Trent Mitchell Captures Our Primal Connection to the Sea

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Saltwater cures everything. “I need a dip in the sea,” we often say, self-prescribing the substance because we believe it holds healing power. Trent Mitchell sits down in his Gold Coast studio to discuss how underwater portraits in his latest body of work Inner Atlas convey a supernatural relationship between humans and the ocean.

Words by Aaron Chapman

Photography by Trent Mitchell

It’s a hot Gold Coast day that looks hotter with the sky tinged auburn. The sea laps gently towards the pandanus separating sand from bitumen. A little over the road and away from the squinting heat is Trent Mitchell’s studio.

“The hardest thing you can do in photography (or as a person) is be true to yourself and your subject.”

When you look around Trent’s studio, there’s little evidence of his long career as a professional photographer working with some of the biggest names in surf. Sure, there’s a handful of external hard-drives neatly piled beside the computer but when you really look around, you see a space inhabited by an artist. Box frames, a bit of Tasmanian oak and the smell of fresh paper. A large green cutting mat on a table in the middle of the room. On a long shelf rests Martin Parr’s The Last Resort and Christopher Anderson’s Approximate Joy. And the most recent and largest addition to the space is a commercial Epson printer — a tool of Smalltown Artlab, Trent’s new fine art printing endeavour.

These are the hallmarks of a photographic artist with a preoccupation for personal projects. Trent’s website is proof, a treasure trove of dedicated series’ and other thematic observations. Both the studio and the digital spaces he occupies reflect an ethos applicable to both photography and life — the importance of honesty. Trent verbalises this when asked about the process of photographing long-term projects:

“The hardest thing you can do in photography (or as a person) is be true to yourself and your subject. You have to be honest with yourself along the way. Live and breathe your project. Play!” he says.

“If you take those three seeds: positivity, creativity, nature and combine them, incredible things can happen.”

Australia Seriously

This sense of playfulness is apparent in Trent’s entire oeuvre, but notably in Australia Seriously. In 2017, Trent exhibited this project in its entirety at Juniper Hall in Sydney — an added benefit of winning the Moran Prize in 2015.

Australia Seriously is a recount of Trent’s childhood caravanning in a Windsor. This upbringing informed his understanding of the Australian vernacular and translated into a unique ability to celebrate cliched iconography through a wickedly observational lens. You can hear the tongue of slang ring out though the bleached brightness of Coober Pedy. The faint click of a tourist’s camera at one of our oversized monuments to pineapples, galahs, chickens or dinosaurs. But the ocean is never far from the frame and as a sequence of images, Australia Seriously constantly brings the viewer back to Trent’s cultural and spiritual habitat — the water. A whale in the desert, sharks muralised on shopfront walls and people frolicking on a pink flamingo pool toy become the narrative conduits between other photographs made in urban and rural spaces.

From Sydney’s Northern beaches, Trent was raised with sand between his toes although he didn’t start riding waves until he was a teenager. After that, Trent was addicted and in pursuit, adventuring off the beaten path. It was on these adventures to remote surf destinations that he first picked up a camera and realised the ocean would be a lifelong subtext to his artistic vision.

“Nature has always influenced my life and the way I see the world. The ocean has taught me everything and given me all of the opportunities I’ve ever needed both artistically and professionally as a photographer.”

“There’s a hugely unknown photographic space to be explored when it comes to our metaphysical relationship with nature.”

Inner Atlas — Part 1

In stark contrast to the colour photographs made in Australia Seriously, Inner Atlas is comprised of underwater portraits of bodysurfers. The work exists relatively devoid of a timestamp, tugging the viewer back and forth between utopian and dystopian states. Black and white photography has long been a symbol of hope and despair and this balance is something Trent has chased and achieved photographically.

“My intention for Inner Atlas was to reveal the primal qualities of the ocean and to create a deeper, beyond-human connection to it. There’s a hugely unknown photographic space to be explored when it comes to our metaphysical relationship with nature.”

As the project statement asserts, “The work stands to showcase the human spirit in previously unseen ways by making the flux of fear and joy, and the fragility of our co-existence with the environment, palpable.”

It’s the portrayal of this metaphysical relationship to nature that imbues the work with such layered meaning, particularly given recent environmental events. Yet Trent asserts his role as artist in working closely to this theme is not to be mistaken as conservation or activism.

“I don’t know enough to be a legitimate conservational source, so I’ll never give myself approval to be one,” he says. “To be very honest, my current work is more about how I see the world and about an idea that’s close to me. I simply have to get it out of my mind and collect it as photographs.”

“My intention for Inner Atlas was to reveal the primal qualities of the ocean and to create a deeper, beyond-human connection to it.”

Humanity’s relationship to the ocean is deep. Saltwater leaves our skin. Saltwater leaves our eyes. Some will know the rush of being propelled headfirst by a cresting swell that’s travelled thousands of kilometers to reach our beaches. Some will recall a gasping winter morning immersion. Some may never have seen the ocean. Regardless, the many waters surrounding Australia form a cultural moat, an egalitarian mass beating ceaselessly against our shorelines and ourselves. The ocean shapes the Australian identity. The movement in these photographs isn’t the propulsion of a swimmer, it’s the movement of the ocean upon the skin of Trent’s subjects.

Aside from the artspeak, Trent’s ulterior and important ambition of Inner Atlas is that others pursue their own way of translating what they feel into what they see.

“I want people to believe they can see things in new ways. To break their own paradigm. I want to spark positive energy, get people excited about nature and have them harness their own creativity,” Trent says. “If you take those three seeds: positivity, creativity, nature and combine them, incredible things can happen.”

Equipped with a Nikon D850, water housing, a few different lenses, a speedlite and ND filters, Trent entered the elements with his subjects without precise consideration for what would result conceptually, showing how much of Trent’s personal work is guided by feeling.

“Photographically, I get inspiration from the process more than anything. For me the process reveals all the goodness. I need to make things feel right. When I throw my full attention into something I love, that’s all the inspiration I need. The results tend to flow naturally from that space, when my intentions are right.”

Inner Atlas — Part 2

If you head to Trent’s website you’ll notice that Inner Atlas is accompanied by ‘Part 1’ — indicating the work’s incompleteness. But with Trent’s gradual philosophy on process, the subject matter for Part 2 still exists in his imagination.

“My creative process will reveal that to me along the way,” Trent says. “I’m still shooting it! The best part is I have no idea. All I know is that a book is in the works.”

Trent’s unsure how long this process will take and will continue photographing with no deadline. Time is imperative to a photography project. Time to build a conceptual framework. Time to let the process inform the concept. Time to review and respond to results.

“I tell people it took me 6 months of brainstorming the idea and then 12 months of shooting to execute the first stage of Inner Atlas. So, it took me 18 months?” he says. “No, in reality it took me 20 years to arrive at this point of photographic and more importantly, life experience for everything to work. There’s no shortcuts and that’s a really good thing if you’re doing something you love because your days become filled with the good stuff.”

I look around Trent’s studio again and know I’m surrounded by the good stuff. I pick up a copy of Seagull by Jonathan Livingstone and Trent says, “That book’s my biggest influence, and it’s a children’s book… without pictures!”

Trent is someone with a multiplicity of influences, but he’s influenced more by day-to-day experiences, travelling, people, places, things, colours, light, family and friends — the good stuff he needs to freeze. The good stuff that compels a person to spend a lifetime winking at the world.

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Trent Mitchell

Trent Mitchell is an Australian commercial, portrait and documentary photographer who celebrates connections between people, nature and places through his lens. He effortlessly draws emotional response through the colour of place, gesture and expression through subtle observations of the everyday and simplifying moments with impeccable timing.