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Behind the Lens—Tom Terrell

If you’ve been following the surf culture in Canada and more especially, in Nova Scotia, you’ve probably heard of Tom Terrell. Always in the water with local surfers, including Dean Petty, Tom is braving the cold winter daily to capture the perfect shot. The conditions are hard and the air is crisp, the thought of a warm coffee is hard to escape, but Tom goes into the sea anyway because waves are good, lineups are uncrowded and surfers are talented. Nova Scotia is such a unique place and anyone that went there before can say that it’s like a paradise for any cold water surfers.

The people that you’ll find in this part of the world, the ones that surf year-round, are people that are committed to surfing in a beautiful way. They’re passionate, willing to make sacrifices in order to capture or live the perfect moment and they’re trying to bring their own unique touch to the surf industry. Tom Terrell is one of them. Not only a photographer, Tom is also a musician & a surfer. His photos, captured by either a digital or analogue camera, highlights the surf scene of Nova Scotia as well as the cultures and waves of other countries around the world. Don’t be surprised if you end up being transported into Tom’s adventures when you observe his photos; that happens to us too.

An interesting man, a talented photographer and an amazing musician, Tom is truly worth discovering. So, to get to know him a little more, we’ve decided to ask him a few questions about his move to the East Coast, his passion for writing and the challenges encountered at sea when shooting. 

Born and raised on the Canadian west coast, you moved to Nova Scotia in 2009 and stayed there ever since. What made you stay in the East?

What brought me to NS and kept me here for some time was a woman from Cape Breton. Eventually I realized that the surf here was far more accessible (for a person like me) than in BC. I could surf before work and after work and still work in the city. In BC, the surf is far away from the city and once you arrive you’re still not there… You’re usually having to hike through a (stunning mind you) giant rainforest and even at the more consistent spots it’s easy to get skunked. Which, when you’re driving 1.5 hours or more and hiking to the beach, hurts a little bit more than it does in NS. Don’t get me wrong, I know that BC has some great surf and there are plenty of great communities near great surf but working as a musician in and around the city and surfing in NS definitely feels easier.

I started playing with a band called The Modern Grass, based in Halifax, and we toured full time for 4 or 5 years so that kept me around as well. I also like the size of the city here and the peace and quiet. I grew up in and around Vancouver and I watched the city stuff itself full of dollar bills and sprawl outwards and upwards into a big mess of over priced real estate, shopping malls and condos. It happened too quick and it feels like at least over on this side it’s happening slower. I miss the mountains, the giant trees, the orcas, the cherry blossoms in February, my friends and family and a few other things but I think I’ve decided to call NS home for now. 

Not only a writer, but also a musician, it seems that words are no secrets for you. How did you develop your passion of writing?

I think that I began writing because it’s easier than talking. I like the way words look on paper. I used typewriters for a long time and I liked the clickity clack and the care that it takes to do it right. I like writing letters too. A couple years ago I had a transatlantic love affair and I wrote a lot of letters. I was writing them to a writer and I really wanted to impress her so it forced me to write neatly, be honest and to make good-looking, thoughtful and meaningful letters. I’ve also been writing and recording songs for 10 or so years. At first it was for fun and then it was for a living so that definitely kept me writing. I still write songs but lately I am more interested in writing stories and poetry.

I think at the end of the day I write in an effort to make sense of the crazy mixed up world we live in. It’s a way of processing and when I write I am able to let the emotional dust settle and express myself with a little more clarity.

In the last few months I’ve had this routine of writing on napkins most morning with my coffee. Don’t ask me why. I’ve got a good collection going though. I also write short stories, mostly romanticized versions of real life debauchery and (relative) tragedy. I think at the end of the day I write in an effort to make sense of the crazy mixed up world we live in. It’s a way of processing and when I write I am able to let the emotional dust settle and express myself with a little more clarity. 

Your photography work is mainly focused on surfing and it makes us wonder, what came first for you—photography or surfing?

Photography came first for me. My friend Jeff Leake got me into photography in high school. Back then they still had dark room classes in public high schools. There were no cell phones, no social media or anything, so taking photos was for yourself mostly. I used the classic Canon Ae-1 and the Pentax K – 1000 as well as a Holga which is a really basic but neat medium format camera. After high school I moved out and started surfing. Eventually I experimented with surf and film. I have a few shots I really like but it felt like a lot of work and money for not much reward. I continued to shoot film, mostly portraits and landscapes until 2014. I was touring with a Scottish singer named Rachel Sermanni who is from a place called Aviemore in Scotland and her neighbour actually designed and constructed his own water housings. He had an old one and gave me a good deal on my first digital camera (canon 40d) and a housing and that’s when I actually got into surf photography. 

What’s the most challenging thing you need to face when taking photos of surfers in the ocean?

Off the top of my head, ice cream headaches and white water. Winters here are really cold. When most people think cold, they probably think Iceland or Northern Scotland or somewhere like that. But as far as I can tell, thanks to some freakish arctic jet stream or labrador current or something like that, it’s actually much colder in Nova Scotia than any place I’ve ever been, surfing that is. I’m not bragging, it’s just really friggin cold. The water hangs just below zero for a lot of the winter and with the windchill the average air temperature in the colder months is about – 15. Thus, the ice-cream headache challenge. Swimming around in those temperatures can be a challenge but it’s also really fun. It’s amazing how quickly our bodies can adapt to extreme conditions like that. I think the white water challenge is more a land problem. I’ve never asked another photographer if they hate white water the way I do but I like lots of space in photos and I find white water is always getting in my way. It’s also really bright compared to most things around it so it can mess with your exposure.

What’s one of your wildest stories you’ve experienced so far in NS?

Not sure if this is the wildest per se but a couple of years ago I was getting out of the water at a point break and I got battered pretty good. I have since realized that making it out of the water unscathed at a cobblestone point break, on a big day, at high tide is a feat. I learned that lesson the hard way. I swam pretty deep into the bay and thought I’d have an easy exit. I got really close to shore and got to my feet, ready to scuttle over a few boulders with my fins on and my camera/housing tied to my wrist. I did one last shoulder check and was dismayed to see a 15-foot wall of white water coming my way. In my panic I tried to jump over that wall, which obviously didn’t work, and I got tumbled like a stick of wax in a dryer. I washed up on shore with a cracked water housing and a broken trigger finger. This really sucked because a) I needed that finger to play guitar and make a living and b) I was leaving the next day to California on a water photography excursion. 

I meet a lot of people who lack confidence as artists because they aren’t making lots of money doing it or because they aren’t being published or signed or given awards or sponsorships and while there are great artists out there who are making money I think there are plenty more who aren’t.

Do you have any creative goals at the moment? Which ones?

I guess I have loose goals. I’ve been making a very slow transition in the last couple of years from a full-time musician to a part-time musician/part-time photographer/part time writer. Part of this transition has been about throwing the idea of goals out the window. Some people are really good at balancing things like professional and personal life or artistic integrity and marketability. I am not one of those people. At some point in my career as a musician I became too focused on the business and industry side of things and it messed with my mojo. I meet a lot of people who lack confidence as artists because they aren’t making lots of money doing it or because they aren’t being published or signed or given awards or sponsorships and while there are great artists out there who are making money I think there are plenty more who aren’t. At the risk of sounding like an idealist with my head in the clouds, which I may well be, I think that being a real artist has nothing to do with money or success in an industry. I think it has to do with honesty and commitment and a lack of fucks given about what anyone else is going to think about what you are doing, saying, shooting, singing or whatever. My biggest creative goal is to bring that philosophy back into my life.

Why have you decided to become involved with Nouvelle Vague?

I think it’s great that y’all are giving me, and everyone else who’s involved, a chance to put some words and photos somewhere other than on a napkin or Instagram. It feels like the dust is sort of settling around the whole print vs. screen situation, at least I hope it is. I am glad to contribute to a project that supports surfers, artists and print.


This interview is part of our series “The Digital Return” – a series of articles that present each contributor of our soon to be released digital magazine. 

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