Ray Collins: Blue collar creativity

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Talking Heads

For the last seven years Ray Collins has straddled two ends of the civic spectrum. Three days a week he'd don the King Gee workwear, clock on and descend deep into the Illawarra escarpment. His work team would haul buckets of coal to the surface while wiping black grime from exposed skin. It was dirty, gruelling work.

Then every other day he'd be alone in the clear ocean, camera in hand decoding the interplay of light and shadow in his own particular way. During those days above ground Ray became an accomplished surf photographer, scored numerous magazine covers, forged his own style, and made a name for himself in the incredibly competitive world of surf photography.

Ray lives in Thirroul on the NSW South Coast. Grew up there. And his story closely parallels the recent history of the region. The coal mines made the town staunchly blue collar, yet the mines are closing so the area is no longer defined by the industry in the hills behind. It may still be called the Coal Coast but other influences are taking root, new opportunities arising.

This conversation took place at a local cafe two days before Ray flew to Europe.

Swellnet: Before we get into it, I heard you got rolled the other day while shooting. What happened?
Ray Collins: Yeah, um...what happened?

Your face is switching between a smile and a grimace Ray.
Well it's funny looking back at it now. I just got too close to the wave. Normally you can sit very close to the reef...

Which reef were you shooting?
It was ahhh...somewhere in NSW.

Yeah, it just smashed me. There was another guy shooting it so I kinda wanted to get a little spot in front of them and a clean up set came through real wide. I tried to get under it but I just felt myself go weightless backwards inside of it. And then....woooh.

What was the result?
Scratches on my hands, feet, and head.

Did your camera survive?
Yeah scratches on the housing but just cosmetic. It was a pretty bad beating. The worst I've had in ages. Years even.

Did you go in afterwards?
I did. It washed me that far in anyway. It was a sign I guess.


You were a coal miner before becoming a photographer, how many years did you spend going down the mine?
About ten years, but I discovered photography through coal mining.

How so?
Well I hurt myself underground. I hurt my knee really badly. That led me to the camera because I couldn’t walk for a few months and needed something to do. So I read a camera manual.

You must've been bored.
I had a lot of time on my hands. I couldn’t drive or walk or anything.

Did you read the whole manual?
Yep, heaps of times. The same manual.

If someone tells me they've read a technical manual from start to finish, I figure they're either a bit peculiar or incredibly meticulous. Are you either of these things?
No, not really. I usually just pick up things as I go. I honestly don’t know why I was so determined with photography.

When did this all happen Ray?
2007. Seven years ago.

You've come a long way in that time.
Nah, still in Thirroul.

But you've achieved a lot in that time, so much so you've downed tools and left the mines. When did that happen?
A couple of months ago. It's been great ever since.


So you're working full time as a photographer now. Is this a goal you've had planned for a while?
No, not at all. It's just kind of fallen in my lap. I've done nothing more than gone with the flow and this is where I'm at right now. Since I stopped working in the mines I've been overseas 4 or 5 times and I'm going to Europe the day after tomorrow for a month, and then I've been offered a gig with The Perfect Wave. So I should be going to the Maldives for a month the day after I get back from Europe.

Who sent you overseas?
Riptide to a spot in Java. I went to NZ for a wetsuit company - Zion wetsuits. And I went to shoot a boat in the Mentawais. Not really a lot of mag stuff but just straight photography, in the water, which is cool.

You've never really struck me as a surf industry guy. Is that because you were working part time?
Perhaps, but I never really chased it. I didn't really have a good crew of surfers...at least the guys the mags wanted to shoot. I know Dylan Longbottom, Predator [Eddie Blackwell], tube riding guys from around home, and by association I'd meet other guys and little relationships would grow from there. Say with Dom Wills or Mark Mathews.

You've just mentioned a few name surfers and yet you're more known for shooting empty waves.
That's my passion for sure.

I assume that was also because there weren’t good surfers around home?
No, I think I'm simply drawn to empty waves. Even the waves I've shot with surfers in them the wave is the focal point and the surfer just gives it scale. I was looking through some photos from my first season in Hawaii and without realising it I was shooting a lot of empty waves. I guess its grown from there, maybe subconsciously for a few years but definitely something I've focussed on the last three or four years. So even if I was surrounded by great surfers I'd still look to shoot waves without surfers on them.


I'd like to ask you a question about social media. A couple of years ago on Facebook you had a bit of a following, created a bit of fervour with your shots. Facebook, it seemed, served you well.
Yeah, it did.

But as you'd know Facebook has changed, they've ratcheted down everyone's reach unless you fork over coin. As a professional photographer how do you use Facebook these days?
I kind of don't use Facebook with the intent of reaching everyone. It's extortion in a way, but that's their terms and conditions, you have to be alright with it.

Are you using anything else to fill its place?
Probably Instagram, that's a really good tool for now, but that's also gonna change because they're not making money on it. They [Facebook] bought it for a billion dollars and they haven’t seen a return on their investment yet. They've obviously got something in the works.

You consolidated your reputation through social media, what would you say to young photographers just getting started? What advice would you give them to reach a larger crowd?
First of all: what is your motivation? Is it to get likes and fans...or are you passionate about creating good images? If you're passionate then work on your craft and work on your style and all those things – the likes and the fans – will fall into place. Does that answer your question Stu?

Yeah, well none of us have got a definitive answer anyway. We question social media regularly because for a while it was an integral part of our business and now it isn't. We're certainly not going to pay the money to Facebook but we continually watch and wonder where social media is heading and who, if anyone, is benefitting.
You've got to talk to Eugene Tan [Aquabumps].

He was social media before social media. He had the email list to send out to people each morning, so if every social media platform were to fall over he's still going to reach x amount of people because he's got their contacts.

Well people come to see the surf report and cameras on Swellnet everyday so we don’t have too much to worry about there, but nevertheless Facebook did occupy a certain position and now it doesn't so I'm curious how other people, young photographers in particular, can maximise the use of social media.
I don't know, I think that no matter how advertising or marketing goes in the future some things will never change. The work that is clearly better than the rest will rise to the top no matter what platform it appears on.


So who are the guys at the top? Who do you look up to?
Guys like Ted Grambeau, Jon Frank, and younger guys such as Trent Mitchell. Purists really.

Are you saying that because they shot before digital?
Well those three guys I mentioned, they wouldn't even have many online followers, you know. Maybe they're purists in the fact that that's not their motivation. Even for me, I'll look at some photos and say “its not that good so I'll put it on Instagram." I don't imagine they’d do that. There's no right or wrong but that's how those guys are.

Principles aside you like their work also?
Yeah, yeah, they all understand the complexities of light and they interpret it differently to anyone else. I can look at any of their shots and say so and so shot that, or Ted Grambeau shot that photo.

You can tell?
For sure. Definitely. Can you tell Jon Frank's stuff?

Yeah with Jon I can, but not Ted or Trent. Although in the same vein when you put a shot up I know it's yours before seeing the credit.
What about Chris Burkard, can you recognise his shots?

If there's a big snowy mountain in the background I know it's Burkard's.
And Morgan Maassen. All those guys have their own style.

Most of those guys also have their own books, you mentioned you've got one coming. When is your book due?
It should clear customs in late November.

Perfect timing.
Yep. It's 190 pages and Nikon is helping me with the marketing and promotion of it.

What’s it called?
It's called 'Found At Sea'. We've been throwing around so many different titles, we had 'Ephemera', and 'Galax-sea', but we've settled with 'Found At Sea'.

For what it's worth I think thats better than the two you just mentioned.

To see more of Ray's work visit his website.
Swellnet is curently running a gallery of Ray's 10 best photos - click to view.


mehollywood's picture
mehollywood's picture
mehollywood Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 at 5:58pm

Fantastic. Capturing those moments that many of us don't see or notice .

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 at 5:03pm

The photgraphy is beautiful. The grey, stormy pic reminds me of the famous japanese woodblock print 'Kanagawa-oki Nami-ura' and the one that looks like an eye is just stunning.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 at 5:07pm

Couldn't help myself, the coal miner bit reminded me of a joke.

Maybe I'm in the wrong forum but-

At the National Art Gallery in Dublin , a husband and wife were staring at a portrait that had them completely confused.

The painting depicted three black men totally naked sitting on a park bench. Two of the figures had black penises, but the one in the middle had a pink penis.

The curator of the gallery realized that they were having trouble interpreting the painting and offered his assessment. He went on for over half an hour explaining how it depicted the sexual emasculation of black men in a predominately white, patriarchal society.

'In fact,' he pointed out, 'some serious critics believe that the pink penis also reflects the cultural and sociological oppression experienced by gay men in contemporary society.'

After the curator left, an Irishman, approached the couple and said, 'Would you like to know what the painting is really about?'

'Now why would you claim to be more of an expert than the curator of the gallery?' asked the couple.

'Because I'm the guy who painted it,' he replied. 'In fact, there are no black men depicted at all. They're just three Irish coal miners’.

‘The guy in the middle went home for lunch’.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 at 5:17pm

You've hit a purple patch today ZA! A fine mix of witty repartee and down home smut. Keep it rolling.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 at 5:27pm

Really? I'm just killing time. I was in two minds as I thought it may be deemed inappropriate.

I really should get back to work.

But, back on track, Rays work is really something. I can look at empty waves all day. Something about those pics can just take you away.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 at 5:29pm

Wait till you see the gallery of Ray's work that'll be posted tomorrow. Each photo is jaw dropping.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Wednesday, 30 Jul 2014 at 5:33pm

I'll be up front and centre tomorrow morning ready to go with my cheerful observations and witty anecdotes.

Can't wait.

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 at 11:37am

Today's gallery, two words-

Ethereal beauty.

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 at 11:38am

Second that.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 at 11:48am

Amazing photos , great joke, makes me happy. Cheers people.

the-spleen's picture
the-spleen's picture
the-spleen Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 at 12:18pm

They're amazing photos by Mr Collins. I'm forever amazed - can I use that word twice? - how skilled photographers can see something that's open to all and capture in their own unique way. Like who the hell would see the lump of water in shot 1 of the photo gallery and ever think that'd make a great photo? But there it is and it's utterly breathtaking - amazing even.

radiationrules's picture
radiationrules's picture
radiationrules Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 at 3:19pm

love those pix's from today > i'm feeling lost at sea..inspirational

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin Friday, 1 Aug 2014 at 7:25am

Digression Alert - How has Facebook changed, I don't use it I'm just curious as to what's going down . Is it still cool or are the Facebook days over ?

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Friday, 1 Aug 2014 at 8:11am

Cool? Dunno...I'm wearing maroon jeans today, just so you know where I stand on the Cool-O-Meter. Facebook use has been slowing over the last 12 - 24 months, as much a fact of user saturation as the restrictions ol' Marky Zuckerberg and crew have been placing on its commercial use.

In August 2012 it became obvious something was happening with page reach; where once you'd reach x amount of people for a post, now we - and every other user - were reaching far fewer people. It came out that following Facebook's IPO the previous May they'd decided to really ramp up their income by ratcheting down the reach of each post. The solution to reach more people? Pay Facebook - brilliant!

Since then Facebook has undergone a subtle shift every few months where the screws get tightened further and further. As a free platform it's barely worth it now for businesses. Bit of branding, bit of market presence, that's about it. For young photographers, and most other small busineses, it's a real conundrum: do they pay Facebook or not? Is it worth it...?

It was a canny business model: make Facebook an integral part of every business then start charging for it. Or, get 'am all hooked then send in the goons. 

Canny maybe, but definetely not cool, at least judging from where I sit in my colourful duds. And as Ray said in the interview above, Instagram will be next.

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin Friday, 1 Aug 2014 at 9:15am

Ooh those sneaky fuckers. I guess it was always going to happen. Anyway cheers for that piece of information Stu - you guys are the full service provider.

As to whether Facebook is still cool or not , I appreciate now that it's not your field of expertise . Not that I'm in any position to judge dressed as I am like someone who's colour blind nana has hand knitted his entire ensemble using bargain bin synthetic wool.

Not to worry . I've got a mate with impeccable street credibility that I usually defer to on questions of Cool. He's part Italian and lives in a flat on top of a friend's parents garage though I can usually find him at his office in the men's toilet cubicle at Arnold's Diner. He knows Cool.