Mark Tipple Documentary Film & Photography: Storytelling for a Purpose

An Interview with Mark Tipple

Bahati looks at the blackboard, Kigamboni Community Centre

Mark Tipple is a documentary filmmaker & photographer from Sydney, Australia. Camera in hand he filmed and photographed the touching story of the youth of Kigamboni Community Center, Tanzania, the aftermath of the much-hyped Jakartan dream and the village of Navakai, Fiji ravaged by natural disaster.

With his brother Luke Tipple, a marine biologist, he explored the vulnerability of the great white shark in Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Very recently he extended his support for another noteworthy cause, ‘Protect our Waves’. It was led by the Surfers against Sewage.

Widely appreciated, ‘The Underwater Project’ has added a new dimension in exploring the violence or the passivity of blue and its relationship with the man. Mark Tipple’s own words are the bathymetry of the profoundness of his passion.

Ocean has been an integral part of your life all along. How has riding on the ebb and flow of natural tides nourished and prepared you in embracing the life that otherwise would have eluded you?

I feel most comfortable when in the ocean. It actually doesn’t matter what happens during times of stress or anguish, as long as I’m around the ocean within a short period of time I can re-focus and deal with whatever the problem is. I interviewed a good friend about his connection with the Ocean a few years ago who answered it with ‘It gives us a chance to do battle…you go out there and you test yourself…and sometimes you come out on top.’ I can relate to this out of the ocean, and in.

Since leaving full-time work to focus on freelance photography and film work literally every week I think this may the last job I’ll get or the last print I’ll sell, should I be doing something different or continue on this path. These thoughts are similar to diving under a large wave; neither will seriously injure me physically, but it’s the emotional anguish that can cripple. Having such a strong personal connection with the ocean has definitely helped me deal with these times; I know I’ll always come up on the other side and breathe.

Since you took up photography professionally to document the ocean in its many facets, the journeys and lives you encountered, how has it helped you in gaining new perspectives and knowing the ‘known’ around you better? How do your spirits for adventure fuel and supplement your passion for photography?

I went to 11 different schools in my youth. My father continually moved us from place to place, he was a surfer and preacher so he was either chasing waves or different causes to join and decided to bring his family with him. This amount of movement meant both myself and my brother became very independent, which has helped both of us in our respective lives and careers.

Since making photography my full-time profession I’ve felt extremely comfortable being on the move and thinking on my feet, which has transferred a great amount of trust with clients when shoots may not go according to plan. The same can be said for my work in the ocean, the ability to change direction within a split second has saved me from disaster on reefs more than once, which also keeps me excited to travel somewhere new and rise above my comfort levels.

Melody, Photography by Mark Tipple

In ‘The Underwater Project’ you are able to capture the uninhibited emotions of your subjects often lost in a personal struggle amidst turbulent waters. How as a photographer do you cherish those spontaneous moments when you freeze on a frame of great intensity and raw emotions? Over the last few years that you have pursued and developed this project has there been a change of approach or refining of style?

It sounds strange to make this connection but The Underwater Project came from my interest in conflict photography. I can remember everything about the day I stumbled across Pep Bonet’s work, especially those from Sierra Leone, the graphic images couldn’t have been made if his camera had a ‘presence’. The people were comfortable and Bonet was somewhat free to translate their story, without the hesitation felt when people are in front of the camera.

I sought the same sort of freedom for people in front of my camera while working in Indonesia and Fiji it may take a few days or weeks until the comfort is found, whereas underwater it’s almost instantaneous. Granted, no one can see me underwater and I’m ‘taking’ their photograph instead of ‘giving’ their photograph, but over the three years I’ve worked on forming a connection with people after we surface and not simply leaving without a word, which brings it full circle to the reason I’m a photographer; to use the camera as a medium to connect with people and convey stories about a certain time in their life.

Vacant, Underwater photography by Mark TippleStreak, Underwater photography by Mark TippleRise, Underwater photography by Mark TippleTemba, Underwater photography by Mark Tipple

You have also taken up a number of projects focusing on humanitarian aspects, from community-run initiatives in Kigamboni to creating ‘Ocean Series’ for documenting lives that centre around the mystic yet mighty ocean. How do you feel about the fact that your skills helped you in connecting and also effecting tangible changes in lives of others’ that may not have been possible otherwise? In future how do you plan to further develop your work towards this end?

I was working with humanitarian organisations before shooting underwater. I dabbled in various areas of photography for a few years prior, from fashion to sports to events, then I started really enjoying environmental portraiture with which I found a smooth transition into storytelling for a purpose.

I contacted a few local organisations and had great results from taking a step back and not only showing the issue, but the people who are actively trying to help those in need. In early 2009 I worked closely with three organisations in Jakarta who were helping children return to school and migrants who moved to the city on the promise of work, but found none. Upon returning to Australia I couldn’t find an avenue for publication of the reportage. By starting the Underwater Project my profile was raised, which in turn flowed onto the Jakartan reportage and now the series from Kigamboni.

Knowing that my work with these organisations and my personal underwater series is actively helping to change other peoples’ lives is more than I could have ever expected, and again, reinforces the underlying reason why I picked up a camera almost decade ago. In the next few years, I’ll continue to work on the Ocean film series and meet interesting people who are ‘doing cool things with the ocean’, as well as linking with humanitarian organisations to profile their work. I’m in a fortunate position now where I can choose which projects I work on without the pressure of solely making money to get by, which means I can put my heart into each and every photo or film, without it feeling like work.

Your documentary in coordination with marine biologists including your brother, Luke, made you aware of the endangered ecosystem of the oceans. Share with us some of the lowlights that you were a witness of about the fragile marine ecosystem during the course of this project. Tell us about this creative collaboration that facilitated this experience.

Shark Diver arose after a heated Skype conversation with my brother (Luke) who was excited to travel to New Zealand to swim with a newly found Great White aggregation site, without any support crew or finance to dive safely. As a Marine Biologist he had been working in the shark diving industry for a number of years, and while he was capable of diving with the sharks at Guadalupe Island in Mexico he wasn’t ready to jump in the water with sharks who may have never been around scuba divers. I thought of ways to raise finance for him to take a crew and dive safely, and the idea of a documentary came to plan.

Sharkwater had recently been launched and we didn’t want to make a straight documentary, and I had just finished a number of docudrama and short films and enjoyed the challenges and storyline opportunities that arose, so we decided to sway from a scripted film but still follow a drama(esque) narrative. While shooting in Mexico we were accompanied by world respected scientists and filmmakers, who in their own right had more input into the film than I did as the director. I openly admitted that I had been researching the shark industry for 4 months, where they had been living in the industry for a collective 35 years, and welcomed the finer details to emerge.

Being scientists, they had more information than I could fathom; doom and gloom facts about the ocean being close to the point of no return or the acidification process being faster than we realise, which I would have loved to focus on, but the underlying story for the film came first.

For every fact, there are reports that differ, and for me coming into this fresh I don’t have the background to say yay or nay to the state of the ocean. I’ve seen some of the negative sides of overfishing and pollution from sea vessels, and for this reason, I don’t work in the fishing industry and choose not to focus stories based around commercial fishing. I may find myself in a position for a more in-depth documentary at some stage, but for now, I’m stoked telling simple stories of people who revolve their lives around the ocean, without any hard line or political agenda.

As a visual storyteller, you were privy to some of the most desolate and arid places as well as its stark opposite scenes. How do you feel about this diversity of nature that makes the journey so richly rewarding?

During my first trip to Jakarta I was overly sympathetic to the migrant workers who were living on the train tracks; as they told me their story I kept referring to how I thought I should feel at their situation. Upon watching the video of the interviews I realised the people weren’t feeling as I thought they were or should be, instead, they were stronger and more comfortable than I was treating them. Realising this we revisited the tracks and spoke with the same people from the previous week, but I focussed on their strength rather than the negative, which gave the story a positive note and encouraged more people to watch instead of making yet another poverty porn documentary.

Through the following trips and projects, I’ve been determined to focus on peoples’ strengths rather than weaknesses, which in-turn makes viewers want to watch and get involved rather than click away. The end result of this is the people benefit from fundraising and re-telling of their story, which again, for me is more than I could have ever hoped for.

You deal both with photography and filmmaking. Do you consider one to be the extension of another or approach both the forms in mutually exclusive ways?

About the same time as working with humanitarian organisations I realised that I want to tell stories, not just make pretty photos or films. Often a project will involve both, other times just one or the other will suffice. I’m actually more trained in filmmaking than photography so when the photography industry transitioned into the film I was one step ahead of the curve, and a number of clients appreciated this.

I still find more power in a photograph, but for different reasons than the same moment caught on film. I admit it’s a blessing and a curse that the same camera can record both photo and motion as I’m constantly deciding which medium would suit the story at hand, it’s definitely a tentative time switching between the two when filming someone closely. I’ve found a simple explanation beforehand helps, if time doesn’t permit simply blaming the camera for technical faults while I switch out filters and shutter speed lifts the mood and these few extra moments can be captured.

In many ways this ride is about feeding the imagination of the inner child. How to maintain this childlike spirit even on days when darker clouds of disappointments are looming in the sky? What has been the defining moment when Mark Tipple has discovered or rediscovered himself?

I’m a goofball most of the time. I don’t ever want to grow up or get serious and stop having fun in life.

Last winter I hit a pretty low place both personally and professionally, one day, in particular, a storm was meant to reach Sydney at midday, however by early afternoon the ocean was still calm. I took advantage of this and filmed in the water for 5 hours until the storm hit and sent me running for cover, and later edited the footage as a homage to these darker days. When I’m working behind the camera it feels similar to being in the ocean, I’ve heard other photographers treat their camera like a barrier between them and the subject they’re photographing, but for me it feels like an opportunity to connect even deeper with the people or the issue, as it’s for a greater purpose than just personal.

When I can combine the ocean with being behind the camera I can put any dramas or despair behind me, and just experience being myself with my friend, the ocean.

Portrait of Mark Tipple

Mark Tipple

The documentary filmmaker from down under loves delving into the depth of the ocean in whooping joy. Much like a child who lovingly creates and recreates sand castles Mark’s dreams and aspirations surge with the tidal waves of ocean around which his life revolves. Perhaps we can aptly borrow the words of Alexander Pope from Essay on Man, ‘On life’s vast ocean diversely we sail, Reason the card, but passion is the gale.’

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Mark Tipple