When photographing any given wave, there are about 10,000 opportunities to squeeze the shutter and freeze time. Most surf photographers are after that peak moment — the summit of a tail-high air, the perfect body torque during a cutback, the instant where the wave barrels in a seamless arc. But 25-year-old Chris Gurney is not most surf photographers. He’s looking for something different. “In my opinion,” he says, “the best part of surfing is the emotion: fear, astonishment, curiosity, camaraderie.” Armed with a journalism degree and looking to tell the story between the hero shots, Chris has put together a body of work that’s ripe with “off” moments that turn us all on. Case in point: A recent expedition in his home state of Western Australia. A total of one wave was ridden, but with a helicopter and Chris’ commitment to overlooked moments, what could have been a write-off turned into a giant, stunning win.

SURFING: Where the hell is this?

Chris Gurney: Somewhere in the Goldfields region of Western Australia. It’s a very unique part of the country and maybe the most interesting coastline I’ve visited. There are hundreds of islands in this area and many have these crazy waves off of them. This shoot is something we wanted to do for a few years and it’s surreal that we got to do it finally.

Who's the crazy guy trying to surf that wave?

That’s Brad Norris. He’s a low-key guy from Perth who works as a plumber and surfs the slabs in WA in his spare time. I’ve known Brad for a long time and he’s always had faith in my ideas and never pulls back.

Can you walk us through this session?

For the guys in the water it was a fair mission. To get there from our accommodation they had to drive an hour on unsealed road, another hour along the beach and then take the Skis an hour out to sea. Once we spotted them from the chopper we talked it over on the two-way radios….Brad’s first wave was a massive one that clamped and he got driven straight into the reef on his hip. That ended the session, surf-wise. The risk-versus-reward for this wave runs a fine line. It’s so far out to sea, shallow and really open to the elements. The tide was high but the swell period was so big it was literally sucking bone-dry. You’d usually never tempt fate but with the chopper there, we kind of had to give it a dig.

Why are helicopters still relevant? Why not just join team drone?

In a photographic sense, you remove all the creative limitations that are inherent in drones. You can compose the image through your viewfinder and use any camera and lens you want. You obviously get way more flight-time and greater reach, too, because the other objective we had was searching for new waves. The level of accessibility you get is incredible.

What draws you to those subtle moments between the glory shots?

For the most part, I don’t think tight action photos are particularly engaging, but they usually end up getting the most documentation. In my opinion, the best part of surfing is the emotion: fear, astonishment, curiosity, camaraderie. A tiny figure paddling through a vast open ocean scene. You have to look a little deeper to capture those things, so I’m constantly trying to be less safe in my approach to photography so I can focus on those unique moments.

What might someone not immediately appreciate when just scrolling through these photos?

The behind the scenes logistics are always a huge part of something like this. Even on a relatively smalls-cale shoot, there are so many people pitching in to make it happen. The surfing side of things didn’t go perfectly to plan but I shot the best empty waves I’ve ever seen and saw some incredible parts of the coast that are usually way off-limits. I can’t thank Specialist Helicopters, Volte Wetsuits and our team enough for helping me out.


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