row surfboats for Torquay was a memorable experience. I reckon my surfboat crew spent as much time swimming as we did rowing. We were renowned for crashing the big heavy surfboat, especially in the thumping shore breaks of the local beaches, however I still blame my sweep (person who steers the boat), to this day, for all our wipe-outs. Coincidentally, our sweep was also one of my high school teachers and was the same bloke who recruited me into the surf club.

The surf club was a place of mateship and fun, but was also an invaluable resource to the local community and to those who visited. If it wasn’t for the volunteers, then there would have been far more tragedies on the beaches of the surf coast. I still find it inspiring to know that so many lives have been saved by a volunteer-based, not-for-profit organization. The surf club became a part of my life in my teen years and was even where my wife and I had our engagement party, before getting married.

It was only after I returned to Australia to live in Sydney, having lived in England for some years, that I truly saw the strength of Australian surf life saving and the popularity of the surf clubs in Australia. In comparison to my initial experiences, NSW and Queensland definitely have a huge Surf Life Saving community – I only hope it continues to grow. Now that I have a young son, I’m once again considering the surf local club with the intent to re-qualify for my ‘bronze’ and eventually send the ‘little fella’ to nippers. With more than 6,500 nippers enrolled along the northern beaches I know he’ll be in good company.

Photography by Mark Watson

Which Sydney beach is your favourite?
I have too many ‘favourite Sydney beaches’ depending on the wind and swell conditions, and whether I just want to grab a coffee or go for a surf. Now that I have moved to Warriewood, I’m fortunate to have such a great little beach tucked out of the way, only minutes from my home. It’s not a renowned surf beach like North Narrabeen or Dee Why Point, but on its day, a little left hand bank forms at the northern end – with the right swell the waves will pitch up and barrel for a fun session.I used to love surfing at Curl Curl because it would pick up more swell than the surrounding beaches. But if I had to choose, I would probably vote Dee Why as my favourite all-round beach. When you want a quiet morning on the foreshore you can grab a great café latte from Bacino or the world’s best bacon and egg roll from Seachange. If the swell is ‘doing its thing’ then Dee Why Point can go nuts or there are a plethora of beach break options all the way down to Long Reef. And when you’re finally all surfed-out or beached-out, a chilled evening with a few Coronas and live acoustic tunes at Deck 21 is a great way to finish the day.

Surfer Lane Beachley

Is there a photographer who you most admire or who inspires you?

I get inspiration from many sources and a great number of photographers from a wide range of photographic specialties.

The godfather of landscapes, Ansel Adams is always an inspiration and is the reason I studied ‘fine print’ at university. In my world I look up, and respect the advice of, Australian peers Peter Eastway and fellow Nikon ambassador David Oliver. I consider David Dare Parker an amazing photojournalist. Marcel Lammerhirt creates incredible sports imagery. I intermittently follow the work of Corey Rich in the USA – an inspiring adventure photographer who has succeeded in both the editorial and commercial world. I’m fortunate to have met USA adventure photographer Michael Clark who is a true professional and an Adobe Lightroom expert. In the commercial world I also like Australian photographer Urs Buhlman who creates remarkable advertising work and is a great example of quality post-production.