Interview: Mickey Smith

Irish surf photographer Mickey Smith focuses on the erupting heavy and awe inspiring nature of the ocean. Mickey sat down to chat about his craft, adventure and the sea. Could you walk us through how you started documenting the ocean?

I started documenting the ocean with little disposable waterproof cameras as a kid. Hanging out at the beach in winter with your friends in this part of the world, there’s a lot of waiting around when your way to young to drive around, so I’d swim out to kill the boredom and also take some shots in between surfs.It also just felt natural to be documenting the rare times the waves were epic for us here growing up, perhaps just to prove to ourselves the waves did get good at times and keep us going through the long weeks of hitching skating and busing it about to freezing ropey waves.

Any encounters with animals during your adventures that are memorable?
There is a solo dolphin named dusty that lives down the road from me in Ireland, and she is pretty unbelievable to hang out with, she’ll ride a wave with you, then give you a tow back out on her dorsal fin, its honestly that bizarre. As far as anywhere else goes, I guess anytime you’re in a place thats full of diverse marine life there’s a lively encounter of some kind to report, I’m just not sure which memories to recall as i don’t like scaring people with shark stories,I think they’re incredible creatures.

Shooting in the water is a very hazardous experience, from sharp reef, passing surfers, looming sharks, raging rips, booming big powerful waves… How do you keep your composure in these conditions?

I think composure is exactly the word. Its a case of feeling comfortable, or at least tricking yourself into feeling comfortable, always trying to enjoy it or make the best of it, and keeping your composure and focus, not losin your nerve. Alot of time spent out in the water in all sorts of conditions helps you have the experience to not lose your nerve.

What do you generally shoot with?
I mainly work with Canon gear and aqua tech housings.Saying that I love my old millican super 16 rig and a few other weird and wonderful film bodies I can’t really do without.

What are some of your influences?

My Mum and my sister always inspired me to keep an open mind and heart and live with a grin.Their upbringing influenced me heavily. I grew up playing in bands around the uk and that certainly opened my eyes and threw off the shackles from a young age. Other than that the ocean and the characters iv met and experiences iv had through being involved with it have been infinitely influential,and I’m forever grateful for that.

Shooting on land - what do you see that is different from the ocean?
If you mean shooting waves from the land as opposed to in the water,I guess it’s not so much what you see but what you feel.I guess it’s a more three dimensional experience shooting in the water,as its multi sensory and encompasses physical and mental skills at the same time.Your dealing with holding your breath,swimming through waves,keeping your bearings and holding your position on the reef,watching for sets,all at the same time as composing photographs,making sure your exposures and focusing is spot on,and making sure your documenting what you had set out to in the way you’d envisioned each session.So there’s a lot of instinct involved as well as everything else.Waves break and move a lot faster when your swimming around in them as opposed to watching them from land I guess. I love shooting from interesting perspectives on land to though.Looking at things in un obvious ways.It’s all at once different and the same at the end of the day.

What do you think it is about the ocean that is so inspiring?
That it is in perpetual motion,with a constant flow of energy moving through it,and has so many moods and faces.It’s a positive environment for me,it clears my head and heart.

Most of your photographs of the ocean are above the surface? Are you attracted to underwater photography as well?
I love shooting underwater behind breaking waves.I spend half my time swimming around underwater so it’s safe to say I’m naturally attracted to that aspect of photography to.I find waves exploding underwater particularly fascinating.

How would you describe your work, or what you try to capture in your work both in a professional/commercial and experimental/personal sense?

Like I say in our film darkside,I want to see waves and wave riding documented the way I see it in my head,and the way I feel and experience it in the sea.It’s a surreal arena to work and play in and I want to document that as best I can.You have to do a job for the surf magazines,but I’m probably most passionate about shooting heavy empty waves in weird spooky light with flares and hexagons and backdrops or all sorts of strangeness going on.anything that adds a touch of the surreal to the photograph.those subtle little moments that are easily drifting past unseen and that are sometimes only seen by a camera shutter and remembered or witnessed through a photograph.

As a well-traveled photographer, what is it about the Irish coast that makes it so special for you?
It’s always felt like home to me,and a lot of the coast has played a huge role in my life shaping who I am and what iv experienced.There’s a lot of personal attachment there to,one of my favorite waves Rileys is named after my nephew,I first came across the wave whilst hiking one day to clear my head while my sister was really ill and just about to give birth to him.It’s a long story,but now she’s passed on I feel really close to her there.So it’s things like that make me feel a deep connection with that stretch of coast.

Most would agree that the surfing world is divided into people who are all for the ‘surf industry’, competition surfing etc… and those who appose it, those who may refer to themselves as 'soul or free surfers’, the environmentalists, those who see surfing as a lifestyle, a culture, a religion, an art form… As a surf photographer, so involved in the industry, what are your views on the surf industry and soul surfers?

I think the industry has positive and negative impacts on surfing and waveriding.It encourages open mindedness and mellow vibes,but also feeds negativity and hatred between different forms of waveriding.It enables talented surfers to live their dream,but can also define that dream for them instead of encouraging them to follow their hearts.It enables folk like me to make a living doing what I love,but also forces me to scrap and fight for every penny - and in relation to the importance of our role in the industry and the money involved,does not reward it’s photographers at all.It offers a career to young surfers,but also makes them look at surfing as a career option- rather than the most fun form of self expression around.The industry shows people the pinnacle of surfing excellence,and inevitably pushes the brink of what is possible in waveriding,but also encourages millions to take up an incredible way of life,which inevitably crowds lineups,and some folk don’t dig that.It’s a recreation that is completely involved in the elements,but that causes hideous amounts of pollution and doesn’t nearly do enough to encourage awareness and environmentalism.It encourages us to surf to the best of our ability,but also encourages and feeds ego to the point of ruin.It’s brought an inspiring way of life that was previously only led in warm dreamy environments,to the most weird and wonderful corners of the globeYou can’t live without it,and at times you can’t live within it.Personally,I’d much rather we had it than didn’t,I would have missed out on so much if I hadn’t seen surfing magazines as a kid and been left awestruck at the images within them.

Finally, what does the future hold for you and your work?
Hopefully more of the same eye opening life experiences,good people,valuable lessons and mindblown stoke.

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