Slabs. They are a misunderstood creature. A rare beauty that i often think exists only in the eye of the beholder.
Much like many things i guess. Why does the dog chase the car? Do you know? There are theories to these things, but really, no one knows why the dog chases the car do they..?
A friend of mine, a rather well known photographer actually, one that you’d most likely know if i mentioned his name, once told me three little words that have had a profound impact on my life; “Slabs don’t sell.” He is a supporting fan of my work and it was said in the context of “Absolutely love your work, I love slabs too, but slabs don’t sell.” And to be honest, they don’t. Contrary to what many people seem to think, I don’t sell mountains of prints, it’s a very niche market with more people competing for a piece of it everyday, and the prints I do sell generally aren’t slabs.. I try not to overly promote my work and don’t offer discounts as I have justifiably valued my work by the energy it takes to obtain and by the people that have invested in a Thurston Photo piece, so, that has an impact for sure, however I think it partially comes back to the ‘Slab’ and how little we know of it. What is it, and how do you relate to it.. the few that know, know, but these people are most likely caught up in the same passion for chasing them as I am, and probably have their own photos and interpretations of these wild and misunderstood beasts of the oceans.
Slabs are wild, they are unruly and unpredictable beasts, confined to their small, shallow portion of rock, sometimes chained to a piece of land, and sometimes way out in the ocean. These monsters are each defined by their own unique characteristics that the storms and winds of the sea provoke. Large swells and tides will join force in stirring these creatures into a state of rage, one that will relentlessly tear you to pieces if you get too close on the wrong day..
“I’ve come a long way for this” I mumble, staring into the flames of our campfire. A long way to try and photograph the many moods that these mythical ocean beasts can convey. Coming a long way for something can be a dangerous thing, it generates a powerfully motivating force, a force that pushes you into situations that you’d never even consider if the same opportunity was just down the road from home.
Things that don’t take much effort, are usually things that strangely never seem to get done.
Yet here I was, 4000kms from home, stepping off a Jetski, miles out to sea into an unfamiliar ocean with unfathomable things lurking within it..
Are you scared of sharks? Don’t answer that, because the answer is usually dependant on your position. No one is scared of a polar bear while sitting in there lounge room, but sit anyone on a piece of ice next to a hungry polar bear and ask the same question, good chance you’ll get a different answer.. same goes with sharks, but I think mankind's greatest fear is actually the unknown, the unknown plays with the mind, and has the ability to convince you of almost anything.
There is a lot of buzz in the media around sharks, they need saving I agree, along with all the other species of fish and marine life that are unsustainably pillaged from the ocean every day to supply the demand of the terrible habits that have developed in the 21st century, but what needs saving more is the balance of life, especially in the ocean. Not enough sharks is bad, too many sharks is also bad, too many of one type of fish or shark is bad, too many of any one thing is bad, too many humans is, well, also a problem.. possibly the root of the problem. The ecosystem beneath the surface thrives on a balanced food chain, with each living thing being able to resourcefully feed on its own kind of prey. Anyways, before this turns into a conservation debate, let me assure you, I’m on the side of life and balance, and like any creature, I instinctively value my own life over that which opposes it, i think there is a term for that.. ah yes, survival instinct. I’d be kidding myself if I was to say to you, I’m not worried about sharks, especially when I’m in certain places like a raw exposed ocean bombie off the coast of south western Australia. Naturally, we are not a ticket item on their menu, they are smart creatures, but if a hungry Great White swims past while you’re frolicking by yourself way out in the middle of the southern ocean, it’s most likely going to identify you as a weak organism that needs to be removed, then it will stealthily make a sound judgement on how much energy it will use to get the upper hand on you (which would be minimal if you were actually just frolicking defenceless on the surface in the middle of the ocean) and then proceed to do what it’s designed to do.. Simple really.
Now logically, I’m in an environment where I certainly don’t have the upper hand, my mindset is swaying and I’m busy praying myself into a state of courage, while I’m swimming through near black water, full of rips and currents, that is also notorious for housing large predatory fish. All this just to get in position to take a photo of a wave.. sounds ridiculous i know, but as I mentioned earlier, coming a long way for something will make you do ridiculous things..
Now this story, and my ambition in life is not to save sharks, or to even take photos, I’ve learnt that it’s something intrinsically deeper than that..
Being a firm believer in God, doesn’t eliminate the consequences of my choices, faith isn’t permission to be naive, but I do think there is a grace in pursuing the desires of your heart, and i felt that chasing these slabs, they just seem to draw me in like a bee to a honeypot. I’m not even sure why. So justifiably so, I keep swimming through the dark water toward the outskirts of this angry, slabbing creature, doing my best to position myself between the rock shelf and the scary deep channel running around it’s perimeter.
At this stage I don’t know what I would rather face, a white shark or the wrath of the slab, hence i get to close to it, so i fight the swirling currents to linger in between the idea of the two, and call it my ‘safe’ place.
Waiting for sets out there honestly makes you feel like a bobbing piece of bait, but when they eventually come through, a shot of adrenalin ignites your body and swarms the battle field of your mind, bringing one thing into focus, the thing you’ve come such a long way to obtain, the shot..
Then after a short burst of exploding whitewater and roaring ocean, it becomes still again and the adrenalin retreats enough to allow the mind to go back to playing its tricks again. But are they really just tricks? How much of this is in my mind, before it’s not in my mind, and it’s actually circling the vessel that houses my mind, you know what i mean..!? Then, all of a sudden, a big fur seal pops it’s head up a few meters from me and gives me quite the scare. “Just a seal, all good.” I mutter as Blakers confirms it’s identity in the background, then it disappears, real quick, and the ocean starts to come alive with jumping fish, decent sized jumping fish, just beyond the breaking zone. “Far out this place is Sharky man” I think, attempting to introduce some kind of sense into my reality.
Then, just a few meters in front of me, the water suddenly bulges up as if a large smooth object was being pulled forcefully and rapidly toward me just below the surface, I see a flash of dark grey and the water displacement falls in on itself, leaving rippling waves that shudder along the surface toward me. Identity unknown.
“Blakers!!!! What was that!!!?” I yell, fully immersed in a state of vulnerability. Looking below I see nothing but a dark, blue, blurry abyss. “I don’t know!!” Blakers replies hastily “You wanna jump on the ski” “Yep, come get me! Come get me!!” I swim confidently toward the ski, there’s enough time for this intelligent beast to make a decision, but whatever it was, it either answered to a higher call, or decided that it wasn’t interested. I climb back on the Jetski, heart pounding. Blakers informs me that he saw a fin break the surface about 10m away, yet was still unable to identify what type of marine creature it was. Who cares, not knowing makes it not worth it, my limits were reached, and we shot the rest of the afternoon from the safety of our vessel, thank God for Jetskis..
The shot.. Having to go through all that, most would think, gosh, who cares about the shot, get back on land you crazy lunatic!
But slab photographers are a rare breed, they don’t leave the battle until they get the shot, lest they leave defeated..
and often times that is the case, but not without a fight. But let’s take a step back for a second, Phil, did you not start this story off by telling us that Slabs don’t sell? So, if that’s the case, and there is NO money in this venture, why on earth are you putting it all on the line!?
That’s a great question, and one that brings my motive full circle. It’s true, the return on investment has never balanced out, but it’s beyond business now, it’s beyond any concept or hope of achieving a tangible return, because..
..after some time in pursuit, I realised that I’m not chasing these slabs for money, or fame, or satisfaction, it’s not about the slab, or the shot, it’s actually about the chase, and what the chase reveals in me, and what it teaches me.
Let me tell you why I do it, well, at least my account of why I unintentionally put myself in these situations. Maybe I can shed some light on why the dog chases the car. For me personally, it’s the pursuit of that little inkling in my heart that has been there ever since I can remember. A strange desire that propels me to chase after certain things that make absolutely no sense at all in the long run. It’s hard to explain why I’m drawn to certain things, why I love this and not that, why one thing completely fascinates me, and another thing doesn’t.. can you relate to this phenomenon?
I honestly think, even if I become the best at what I do, and capture the best photos of these slabs, I think i would still be looking on the other side of that perfect photograph to see if what I’m really looking for is there.. I still wouldn’t be fulfilled. When i finally get the ultimate photo, and return to land unscathed, I have this precious little piece of data sitting on a tiny piece of plastic called a memory card, in my camera, and I really haven’t quite secured it until I make the journey home and back it up twice on my hard drives. Now, I have it in the bag, it’s mine, this frozen moment is secured, no one else has it and it’s incredibly precious to me. I wrap a story around it and share it on social media, hoping to inspire someone with what I’ve photographed.
Never, ever, have I got a response or lasting satisfaction from sharing an image that compares to how I personally feel about it.
So, the shot that I risked life and limb to obtain, has a spike of engagement and then fades away into the digital abyss, some might make it to print, others to my portfolio but eventually, they fade away leaving me with absolutely no sense of fulfilment, and certainly not deep, lasting fulfilment. And the craziest part about this process is that I’ll do it again, and again and again, thinking that something better is still out there. Sure, this creates consistency, and consistency is key if you want to establish yourself as a photographer, but a photographer, or athlete, or whatever title we give ourselves, is not our actual identity, it is not the goal, or the destination of our desires.
There has GOT TO BE MORE! And there is, beyond the shot, beyond the achievements and beyond my desires that led me to thinking that the perfect photo was the goal.. there is a purpose.
So, what is beyond the shot?
I believe each one of us are born with a little desire in our hearts, each one different than the next, it can almost be likened to a ‘clue’, a clue that engages us into the process of discovering who we are, and what we are born to do..
‘Desire’ is the starter motor to the engine of life.
Something that sparks intrigue and action in our lives, something that sets each one of us on our own, unique journey of self-discovery. Have you not wondered why we all gravitate toward different things? For some, it may be a certain rhythm, and dance or music beckons them, for some a type of rock, and they invest their time in study, for others it may be an idea, where they will go on to give birth to great inventions, even still it may be a desire to win or compete, that turns one into a champion, it may be a title, a career, a comfort, a place, or even just a moment that we long to experience.. Each one of us start with this tiny ideal that grows in us and has the ability to transform into an ambition that enthrals us, and allures us onto a path, a path that carves out the causeway of our lives and leads us not so much to a destination, but simply just forwards. Mine, led me to this slab, in the middle of nowhere.. but this desire fuelled momentum will in turn initiate decisions, and those decisions will ultimately move us toward experiences, and as a wise man once said, experience is the best teacher.
So who has orchestrated this masterclass, and to teach us what?? If an all knowing God wanted to get our attention and teach us something, what better way than to do so with a desire of the heart. In the grand design of all this, I personally believe at some point, God gracefully arranges an interception of sorts, as an opportunity to save us from ourselves. Once our lives have been tailored to chasing what we deem most important, at some point in the pursuit, we are bound to become vulnerably aware of our very own limitations, which forces our heart and mind to open up to the idea that there is a greater sense of purpose for our lives.
For some it may be early on in life, others in the latter half of their existence, but for me, it was an experience where I had been pursuing my own personal desires and come up against a force that exhausted my capacity and will to go on, and in that moment of need, I caught an undeniable glimpse of the one who I believe planted that desire, that ideal, those many years ago, and that has ultimately led me, by the desire of my own heart, to a moment where there was enough evidence and reason for me to make a conscious decision; whether to keep pursuing my own ideas, or plans, or goals, or whatever the desire was that started this crazy pursuit, or to let all that chasing and pursuing go in realisation that it was all just an invitation to meet with a God that’s bigger and more beautiful than anything i’ve ever dreamt of or imagined on my own.
It’s kind of like a fork in the road, where we can allow ourselves to finally be found by love, or continue being lost in pursuit of our own desires, which served us well in getting us thus far but was never the soul purpose of our journey.
The danger we all face, is that in the pursuit, our desires can become so strong that they do become our only goal, and we grow blind to those identity defining moments along the way that are actually designed to shape the course of our lives.
So why is the dog chasing the car? It simply has a desire to, it was born with the desire to, and in doing so it discovers that it was designed to run, it discovers that it has strengths, and that it has weaknesses, it discovers that it has limits, it has boundaries, and it ultimately discovers that there is something more to be had outside those limits and boundaries that cannot be attained in its own strength.. (so it becomes obedient to its master, that allows it to ride in the car and go places it never could have on its own four feet) that’s why I chase what I chase, because what I’ve realised, is that there’s more to life outside of our capacity and ambitions and we need a hand to reach it!
So, back to my reality, I’m treading water in a deep dark unfamiliar ocean, chasing slabs to get a photo that will most likely rise and fall like all of its predecessors, but somewhere in the process I get a glimpse of the true desire of my heart, which after all, is not the perfect slab, but rather a moment where my limits and my boundaries have come to a crossroad and I cannot seem to go any further in my pursuit on my own. I become vulnerable, exposed and dependant. It’s the place where I am finally able to surrender to my own desires and allow Gods grace to fulfil the one real desire of my heart, which in the end, was not the perfect photo, or success of any kind, but in fact a void that only one thing could fill.. a revelation of the love of God.
My desire for the perfect photo was just the invitation to find it.
So, I didn’t tell you how i made the movie, or where I went, or how pretty the places were that I saw, instead I have shared with you a story about chasing desires, and what’s on the other side of the perfect photo. I hope this story encourages something much richer and more profound than another pretty picture or destination to visit could have ever done. If this story resonates with you, then i encourage you to keep pursuing what you love, if it doesn’t, then i’ll still encourage you to pursue that which you enjoy doing more than anything, and if you don’t know what you love, or what you want, then rest in knowing there is grace in our failings, and keep moving forward in the direction that you think is right in your heart, or even follow others you admire.
Some of us are destined to head in similar directions, others completely opposite, but I have a feeling our paths are all leading to the same place.. for now, let’s just call it, home.
Hope you enjoyed the story and video!
See you next time, PT.