The Underwater Project, feature story // 26 May 2011


A haze of smashed blues and whites, the bright sting of sunlight and a briny hit. The wave rolls onwards, lurching forwards with a power that seems so benign from afar. It throws itself in a powerful lunge, crashes down and topples everything in its path – but for the ocean swimmers who know that to survive a wave is to dive deep.

Grip the sand, they remind themselves. Go low, stay low. Their faces spontaneously contort, their muscles tightening in reaction to the saltwater and the struggle for power in the ocean.

They surface when the surge has passed. Then breathe.

They don’t know that a camera has captured it all; from straining arms clawing at sand to eyes squeezed tightly shut against the bite of salt.

Mark Tipple, 29, holds the 11-pound camera as steady as possible in the melting foam and makes his way to the shore.

“Surf photography’s been around forever, I wanted something different” Mark says.

“I was bored of shooting empty waves. One day, I was caught inside by a big wave and as I dove underwater I suddenly thought I’d see what the kids next to me were going through – I turned the camera on them.”

That day, it took just one picture, ‘Escape’, to transform the way Mark viewed the ocean – the split-second decision to turn his camera on the swimmers setting the ball rolling for a series that has captured imaginations across the globe.

“That first image remains one of my strongest – I realised immediately that it was close to what I had been looking for ten years ago on my first surfing road trip.”

We’re in Bronte, Sydney, the cityscape a long way off from Mark’s home in Port Lincoln, South Australia. Like a fish out of the water, I can’t help thinking the city isn’t where this tall, lean, dreadlocked surfer belongs.

Mark’s bond with the ocean has taken him around Australia, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, and by road through America and Canada to Alaska. The sea is in his blood – his brother’s a marine biologist and his father was a nomadic surfer who, like the rest of the family, has always lived next to the ocean. Photography was a way to structure the random travel, to give his journeys a goal. It was a frustration with “stock-standard surf shots” that led to Escape – and, eventually, The Underwater Project.

Since Mark Tipple began, by happy accident, to photograph ocean swimmers underwater, he has come to recognise a physical and emotional fragility in people that so often remains hidden. The images portray a stillness that betrays the violent energy of the situation, but taps into one of Tipple’s original – and unpredictable – inspirations for the project: war photography.

“I wanted to focus on the same raw emotion as the war photographs I had seen, to capture genuine expression; to see people being real. Usually, the camera’s presence gets in the way, people don’t forget the camera, they pose and feel self-conscious. However, over time or through a greater elemental presence than the camera, genuine emotion is unveiled, and poses are stripped away.”

The struggle for survival underwater is a way to break down this formality, a catalyst for breaking down social inhibitions. “Underwater, people are concentrating on survival – the camera is the last thing on their mind, and real emotions are revealed without trappings.”

“I didn’t know anything about these swimmers and suddenly I was seeing raw emotion, a struggle. The same wave can be beautiful and perfect and in a split second it can switch to end-of-the-world Armageddon-style violence.”

Mark has had his fair share of struggles, too.

“When we shoot big waves back in SA, I only shoot with people I trust as I don’t want to put them in danger. My mate Scott and I went to a remote beach near Port Lincoln – the waves had about 8 to10-foot faces, but when we got out there we realised they were about twice as big as we had expected. We got absolutely pounded, managed to get three shots in the 20 minutes before the ocean kicked us back to shore. The ocean beat us. I’ve landed on people, I’ve run into them underwater, I’ve stayed underwater too long and surfaced dizzy from a lack of oxygen, I’ve lost my camera. And I was almost landed on by a dolphin…”

His work has taken him to California and Mexico, where he filmed a short movie, Shark Diver, featuring his brother, Luke, a renowned shark expert.

“After filming Shark Diver, I was back in SA, in the water. A bunch of fins came close but we knew they were dolphins, as sharks rarely swim in packs. I was waiting for the next wave when a dolphin flew from the back of the wave towards me and landed less than three feet away. I didn’t think much of it until I saw the shots later – there was even a rainbow in the picture.”

Serendipitous as they may be, the majority of shots focus on survival and there’s a clear subdivision of powers at play. “There are those who are fighting against the ocean, they know how to handle themselves and the waves. Then there are those who are dominated by the ocean, the rookies who are not sure how to stand up to its power.”

The pictures have come to document the changing face of the ocean, the seasons and moon as power-brokers – and man as a small element in the face of the ocean’s might.

“The summer is full of skimpily dressed swimmers, so vulnerable in the face of the elements. They are more exposed, the ocean could have complete dominance over those swimmers – the pictures show a frailty in the face of the ocean. In the winter, there is a shift to people who are stepping it up – people in wetsuits, in flippers, they are prepared.”

The ultimate sad irony, of course, being man’s dominance over the ocean in terms of climate change and pollutants – and how unprepared for the potential of acidified oceans we really are.

In the end, he says the shots are “just pretty pictures, they’re context-less.” Out of the search for meaning has come Mark’s current project, Ocean.

Whilst filming Shark Diver in California and Mexico, Mark worked alongside Scott Cassell, renowned marine biologist and environmentalist. “Scott told me that we could have as little as twenty years until the ocean kills us. It was a wake up call.” He soon saw the potential of using ocean photography as a call to arms, a merging of humanitarian concerns with the beauty of nature. “I realised that humanitarian concerns can’t be divorced from environmental ones – they’re one and the same.”

And so began the Ocean series, Mark’s next project, upon which he has been working for the last few months. The culmination of attempting to combine humanitarian work with his love of the ocean, the series is about “giving the ocean a human face” and focuses on multimedia stories about the people who base their lives around the ocean – the ocean is their work, pleasure and survival, those for whom “the ocean is engrained in who they are.”

He has spent weeks filming surfboard shapers and pro surfers, lifeguards and surf photographers, a commercial and recreational fisherman and surfer, a nomadic surfer, a marine biologist, a Fijian family who live on and from fish and will next capture similar footage from nations who are most at risk from sea level change.

He hopes the series of 12 seven-minute films, all produced from his room in Bronte, will not only encourage introspection about the place of the ocean in our lives – and a possible future without its spectacular presence – but will also push corporations to invest in ocean research. It’s hard to comprehend here in Bronte with its perfect beach and suntanned lifeguards, but there’s more than swimming and surfing at stake.

“We’re Australian. The ocean is so much a part of who we are.” He quietly says as he stares out beyond the arc of golden sand and towards the distant waves, the city of four million behind us.

“I’m worried about our lifestyles. My life is the ocean – I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t there.”












BUY PRINTS and support Mark’s work at The Underwater Project and show some love on his Facebook page. Words by Daisy Dumas, all images copyright Mark Tipple.


Silent. Disco. Shut up. Dance., Agenda Sydney // 13 May 2011

My piece in today’s Agenda Sydney…

Silent discos – every city council’s favourite kind of nightclub – are enjoying their moment in the sun (or should that be moon?). They’re here, there and everywhere right now, from Goa to Glastonbury and, now, Sydney’s good ol’ Spanish quarter.

When the eponymous play ‘Silent Disco’ opened at the Griffin Theatre recently – about two iPod-loving teens navigating sex, school, drugs and more – it seemed too good an opportunity to miss: combine the edgy and much-feted play’s cast and crew with a clubbing trend. Voila, Silent Disco’s very own silent disco, ‘Silent. Disco. Shut up. Dance.’ was born.

For those who haven’t indulged in a silent oeuvre before, this one-off night at the intimate and ever-hip GoodGod Small Club is a hootenanny with a twist. Decks: check. Up-for-it crowd: check. Fully stocked bar: check. Big bassy speakers: erm, none, other than sound-packed headphones worn on each and every reveller. Then it’s up to the seasoned DJs, including Discopunx and Generic Collective, to channel tunes directly into each headset, leaving the dancefloor and bar… well, silent.

Remove your headgear and not only will you be able to hear yourself think and speak above a live DJ set – a novelty in itself – you’ll also find it far easier to chat and hobnob with the stars of the play and behind-the-scenes Griffin Theatre crew. Oh, and the crowd dancing around you in silence makes for a surreal treat, too.

Where: GoodGod Small Club, 55 Liverpool St, Sydney
18 May | 8pm-late
$10 | $12 at the door

Or, read online here.


The great global buffet comes to Lakemba, CNN // 12 May 2011

My latest food feature for CNNGo…
Island Dreams CafeIsland Dreams’ food is Malay-influenced and served with rainbow crackers.

As media mogul James Packer blasts the tourism industry for marketing clichés, attention is turning to Sydney’s lesser-known treasures.

The multicultural food offerings in Lakemba, in southwest Sydney, are really spicing things up.

What down-at-heel Lakemba — which is named after a group of islands in Fiji — lacks in colonial charm and overpriced Ken Done apparel, it makes up for in exotic flavours and bargain meals. This melting pot of nationalities and creeds carries an ambiance more like downtown Beirut than Bondi Beach.

The area’s modus operandi is halal to satisfy the burgeoning Muslim population.

Let’s stake out six multicultural eateries in Lakemba.

Island Dreams Café

Specialising in home-cooked meals from two of Australia’s far-flung territories — Christmas and Cocos Islands — Island Dreams Café delivers a dose of sleepy island life to the suburbs – despite there being fewer than 200 islanders in New South Wales.

The islanders’ Malay ancestors heavily influence this cuisine’s flavors and it’s hearty stuff. Typically popular dishes are ayam panggang and acar –- lemon chili chicken and cucumber and carrot pickle.

Coconut oil features throughout (palm oil is used on the islands) and the fresh chili used in the special sambal tumis cuts through the rich chicken and fish dishes, which are prepared each morning by Islander Alimah Bilda.

The fish crackers — alarmingly rainbow-colored — are also a delicacy.

Island Dreams Café, 47-49 Haldon St., Lakemba; +61 (0)2 9740 9909, Sunday-Thursday 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-midnight.

Al Madina Bakery

Al Madina Bakery

Some 35 years’ experience is a tasty ingredient in Al Madina Bakery’s Lebanese pizzas.

You’d hope that after 35 years of crafting lahmacun — sometimes called Turkish pizza — Ahmad Gaber of Al Madina Bakery would know his way around a Lebanese pizza; and yes, he’s nailed it.Hundreds of these freshly baked, doughy incarnations go for less than $1. This truly democratic fare keeps everyone from tradies to the old Lebanese guard satisfied.

The meat lahmacun is authentic –- the sweet and perfumed cinnamon-edged lamb is topped with a sprinkle of chili flakes and lemon juice.

All the usual suspects are also there — from fragrant thyme za’atar to spinach and cheese in all different sizes.

A varied sample of these flavors barely breaks $5.

Al Madina Bakery, 156 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9758 2665, 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily

Warung Ita

Warung Ita

Humble, cheap and halal — just like Sumatra.

This Indonesian canteen is unpretentious, bursting with flavor and cheap as banana chips. The halal fare is served up by the humble Nazar family.Serving the typical Sumatran buffet-style food, nasi rames, the restaurant is bare and plain, leaving diners to focus on the flavours in front of them.

The chunks of meat in the deep, rich, coconut sauce of the beef rendang contrast with the eggplant and chili. The chicken curry is light and lively with hints of lemongrass.

Peanuts and crunchy anchovies are served on the side, while a homemade, smoky sambal is perky without being nasal-passage-clearingly fiery.

Warung Ita, 1/168 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9740 5527, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.

Patisserie Arja

Patisserie Arja

Sweet: znood el sitt at Patisserie Arja.

Lakemba is strewn with patisseries serving Lebanese sweets.As well as the idiosyncratic baklava, Patisserie Arja does a mean znood el sitt — or ladies’ arm –- a tube of flaky pastry stuffed with ashta (sweet Arabic-style cream) then soaked in sugar and rosewater syrups.

It won’t win awards for healthiness but the level of sweetness is fiendishly more-ish.

If this taste leaves an addictive inclination, whole platters include samples of bird’s nests, baklava, finger rolls, and a variety of pastries with date, walnut, pistachio, almond and ashta fillings.

Patisserie Arja, 129 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9740 8320, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Great Wall Kitchen

Great Wall Kitchen

The food at Great Wall Kitchen looks like Chinese but is Bengali-fused.

Indian-Chinese food with a halal bent? Where else but Lakemba? The Li family is originally from China but moved to Sydney via Calcutta.At first glance the menu seems mostly Chinese, but there’s a giveaway sign on the wall that reads: “Sweet Paan available here.” This eatery’s sleepiness feels more Indian than Chinese.

Don’t expect dim sum –- dishes are only loosely based on Chinese. Chicken Manchurian is a speciality but the most popular dish is fried chili chicken –- soya heavy and fresh without any sweetness.

Great Wall Kitchen’s fan base comes from local Pakistanis and Lebanese who return for the hot and spicy food.

Great Wall Kitchen, 154 Haldon St., Lakemba; +61 (0)2 9759 9531, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Tuesdays.



The servings at Banoful will fill you up.

Banoful is the third in a chain of lively Bangladeshi restaurants that cater for a curry-hungry Bengali and Indian locals.Flavours are enriched by ghee and the servings are huge — the undisputed heavyweight king of Bangladeshi food, kacchi biryani, comes with a borhani yogurt drink and salad. It’s one of those dishes that’s best left to master chefs: the combination of steaming rice, fragrant spices and tender goats’ meat is close to faultless.

Not for the first time, diners are left to wonder how such exotic, sultry flavours have quietly found their way to Sydney’s west. How long will the secret last?

Banoful, 49 Railway Parade, Lakemba, +61 (0)2 8084 0187, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Or, read over on CNNGo.

Bondi Bikes, Agenda Sydney // 5 May 2011

My piece for Agenda Sydney:

It’s possible, we suppose, that you may have missed the whole fixie fad over the past couple of years… but we doubt it. As questionably safe (and momentary) as the fixed-gear trend may be, it has done its bit to reinvigorate the image of the trusty bicycle, and the urban steed – in almost any form – is about as coveted as an accessory gets right now.

Settling into gear is Bondi Bikes, a brand-new concept store with a warehouse feel that elevates the two-wheeler from trusty function to a thing of art. It’s about pedalling a European riding sensibility to Sydney – so, along with sleek, paired-down fixies and stylish racers, think baguettes in front baskets and rides over Brick Lane cobbles.

Next to the showpiece – an early 1900s Malvern Star – is a selection of some of the world’s best bike brands, which hang like museum pieces above wooden floorboards. Two-wheelers from Crème Cycles, Bianchi, SE, Vanmoof and Cinelli are all here, as is Aussie accessories brand Knog. There are also Nutcase helmets, whose quirky designs like preppie argyle, retro dots or eight-ball black make noggin’ protectors vaguely wearable.

Both guys and girls are catered for, although it seems there’s a bit of a unisex trend afoot – we hear step-throughs are no longer just for the fairer sex and, yes, fixies are being snapped up by tenacious ladies.

So, street cred firmly in check, it’s time to start saving up for that divine Crème Café Racer.

Where: 230 Oxford St, Bondi Junction
(02) 8014 7615
Mon-Fri 9am-6pm | Sat 9am-5pm | Sun 10am-4pm

Or, the article at Agenda.