The Opportunist

Aussie boog environs, ocean knowledge, and close-range action with Josh Tabone.

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Hailing from Sydney’s hot, dry outer suburbs, Josh Tabone found his entry into wave riding when his mother packed him and his two siblings into the back of a Toyota RAV4 and relocated the family about four hours up the coast to Port Macquarie. Considered the bodyboarding capital of Australia, it’s home to two world champions and a renowned right-hander that, thanks to a breakwall built into the north end of the town’s main beach in the 1930s, is an alluring, shape-shifting sight, running like a punchy rip bowl on one swell, then throwing like a heaving slab on the next.

The year was 2004 and Tabone quickly set out to adapt to his new small town. Fourteen is an impressionable age and, in his quest to anchor his uprooted life to a new identity, bodyboarding was an easy sell. That first summer, he walked through the door and never looked back. “Mum got me an Ocean & Earth Assassin for Christmas that year and I started going for earlies every day,” he says. “It’s a way of life up here. I remember they had board racks at school and it was 100 meters from the beach. Kingy [Damian King, former world champion] was in all of the videos and in every magazine and then in the lineup every day, hooting us kids into waves at Breakwall and running clinics around town. He was the second champion from Port after Eppo [Michael Eppulsten, 1990s bodyboarding innovator].”

Knee-high foamy.

I met Josh for the first time more than a decade later, in 2015, while working on an issue of the bodyboarding magazine Movement. As the publication’s newly minted editor, it was a return for me to the place that gave me my first-ever gig as an intern—running coffees, collecting wads of submissions from the post office, accepting whatever contra wetsuit or broken-in board was thrown my way, and soaking up the atmosphere with painful enthusiasm. This time, I was desperate to bare my talent to the world through a vessel destined to be consumed by a very niche fraction of it. Tabone, in staggering contrast, was the cool, quiet, long-haired senior photographer with a knack for delivering consistently sharp, bankable shots with feeling. Since we were living in different cities, it would be years before we ever met in person, though by that time he was the most dialed number in my phone.

Flicking back over the issues we worked on together through the glorious and sometimes deceptive lens of nostalgia today, it’s clear that he was the real workhorse in the partnership. Whether behind the lens or curating the page, every spread and aspect of the job was imprinted with his mystifying brand of laissez-faire and boundless stoke: a red-eye trip to the grand opening of the Texas wave pool, an 11th-hour cover change meeting after putting the kids to bed, lubing the deals with advertisers and sometimes shooting the campaigns himself.

To me, Craig Anderson is a once-in-a-generation surfer. Toss him in a barrel with a dramatic backdrop and every frame is gold.

He was almost always bobbing in the lineup at the sessions that made the cut, logging hours in layouts, then pulling together the finished pages while somehow finding time to talk me off the ledge on a daily basis. A lot of folks would say that he’s “cool as a cucumber, down for whatever” (a fair characterization on first impression), but to label him only as laidback would be a discredit to Tabone. In actual fact, he’s got an eye for opportunity that others can only dream about—and when he shoots, he scores.

Maybe spending your formative years in a sleepy town like Port means you’re inherently more chill, or maybe going with the flow is in his DNA. Where it came from is not as important as where it’s gotten him. For one, it’s how he found his profession in the first place. “As soon as I got my license,” he says, “I was driving up and down the coast every weekend for waves. My first proper ride was a van I’d decked out and put a bed in, and some mates and I just set off chasing swells.”

During one fateful session, he agreed to swap his board for a friend’s fisheye setup while they were in the water and fell head first for life on the other side of the lens. His first rig was an investment born from stacking shelves and slicing deli meats, and its debut session was a test out at the local. It produced a handful of shots published in Le Boogie, the late surf rag of Aussie photographers Luke Shadbolt and Phil Gallagher. On his very next trip, to the South Coast’s Aussie Pipe, Tabone got a run of images placed in Movement. Once published could be good fortune. Twice in back-to-back sessions signaled more than dumb luck.

Behind the scenes, bodyboarding was going through a serious media boom in the early 2010s: Videographers like the Waldron brothers, Todd Barnes, and the No Friends and Tension crews were dropping seasonal full-length films and hosting premieres around the world. The competitive circuit had a legitimate list of world-class riders being hosted at blue-chip waves like Pipe, Teahupoo, Puerto Escondido, and El Fronton in the Canary Islands. There were multiple magazines to cover the action and a pipeline of brand cash fueling the whole thing. It offered new talent like Tabone the chance to globetrot with the world’s best bodyboarders, splitting time between shooting, sitting in the judge’s chair, and tagging along on strike missions with surfers he’d idolized on the page and onscreen. “For a few years there, I was living out of a suitcase. I’d do three months in South America, come home for a couple of weeks, fit in a mission to the desert, then head back off to Europe for a bit before bouncing to Hawaii.”

The godfather, Mike Stewart. I’ve always found that the most intelligent people ask the most questions—and Mike questions everything. He’s always on the quest for more knowledge and is never content with what he knows or with what he’s mastered. I started a series of double-exposure portraits of all the best surfers I know to make a deck of playing cards. Mike’s definitely the ace of spades.

That changed at the close of 2014, when he returned to Port and wound up in a summer of love with his now-fiancée, Hollie. On the first day of the following spring, his son Zephyr, meaning “west wind,” arrived. For the guy living out of a suitcase it was an adjustment, but one he learned to take in stride. “It was hard at the time, but looking back I believe it’s the meaning of life to teach your own child how to live and survive, just enjoy life and nature,” he says.

Now Tabone is a father of two, so trips and commitments take a little more plotting, but the shift has opened the door for going an inch wide and a mile deep on opportunities closer to home: crafting magazines, commissioning photo books, and partnering with  some of the biggest surf brands on creative campaigns.

Being more involved in the board-riding community has also led to a natural evolution into documenting the world of standup surfing. Tabone now regularly shoots with the likes of Craig Anderson, Noa Deane, Shaun Manners, and fellow Port alumnus Benny Howard. “These guys don’t need much,” Tabone says. “It doesn’t have to be fully cooking to get a nice photo, which is why shooting photos with them is so exciting.”

The admiration is mutual. Take the time Anderson accidentally reversed his car over Tabone’s camera gear during an under-caffeinated surf check in the desert. “I felt awful,” says Anderson, “but the way Josh handled the situation so calmly really stuck with me. Nothing fazes him. He’s so relaxed, always there quietly capturing the moment.”

Benny Howard drives big rigs—which can be a brutal gig. Luckily, he balances it out by surfing a lot. I love how delicate this image feels with his reflection in the wave face.
Noa Deane will kneeboard on his standard shortboard in critical slabs. Nobody else is doing that. He got so many crazy ones this day just messing around—getting shot out of deep tubes and then doing a huge turn on his knees. Sometimes he’ll even go out for a full-on boogie session. He’s kind of the antithesis of the well-rounded waterman, but it seems like he’s accidentally on his way to becoming one.

“He’s down to shoot all day and then have a beer after,” adds Deane. “And he’s just as invested in the wave itself as the person riding it.” Red-belt bodyboarder and water-man Mike Stewart has crossed paths with Tabone many times over the years and has also taken note of his operation. “He’s always been passionate about what he does, and his high degree of ocean knowledge allows him unique positioning and angles in a wave.” High praise from the man with arguably the most ocean knowledge in the world.

In the water, Tabone’s style is part nature, part nurture: His background in bodyboarding has given him experience in crucial zones—among heavy slabs and tip-toeing on a dry ledge—skills augmented by his willingness to scale cliffs and goat tracks to reach the kind of ugly setups that send chills down the necks of sailors and also make for money shots. “No adventure, drive, or hike to score good waves is too hard-basket for him,” says Anderson. In fact, some of his most impressive shots were born from fighting wild rips, swimming through rogue sets, and dodging white sharks in the Great Australian Bight.

 The Monday after the Australian Football League season ends, all the players go out and have a bender called “Mad Monday.” This iconic South Coast day was coined the “Mad Monday Swell” because it hit on a Monday, was hard offshore, and everyone went nuts. I was swimming, got pounded, and lost my fins. A nice guy picked me up on his ski, where I continued to shoot. I got a couple covers from that session—which ushered me into the surfing world from the boog world.

For Tabone, the ends justify the means. “Being in the water is the best view and as close as you can get to the action,” he says. “Plus not everyone surfs, so it’s such a unique perspective. Airs look better from the water. Certain guys look better up close. Like Craig—he’s got such a beautiful style and effortless approach. It’s magnetic and you want to be as close as possible to that.”

No frame, whether full bleed or filler, goes in the bin. In the study at Tabone’s bushy Port Mac retreat sits a trove of terabytes: past sessions stacked up on dated hard drives like a surf cartographer carefully archiving his discoveries. “I have every hard drive going back to when I first started shooting,” he says. “Every session is like a piece of the past. ‘Do you remember that big Depot day?’ I do. The year, the month—everything is labeled and easily accessible. One would say I’m a bit OCD, but I think being organized in that respect is important. That’s part of the joy: Having a camera with you all the time is kind of like documenting a small part of history.”

Our calls are less frequent these days and the tone less frenetic, but Tabone still constantly has multiple projects cooking, both big and small. A recent conversation pulled him from his back garden with the kids. He was teaching them self-reliance through growing their own food. Another one caught him packing his bags to jet to the Gold Coast, where he was planning to attend a film premiere. Whatever opportunity life throws at the man, he always seems to take his best shot.

The subject. Photo courtesy Joshua Tabone.

[Feature Image Caption: Self-described “rugged individualist” Chase O’Leary and I travel to this psycho South Coast wedge regularly. You take off on one side of the reef and then you’ve got this other wave that’s equal size coming straight toward you. It breaks like a machine all day long.]