Water. It is one of the most powerful and relatable elements on our planet. It’s changeability from soothing, reflective glass to waves that roar and crash – loud and angry – mirror our own range of human emotions. Celebrated ocean photographer Ray Collins recognized this early on in his life and now devotes his time to capturing the ever-changing face of this emblematic element. His work has been featured in National Geographic and in brand campaigns, including Nikon, Apple and Patagonia. Having recently published a coffee-table book of his astounding seascapes, Ray Collins is quickly gathering a large following.
Collins leads his life with poetic contrast, alternating work as a coal miner deep under the Earth’s surface, to floating in expansive saltwater with his camera professionally. He is also colorblind, adding another layer of interest to his impressive work. Photography found Ray Collins by way of a serious knee injury in the mines. Having been recommended by a doctor to swim as a form of rehabilitation, Collins ended up spending much of his time cohabitating with the ocean; their alliance in the form of art developed organically from there. Here, Ray Collins discusses the important lessons he’s learned from working with the ocean, in contrast to life as a miner, and his technique as a colorblind photographer.
There’s such an incredible juxtaposition between working in a mine and photographing the ocean. What is it about the contrast you enjoy? What have you learned from it?
They are so far removed from each other; it’s like I lead a double life. As far as environmental contrasts go, in a coal mine you’re almost a mile under the earth, then you’re 10 miles in a tunnel as a part of your commute. It can be claustrophobic; it’s hot, dark, dirty and dangerous. The ocean is at a polar opposite – fresh air, freedom and open space as far as you can see, bathing in natural light. It’s black and white.
From a coal mine to massive ocean waves, you seem to work in fairly dangerous conditions. Do you have a fancy for danger?
In calculated measures I think danger is healthy, and what one person considers dangerous, someone else may not. Hazards are assessed and practices are modified in mining until the danger is an “acceptable” risk. In saying that though, sometimes it is out of your control. I’ve seen some crazy things, people buried under cave-ins and serious injuries from mobile machinery. Just like the ocean, you can’t ever really turn your back, or relax, as the danger (great or small) is always constant.
Some of your images, like “Oil,” capture moments of unparalleled fear. Are you fearful out there in the moment caught in these waves trying to shoot them?
Certainly! Although, I try and turn fear into excitement; that way, it’s not crippling and overwhelming. I think visualization of possible situations and scenarios certainly helps. Prepare for the worst; expect the best. Going there mentally before you’re in the moment is a good way to acclimatize to the fearful situations before they actually happen. One thing you have to ask yourself when it’s a large and angry sea is, “Am I prepared for one of these waves to land directly on me?” Because that does happen.
What lessons has fear taught you?
It has taught me respect, courage and patience. It has shown me my own limits – how to weigh risk versus reward and how to incrementally inch my personal levels of comfort further.
Art is often used as a form of self-expression and self-reflection. Do you see reflections of yourself in the images you take?
I see a lot of nature imitating nature in my images, like faces, or birds or animals. Also mountains. I like to freeze the liquid ephemeral moments to resemble the peak of a mountain. I think art should be engaging and that people should take away something personal from viewing it. It should provoke emotion, and because we are all individuals, we should all have our own interpretations.
I cannot believe you’re colorblind! Color is such a powerful part of the images you capture. How does it affect your work? Has it changed your approach to photography at all?
It’s hard to say, as there was no before and after with colorblindness. I can’t compare what you see to what I see. I think it has helped more than anything, though, as I shoot and process as to what I feel is right. I’m just stoked it resonates with others. I mainly concentrate on composures, textures and contrasts. Color is often secondary.
Where are some of your favorite locations to shoot?
The most memorable places I’ve shot have been ones that test me and help my consciousness expand. The freezing waters of Iceland were such a place. Swimming to surf breaks while it’s snowing around you with no visible sight of anything man-made is a sure way to make lifelong memories. The tranquil and lush waters of Tahiti and Hawaii – you are surrounded by another kind of beauty, but it is as dangerous as it is beautiful.