Every now and then a young photographer comes along who just seems to have an eye for surf culture. They see the waves, landscapes and humans in a new, more youthful light and that adds volumes to the story of New Zealand surfing. Award-winning photographer, Oscar Hetherington, is one of them. He’s also a really nice guy.
New Zealand Surf Journal’s Derek Morrison caught up with Wanaka-raised Oscar between swells on the Otago coastline. To be honest Oscar has been on our radar for quite some time – a shy and elusive character who has etched his story into our minds through his photography first and foremost. He’s no ordinary photographer. Oscar is 20 and has a flair for taking his images beyond two dimensions, layering them with grit and sublime tonal ranges that evoke a shudder, or an emotion, from their viewer.
And his path has not been a smooth one. At 17 he was diagnosed with epilepsy.
We sat down with Oscar to find out how he’s able to tap into his creative side and to see where he wants to take his gift.
NZSJ: Tell me about your relationship with photography – how and why did you start?
Oscar Hetherington: I first got into photography when I was about 14 years old, simply to document things I’d do with my friends and to show other people the adventures we were always going on. I didn’t even know how to use a camera at all, I just liked sharing what I saw with my friends and family. Shooting and creating images has always been for myself, I do it because I love it and doubt that will ever change. I was influenced by local magazines and also by Two Bearded Men and Mark Clinton as well as a few other local Wanaka photographers. Discovering photographers like Ray Collins, Nick Green and Corey Wilson have influenced me a lot since then and I look up to them and their imagery to this day. I’m also influenced by other photographers who may shoot portraits, or skating etc and I try to bring different techniques and creative ideas that they use into the ocean to give a new perspective or approach to my surf and ocean photography. Because of these influences I often shoot really creatively and in abstract ways to try and push myself and my work.
NZSJ: You’re a Wanaka boy – how did the sea attract you?
Oscar Hetherington: I guess growing up in Wanaka I was exposed to some epic scenery and had many adventure sports right on my doorstep. Living there for around 13 years I got a taste of it all and still love the mountains, skiing, fishing and any outdoor activities really. When I was younger I was also privileged enough to travel a bit and spent a few years living by the sea and even on returning to Wanaka I always missed the sea. As I’d learnt to surf in my few years away from Wanaka – spent in the Coromandel and Australia – I got the ocean bug and there was something that would always draw me back. I see the ocean as a landscape that’s always changing. The fact that no two waves are ever the same, and also that seascapes only last for a split second, mystifies me. To me the ocean is limitless in terms of shooting, so essentially I moved to Dunedin to shoot waves, surf and be in and around the ocean as much as possible.
NZSJ: You worked with Two Bearded Men – one of the great creative production companies in New Zealand. What was that like?
Oscar Hetherington: Working with Two Bearded Men was an amazing opportunity. The year or so I spent with them was full on, immersive, real and so engaging and it is an opportunity I am very, very grateful for. They were a crew that I had looked up to for years and to leave high school and move straight into an internship with them was crazy to me. I learnt so many things while with them, every day I’d learn multiple skills and techniques that I believe set me up to where I am today. I was exposed to everything by being out there in the field, on big productions and in situations that were foreign to me until then. So, I had to learn on the move at a really high pace. A few key things I learnt was how to value people, stories and relationships, I learnt to work with some amazing camera gear on a huge variety of jobs and I also matured a lot and learnt some key filming, photography and editing techniques as well as business skills. I got to learn all of this from two of the nicest, most talented and inspiring guys in New Zealand. I’m now happy to call them good mates – we keep in touch and catch up often.
NZSJ: Tell me a bit about your creative process …
Oscar Hetherington: I love the whole creative process from start to finish. One thing that I love about surf photography is that it is based around reading the weather. As my dad was a pilot I’ve been learning and talking about the weather well before I even picked up a camera so shooting the ocean is essentially just combining the weather, waves, tides, lighting, swells, winds etc. I try to capture all that raw emotion in a creative and powerful way. I often look for different angles, fleeting moments and details within a scene and find myself shooting these things. From unique seascapes to pumping waves, or my mate’s emotions after just snapping their favourite board … I try to combine a documentary approach with an artistic style. Using slow shutters, weird angles and tight crops among other techniques, I am always aiming to keep my images unique and stylistic while still telling a story and saving a moment. From thinking up ideas, scouting locations, shooting and editing all the way through to printing my work I enjoy the whole process in its many different phases.
NZSJ: You’ve become renowned for your black and white work – was that intentional?
Oscar Hetherington: That was an interesting development and rather unintentional. Basically about 18 months ago I thought why not push myself and my photography by shooting only black and white for two months to push how I see the world and to force myself to make beautiful images based on everything, but colour. I couldn’t just rely on perfect lighting or a nice sunset. I had to think a lot more and be more observant in shapes, textures, stories, lines, emotions and everything else when shooting. After those two months I just never stopped. Obviously if the lighting is nice I’ll shoot in colour, but on grey cold winter days black and white is my go to, and I guess it’s becoming my known style in a way. I also love the documentary look it gives to some images. And it makes the viewer look at an image for longer to find the story or meaning behind it.
NZSJ: Tell me bit about your recent Sony award and did that change your photography?
Oscar Hetherington: Last year I was fortunate enough to win the Sony Alpha Photography Awards for 2020. My image titled “Backwash” was selected as the grand prize winner above more than 3500 entries by the CEO of the World Photography Organisation. This award was amazing to receive and I am so grateful to have been selected and it meant a lot to me for many reasons. I gained a lot of publicity with the image ending up in photography magazines and many newspapers including the UK Daily Mail. The winning image was an image I had wanted to capture for a good six months or so and after I shot it I was instantly satisfied with it and believed in it. I remember showing a few people and they thought it was cool, but no one was blown away. I just believed in myself and thought the image was special, so I followed my heart and the judges obviously appreciated the vision I had and saw the shot the way I did. When I found out I’d won I was actually in Wanaka skiing with a good friend of mine. I received a phone call on the chairlift saying I’d won and it was probably one of the best days of my life and an incomparable feeling to be honest. The whole experience just cemented in my mind to shoot what I wanted and to shoot for myself as well as to keep trying to do something different and push the boundaries of creativity.
NZSJ: How did you find out about your epilepsy and how has that changed your life?
Oscar Hetherington: In 2017 I was diagnosed with epilepsy and it was a bit of a shock to a 17-year-old boy who loved the outdoors. It was a bit of a speed bump in doing things I loved. The main thing it affected was my freedom – I couldn’t drive for 12 months, wasn’t allowed to swim alone or in the ocean (including no surfing) and it really slowed me down in my adventures. I guess, if anything, I started shooting more as I couldn’t always participate in the sports I loved. Now almost four years later I am fully medicated and my epilepsy is controlled although I did have a random episode about three months ago. So once again I’m unable to drive anywhere and I’m not allowed to swim and surf. Epilepsy has really slowed down my aspirations for surf photography and I feel that I can’t be shooting my best work and am constantly missing images as I can’t be swimming and shooting in the water. When I can get back in the water I have so many images in my mind that I want to get and places I want to shoot. It’ll be amazing. Epilepsy is an ongoing problem and it’s something I’m learning to live with slowly. I definitely have some down days because of it and also just the fact that I can’t do what I love to the extent that I want to. If I could, I’d be swimming and shooting two or three times a week if I was healthy, but unfortunately I haven’t been in the water for over three months now other than a few shallow swims with friends.
NZSJ: Tell me a bit about your philosophy for life and where you’d like to be in this world.
Oscar Hetherington: My philosophy for life is pretty simple. It’s based around two things I guess: “Hard work pays off” is one aspect I am true to and I often think about this when relating to my Sony Award. I tried to capture that image for months, spending hours in the water during winter freezing my ass off and eventually it paid off and I captured something unique. The other aspect is just to “relax and live in the moment”. In my spare time I just enjoy slowing down, relaxing and enjoying simple things, often the outdoors with good company. I think the balance between working hard and relaxing should be natural and nothing should ever feel forced. Fortunately, most of the time I can find this happy balance as I love what I do and am extremely passionate about shooting anything to do with the ocean. In the future my goals are also simple. I’d like to sell prints that are valued as art, create books with words and images to tell stories and continue to turn what I love into my career. I’m only 20 years old currently so I still have plenty of good years in front of me and many things I want to achieve and shoot.
NZSJ: You can invite any three people in the world to dinner – who would they be and why?
Oscar Hetherington: David Attenborough, Ray Collins and Richie McCaw.
A slightly weird mix, but a few beers over dinner at Emerson’s Brewery in Dunedin with these three men would be amazing. I admire them all for different reasons. David’s worldly experiences in all aspects and environments around the globe would just inspire me and my desire to travel and I’m sure he would have many amazing stories to be told. Ray Collins is an ocean photographer from Australia who turned his life around after a severe work injury and has now become one of the most inspiring and leading wave photographers in the world. The creativity and vision he has is almost unmatched and he seems like a very inspirational and humble photographer. He was also one of the first wave photographers I had ever seen and his ability to turn the ocean into artwork is amazing. Lastly, dinner and a few beers with a national hero like Richie McCaw would be awesome. To learn some of his leadership traits, work ethics and mental skills would be really valuable and cool. He is also just proof of a normal Kiwi guy who did what he loved, worked hard at it and has ended up at the top of his career as one of the greatest rugby players of all time. Talking travel stories and environmental issues, ocean photography and creativity, and leadership and work ethics with these three men would be such an inspiring experience.
NZSJ: Thanks for your time Oscar and keep up your inspirational journey.
Oscar Hetherington: Thanks for this opportunity and for inspiring myself and many others over the last few years. For now I’m looking forward to the future, getting back in the water, exploring new places, creating and shooting lots and just experiencing what the world has to offer.