TIM Nunn is a photographer committed to documenting surfing’s dance in the world’s coldest corners and he just published a book. After leaving the editor’s chair at Wavelength just around the time the surfing industry’s financial heavens imploded (he wasn’t implicated), Timmy started putting together the 208 hardbound pages of NUMB - a book which chronicles a decade spent in a frigid embrace. We caught up with him to find out how the adventure started?
I think the biggest challenge was in Canada. Just being dropped in the wilderness for weeks, totally out of contact, with no way of getting in or out again until the boat driver came back. Tim Nunn
Numb started really with a trip to scotland with Ian Battrick about ten years ago, that’s where we met up with Chris Noble who we became good friends with. Then over the following six years it just gathered momentum as we travelled through Norway, Iceland and Canada; opportunities for more adventures came along and we took them, it was a totally organic process. We met Timmy Turner in Ireland for example, he came with us to Iceland then he invited us to join him and The Bruhwilers in Canada which turned out to be an unforgettable experience. So whilst these years may seem like a long time, it wouldn’t have been such an organic process if it was cut shorter.
When did the project become “NUMB” rather than just a series of trips?
About two hours outside of Oslo driving over a bridge looking at a frozen river to be exact. When I became photo editor of Wavelength I always had a plan to do a book of some form, something which would be a lasting document as a pose to a series of features, but it was in Norway that the dream went from just thinking about it to a reality really. Once I’d committed to it then there was no turning back, I had told enough people about it that meant it had to become a reality at all costs. It grew from there, it’s a totally independent project, we did the whole thing off our own backs from the trips right down to putting the book together, all self funded. We did have the benefit of a awesome designer in Rob Coumbe who obviously helped put the final book together, but apart from that it was just a labour of love to get it done.
You’ve always been drawn to the colder side of life - was this a deliberate decision or just a natural slide? It effectively differentiates you from the endless churn of tropical perfection.
Couple of reasons really, one is I had spent a lot of time in the tropics and there is no doubt a well groomed Indian Ocean ground swell is better in every way than a wind ravaged wind swell in Iceland, but I didn’t want to go down the tropical path, I love these places but just wanted something different. I have a love for the cold anyway having grown up in The North Sea, but also coming from a Geography background I have always been fascinated by the extreme ends of the planet. There’s also the great thing about surfing, it lets you go to places you would never normally travel to, why would you go to a remote Icelandic outpost in The Greenland Sea if you were not looking for surf for example? So by using surf to get to these places it gives you the opportunity to explore where you would never have thought of going before. It’s more the desire to see these outlying regions that has spurred me on to go cold than anything else, surfing has just been a bit of a vessel to get me there.
When faced with the choice of a Mentawai boat trip or the back of a Ford Cortina in Iceland with Ian Battrick as a pillow you would choose…?
Haha, well I’d never use Ian as a pillow that’s for sure, but I’d always rather be camping rough in somewhere like Iceland than sat on a boat in Indo, so much more fun and way more of an adventure.
If you could distill cold, remote travel into a sentence what would it be?
Harsh, unpredictable at times frustrating but ultimately the most rewarding sort of adventure you could ever undertake.
Where would you say you faced your greatest challenges?
Everywhere had its own challenges, crazy driving distances in Norway, tides and weather in Scotland, the fleeting swells of Iceland, but i think the biggest challenge was in Canada. Just being dropped in the wilderness for weeks, totally out of contact, with no way of getting in or out again until the boat driver came back was the biggest challenge. It’s not like a guided tour, we went in with just a saw, fishing rod and a few essentials including a gun, then you just survive from day to day. It started with building a camp, then daily collecting wood for fires to stay warm by and to cook on. We had to fish daily where we could and of course deal with the bears. Coming from such an easy life living in England you take instant communication for granted, but being totally cut off from civilisation is strangely therapeutic, but in its own way challenging. That coupled with being in amongst the wildlife, made Canada pretty amazing, it’s an experience I am fortunate to have had.
What are the three things you would never travel to a cold place without?
A really good sleeping bag, it’s the most expensive item I have ever purchased but it lasted me six years now and I never ever get cold and I’ve slept outside well into the minus twenties. An amazing wetsuit, I’ve tried a lot, I currently use a Lunasurf 6/4 which is insane, by far the warmest suit I have ever swam in. Then I think probably long johns.
How difficult/or easy was the process of shifting and editing the photos down into a book? Presumably the cutting room floor was pretty stacked?
An absolute mission. You think 208 pages is a lot of space, double most mags and no ads, but still cutting it down is hard. Not only that, you have to figure what tells the story best, which is not always the best shots. Pretty shots are pretty shots, but Numb is designed to take the reader on the journey with us, so you have to bare that in mind. It was good having Ian involved, we didn’t agree on every shot, but that’s what makes it work.
Camera tech has changed a lot in the last 10 years, is that reflected in the progression of time in the book? And in how you approached your work.
The very first trip I did, of which there are a few shots in the book, were shot on film, and I still take film cameras with me. I would probably say 90% of the book though was shot on one Nikon D300, there are some older shots taken with Canons but that camera stood the test of time really. I actually picked it because of all APSC sensor sized cameras it performed best in low light at the time, which is obviously really important when you’re in Iceland with only five hours of sunlight a day.
What would you tell an aspiring photographer setting out now to start a life as a surf photog?
Go your own way, simple. Maybe even start with a film camera and just shoot what you love, don’t stand on the beach or reef with the herd, just be as different as you possibly can, and don’t be afraid to be either. If you’re going to spend money on gear get water gear, it’s way more fun as well. Oh and get another job as well haha, sadly the days of being just a surf photographer are long gone, certainly in the UK anyway.
As the ex-editor of Wavelength would you ever consider returning to the chair? Or is the freelance life too attractive?
If I had the opportunity to edit a magazine again I would jump at the chance, it is the funnest job in the world, or was anyway. It’s 10x better than being freelance although after five years at Wavelength I was ready to move on. Having said that I think the good old days of magazines have passed sadly, that’s partly due to recession, the internet and magazines not understanding and moving with the times quickly enough from a business model point of view. Some have by creating different income streams but the magazine model hasn’t really changed, being mostly reliant on ad revenue to survive was never going to work long term, and with the arrival of online media and social media especially, giving instant access to content, it makes it hard. Having said that long articles with beautiful photography will always be appreciated in a well curated and edited form by those who really get what’s going on. One of the reasons I have loved making a book, and it’s why I am now helping others make theirs and planning another myself. There will always be people who buy good books/journals and they stick around a long time as well, so they are good investments of time to produce a lasting project beyond the realm of naughts and ones.
You can grab your copy of NUMB here.