Tom Terrell is quickly making a name for himself as one of the premier surf photographers in Canada. We caught up with Tom to get his backstory, insights, and share a few of his amazing images in our next Portfolio Series.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from? How long have you been on the East Coast? How long have you been shooting?
I am from the southwestern most point of mainland Canada, a place known to most people as the ferry terminal, called Tsawwassen. I grew up there, sort of. When it was time to leave the nest, I moved to Vancouver Island and lived between Victoria and Tofino for a number of years before migrating to Nova Scotia in 2009. I came here for love and I stayed for surfing (mostly). I’ve been shooting since I was in high school. My high school didn’t have a photography class but I had a good friend who got me into photography. It was all film back then. Google tells me that digital cameras became popular among consumers in the mid to late 90’s but I don’t remember even knowing they existed until much later than that.
How, or who got you into photography?
It was the nostalgia, the black magic and the slow pace of the film that got me interested in photography. I didn’t touch a digital camera until about 2014. I got started on the classic Ae – 1 and the K – 1000, and used a 28mm lens almost solely. Its funny but for a long time, all I wanted to shoot was landscapes and wildlife. I remember thinking that people ruined photographs. It’s good that I got over that because it turns out that humans are great subjects and strange, strange animals. I took a Holga to India and shot about 15 rolls of medium format film and that was very cool. Every shot with a Holga is a gamble and the combination of strange exposures and light leaks seemed to match the vibe of India. The images turned out really neat and feel dreamlike. In 2014, I was living in Scotland and touring with a phenomenal singer named Rachel Sermanni (check her out you’ll be glad you did). It was here a Scottish pirate named Nick Law introduced me to digital photography. He sold me a 40D and homemade water housing for like 500 bucks or something. Mike Guest, another Scot, and a beautiful photographer played a big roll in getting me started. Mike was on tour taking photos for the band. He put Lightroom on my computer, gave me a tutorial and some tips and I leaped into the world of computerized photography.
How would you describe your work? What differentiates you from other East Coast or Canadian photographers?
I’m not entirely sure how to describe my work. Some surfers call it “artsy”. But artists would probably call it “surfy”. Lately, I am learning what I want from images. I think defining your own style and learning how to express yourself in any medium is a lifelong journey that changes, if you let it, as you go. I am a claustrophobic human. I lurk at the back of the room near the exit and I drive vans and I feel most OK in wide-open spaces. I shot the film using wide-open space and I am just learning how to shoot surf that way. Lots of sky and lots of colour and oh hey, there’s a perfect wave too. It took me a while to figure out what I liked and how to get it in surf photography. I try to find ways or reasons to display work that is not surfing but it seems hard. I think that people (myself included) tend to put other humans in boxes and leave them there until they thrash and scream hard enough. I am not just a surf photographer but people seem to like my surf photography. Just like I play a lot of bluegrass music and sing and holler like a hillbilly and that’s how a lot of people know me in Nova Scotia but if you asked people on the west coast they might remember me as a drummer. I tried to be a drummer out here but people were like, naw man, you’re a country singer.
What makes me different? Definitely not wanting to be different. I think we all want to do something different, new, and fresh. I guess one thing that makes me different is that I shoot a lot of water. I get particularly tickled when shooting/swimming in big, cold, terrifying waves. There is an inexplicable feeling I get when I’m swimming under and in big waves. It’s oddly peaceful and it’s highly addictive, just like surfing. It keeps me psyched and charged and fit. I probably surf 95% of the time I shoot too. I usually walk out with a backpack full of gear and do a combination of shooting and surfing. I love surfing and I wouldn’t give up doing that for any amount of anything. At first, this really hindered either my surfing or my photography and often both. I am slowly figuring out how to do both well. I’ll show up before the fellas and get some waves then shoot them after that. Sometimes, on surf days, I’ll make a little schedule for myself like; OK, this is when the waves will be best, this is when the light will be best, and this is when I eat. Because if you don’t consider these things you’ll end up frothing at the bit and screwing up both your surfing and your shooting and that sucks.
What other interest do you have outside photography?
I’ve been making a living as a musician for about 10 years, sometimes barely living, sometimes living it up. I grew up playing punk rock music on the drums and then, studied jazz for a few years out west. I got into playing guitar, singing, and songwriting just before I moved out East and for whatever reason, that kind of took over. I guess because I was getting gigs doing that. I studied classical guitar in N.S. for a year and that was very cool but spending money on school while not making money was not sustainable. After that, I made records and toured the continent for about 5 years with a band called The Modern Grass. We’ve released 5 or 6 albums and are about to release another one this fall, which I am very excited about. I love to cook. I like to smoke meat, fish and veggies, i like to barbecue, and I like to write. I write some poetry, songs, and stories. I’d like to put a collection of writing out into the world at some point. Lately, I am kind of trying to mix photography and writing. I am going to be sharing collections of photos and words on my website over the next little while.
What’s next? Ideally, where do you see yourself in 5 years? Do you have any big Plans?
Oh jeez. I try not to think that far ahead. That’s not true, I try but it doesn’t seem to work. Maybe I should try harder? I have lots of little goals that I take more seriously than I realize sometimes. I’ve never had a 5-year plan but I know I’d like to keep working on writing and have a go at short stories and something bigger like a novel. Maybe that’s 10 years away. I want to continue to be able to surf, swim, and to shoot a lot. I would like to play guitar, go fishing, and maybe even learn to hunt. I want to grow fruits and veggies and hang out with friends and loved ones. I’d like to have ample time to study music. I want to learn how to sing like a real singer. I really value free time…I want to have time to spend all morning walking around town aimlessly, smelling flowers and listening to piano sonatas, and not stressing about the future, at least once or twice a week. I want to swim in big waves and dive with big sharks. I want to learn more about mechanics and I want to read more books. I want to learn to think big but live in the moment and my most frequent big little goal which I set some time after six pm or so every day is to drink a good, hot coffee in the morning.
Do you have an all-time favorite image or shoot you’ve taken or been on?
The first one that comes to mind is a black and white photo I took with one of my favorite cameras, an Ae1 (Did I leave it at your house? anyone?). I was living in front of a few of my favorite surf spots at the time. I was standing halfway up the point, having a coffee and checking the surf with a few friends. I just happened to snag a perfect frame. Shooting surfing with film is hard, but I love this image. Another favorite is an image from India. We take water for granted over here, but in this particular part of India, it’s basically dry all year. They have to try and stretch the water that they get from their very short monsoon season over the entire year. It’s crazy. People are dying, crops are dying, and water is like gold. I took this photo of a very old Indian man crouched over, drawing water from a well. You can see that he looks tired and hungry and possibly famished. Next to him is a kid who’s concerned only with the attention he is getting from me. I find the contrast and the irony poignant and that’s probably the most important thing to me in any art form. Creating a sense of emotion through imagery. I’ve recently had the completely random pleasure of swimming with a couple of belugas for a few days; the image I’ve included in the gallery is an instant favorite.
Dream trip, who would you take, where would it be, and why?
I think I have too many spots and people to answer this question very well. I want to surf places that no one else has been. They still exist! I don’t care how cold or hot it is that’s kind of what it’s all about. Sure, I’d like to swim at pipeline and shoot Gerry Lopez and I’d like to surf perfect little tubes in the Maldives with Rob Machado. Maybe boot back in time and surf with buttons at Pavones or paddle out on a tree trunk with the Duke…. I’d love to get to know the great surfers from yesteryear but aside from the obvious I really like exploring the unexplored and I’d probably want to do that with my friends.
For more on Tom…
Follow Tom on Instagram – @tomterrellphoto