Behind The Lens: It’s Not All Ocean Explosions For Photographer Russell Ord
He’s been caught inside and sucked over the falls shooting The Right. Survived a miraculous tow effort at eight-foot, low-tide Cyclops. Saved his house from one of the worst bushfires in West Australian history with a garden hose. Played top-flight rugby league. And made a name swimming and shooting some of heaviest waves on the planet in some of the sharkiest waters.
When West Australian photog slash folk hero Russell Ord picks up the call from Surfing World the sun has just set on a pretty typical day in his life – meaning he was up before dawn dusting off a 9’6” for the chance to drop into a couple of eight-to-ten foot onshore bombs at Margs bommie.
“I’m not a hotdog-type surfer. I’d rather just take on a couple of solid waves and see what happens,” he explains in characteristic deadpan.
Raised in a low-income suburb in the mostly waveless city of Perth, Ordy is an unlikely candidate to become one of Australia’s greatest ever water photographers. Take a look at his immense body of work, however, and you’ll see traces of his roots in battler, brawler Perth, particularly the early stuff from The Right and The Box.
The son of a butcher and a stay-at-home mother who worked odd jobs, Ordy spent his early years in a perpetual state of war with the family of 10 across the road. The violence was severe and culminated in the father chasing him around with a shotgun after Ordy opened up one of the kids with a rock to the head. He escaped after leaping the fence into the slobbering embrace of his family’s Rottweiler. “After that Mum had had enough. She was like, we’ve gotta get out of here,” he recalls.
Ordy was also a talented rugby league player (unique given he grew up in the Aussie Rules-dominated west) serving brief stints with Super League clubs the Western Reds and Adelaide Rams at a time when the game was still in the midst of a glorious though shocking era of violence. “It hardens you up a bit. It’s a tough game, it really is,” he says, “There is nowhere to hide.”
His stories from this period are pure folklore. Like the time a former teammate tried to do over his local club’s drinking tavern with a sawn-off shotgun during the end of season piss up. After entering the pub and butting a player in the face with the weapon, the place erupted and he was seized before he could get a shot off. The team then took turns beating him with stools, feet, fists and a fire extinguisher until he was nearly dead. “They couldn’t recognise who he was for a week,” says Ordy, adding, “Yeah, it was a mistake. He probably should have just walked in and walked out.”
The pinnacle of his career came in a berth for the Western Australian state team playing Queensland in a junior State of Origin match, which served as a curtain-raiser to the main game. They got beaten by 60 but it gave him an opportunity to watch the game from the sidelines and sit in the NSW dressing sheds, amidst clouds of Dencorub, as the big bad Balmain men and NSW prop forwards, Steve ‘Blocker’ Roach and Paul Sironen, went through their pre-match routine. “They were going maaaad,” he says.
He did a pre-season with the Adelaide Rams Super League franchise, where he played second fiddle to future NSW and Australian great, Luke Priddis, before they were kicked out of the comp. Then he went back west to take up a job as a fireman where his experiences of death on the job provided the most enduring epiphany of his life.
“You could be cutting a 21-year-old uni student out of a car, who’s died and you start thinking, ‘Holy shit, he never got to live any of his life,’” he says today.
“His life has ended and he would have had plans for the future and then you start putting yourself in that position.
“Your life can end. If you’re planning for your 65th retirement day, fucking don’t do it,” he says.
It explains a lot about Ordy; a guy who once towed eight-foot Cyclops after growing impatient with the three pros he’d brought to surf it (see page SW393 for the full account). More than anything he believes in chasing your dreams and lives his life with an acute sense of mortality, which, ironically, is a source of comfort when bobbing around in Great White Shark territory with his face in a viewfinder.
“The chances of getting eaten by a shark are so much less than dying in a car accident on your way to the beach, so I just remind myself of that,” he says, though adds, “I do get scared. I just try to manage the fear really.”
Shooting surf photos started out as more of a hobby but one special day at North Point changed that. After surfing that morning he went back out with a waterhousing loaded with film and nailed a shot of underground hellman, Tom Innes, in a giant pit with his hands over his head. It earned a double-page-spread in Tracks, along with a nice little cash bonus.
At a time when surfing and surf photography were entering an obsessive phase with warped crystal tunnels breaking over dry rock, Ordy couldn’t look out to sea without a wave blowing its guts out in front of him. The Box, North Point, Gas, The Right, Rabbit Hill, Cyclops and Gnaraloo were all in his backyard, more or less, and he’d spend the next decade plus pinballing between them with his camera, and often his board.
“I don’t do anything super creative. I look at photography like how hard it is to get the shot,” he says.
He was the first photographer to get up close and personal with The Right and paid significantly for the privilege, wearing 20 foot mutants on the head and going over the falls numerous times. Looking back on it all though, his favourite image was captured out the front of his house, at The Box, in the form of a unique behind-the-surfer perspective of Jack Robinson – an insane feat given the power and ferocity of the wave.
“It’s so shallow and it’s dangerous,” he says.
“I got lucky to even get that photo. There were four others, including (NSW photog) Spencer Hornby in the spot and a bomb came, bigger than the one Jack was on, and there was nowhere to go. But I’ve got this little thing where I dive into the reef, like through the reef into a hole. I did that and those guys got smashed – Spence got pretty cut up on his leg – I popped up and was basically in the spot and Robbo was taking the next wave,” he recalls.
Eventually Ordy tired of “cutting deadbeats out of cars” (many fatalities were the result of drink driving) and in typical seize-the-day fashion, cashed in his old life to captain a 110-foot former Navy gunship around the Pacific with his wife and three kids. Then the boat ran into trouble and the skipper had second thoughts, which today leaves Ordy cashless, jobless, and stranded in New Zealand (he was back in Margs for the high school graduation of his eldest son, Kalani, when we spoke to him). That would spell crisis in most people’s language but it ain’t shit for Russell Ord.
“There’s no use crying over spilt milk. Compared to what other people are going through, I’m not comparing my life to some guy in Africa who hasn’t eaten for three months,” he says.
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