Watching the waves from a third-story deck on the North Shore, longtime photographer Ted Grambeau’s eyes take on the quality of his photos: still, but vibrant; attentive to his subject, but searching for the invisible elements — more color, more light, more message. We’re speaking on the topic of climate change, the inspiration for his latest photo exhibition, SEALEVEL, which premiered in Hawaii last week. He’s watched sea levels rise throughout more than 30 years of professional work. The meditative nature of his images, he found, could be his way to combat one of the most urgent global concerns of our time. He explained that it’s his way of giving back, empowering members of the surf community and the surf industry at-large to raise awareness on environmental issues. Grambeau talked with us about his new photos, the social powers of surf art, and the eco-responsibilities of surfers today.
This collection is beautiful. It's stirring.
It's not a sledgehammer. It's more like a marshmallow you get plunked in the head with.
The sledgehammer-type messages are the ones that turn people off immediately.
You feel guilty. That's the main emotion, and I don't think it's an effective motivation.
How were you motivated by climate change, then?
I guess I was reflecting on the invisible nature of sea-level change. Going into the water every day, I can't possibly see those levels change, with the tide coming in and going out. This body of work has been my own journey, and it creates some beautiful images. That's when I started to reflect on my life at sea level. But it also made me reflect on how the topic of rising sea levels is discussed today. I've been frustrated with the way individuals relegate problems that are on a world scale and we never really address them. Everyone knows that climate change is probably real, and that the effects are potentially catastrophic. But it's not going to be our generation. It's going to be the future generation, so it's not my problem – so the argument goes. But to be honest, the turning point or tipping point will come from our generation, even though we conceivably won't see sea level change in my lifetime. If we don't change our impact as humans on the environment, it will be irreversible after our generation and into the following generations. It's literally now or never, or we doom future generations to extreme climatic conditions.
Was there a moment when those thoughts collected into an epiphany for you?
It was an issue that I could relate to through photography and speak a message into that transcended the images. There are plenty of issues in the world that individuals aren't happy with, and we'd all love to solve them. I don't think any one individual can solve any one problem, but as a whole, we can all take a step in the right direction. Particularly in Australia, it's frustrating to the point where, because of economic circumstances, people will deny conclusions on issues that most of the world's scientists say is a real deal, and then you'll have some media person or a politician with a vested interest in an economic force say, 'Ahh, that's not real.’ We have all sorts of problems, but we have to address those problems.
How does the discussion on climate change in Australia compare to talks in the U.S.?
Australia has seen this roller coaster season during economic times when our government’s messages weren't clearly put across. The subject of climate change became an economic issue and nothing else. Australia has among the highest per capita rates of carbon emissions. But it's not just our responsibility. It's the whole world's. If we don't do anything, no one else will. So I think Americans are in the same boat. We've crossed a point where it's beyond a regional green issue. It's a whole population-of-the-planet issue.
Your voice certainly resonates in the surfing community.
I'm a small voice, but my connections are to voices that are loud, and there are inspirational people out there who have even more connections. People like Jack Johnson who take a stance on environmental issues are living evidence of what one person can do. My whole mission for this is just to raise awareness. Look, we have a problem. Can you look at the facts and see if we have a problem? Then you address things individually. Maybe I can ask my local member of Parliament or politician what their stance is. If enough people do that, then politicIans move according to the tide of what the demand forces them to do. It certainly won't affect me personally, but it would be rude for me as a person to leave the planet the way it is at the moment.
Especially for us as surfers. We have to save the very arena that we live in.
Absolutely. Any surfer knows that a minute change to the depth of the reef is going to affect that break, and so we panic. Indonesia has seen some change after a few of its earthquakes. People are going, My favorite break is changing and it will never be the same. It's heartbreaking. Not to say that there won't be new breaks. But there will be an erratic, climatic sort of destruction that will happen as a result of climate change. I just want to raise awareness and raise the questions particularly for the surf community. For professionals, it's their workplace, and they've got a massive voice. All the surfers who intend that their children can also play in the ocean should take some responsibility.
Does this provide any inspiration for work down the road?
I definitely would like to consider my subjects' relevance to other things. I'm far from an environmental crusader. There are great figures like Dave Rastovich who have devoted a lot of energy in their lives to positive causes. I applaud that. I don't hold myself in that regard, but it certainly does give me pleasure to move a little bit in that direction. I'll hopefully be photographing until the day I die, and if I can use photography in a positive manner, that's even richer than if a company paid me a lot of money to do the same thing. I think companies are starting to appreciate that, particularly in the surf world – art and creativity are both integral parts of the community. There are some great artists in all disciplines, particularly in photography, like GoPro, and other digital material within the last few years. I think about how each year, there are more photos taken than in the entire history of photography. It's a powerful medium. And social media has created this in-touch awareness of the world, and even that carries a lot of personal power. If that goes far and goes around the world, and if people are thinking about the issue, there's something achieved that wouldn't have been otherwise. It's sort of quite frustrating when the surf's pumping and I'm in a gallery; I have to resist the urge to look out the window. But it's the least I can do.
For more information on the exhibit, visit Ted Grambeau’s website.