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Eugene Tan – The Genius Behind The Lens

By Dan Hutton on April 3, 2015 in People

_DSC1662-background-web-articleWhere are you originally from?
I was born in Perth, I grew up there and stayed there until I was about 21, and then I moved to Sydney.

What were you doing when you first came to Sydney?
I was a graphic designer and worked in interactive design, which back then was working with CD ROMs; this was pre Internet. When the Internet came out, I started moving into web design and rode the dotcom boom. I worked for a big business called Eclipse. They were in Perth and they moved me over to set up an office here in Sydney. They then set up offices everywhere and got quite big. I was with Eclipse for ten years.

Do you miss anything about Western Australia?
WA is an amazing place to grow up. It’s a beautiful coastline and it’s got amazing waves. It’s probably the closest to Hawaii, I reckon, down at Margaret River. The water’s really blue, but now it’s full of sharks. Growing up, everyone did something in the ocean and all my mates had boats. Even from when we were very young, we’d be driving boats to Rottnest Island, water skiing, windsurfing, skurfing, swimming, diving and all that. I miss that. It’s pretty quiet over there too and I do miss that aspect of it, as it’s quite relaxed. But I remember rocking up in Sydney and going, ‘This is just ridiculously good’, especially these Eastern Suburbs beaches. I mean, I just thought, ‘This exists?’ I’d never been to Sydney. The CEO said to me: ‘You’ve got one week; pack your bags, you’re moving to Sydney.’ I was living at home at the time and this was a big leap. I was 21 or 22 and I rocked up at Bronte in a cab on a six foot day and I went, ‘Wow, it’s like this every day!’ It was lining up perfectly and I never saw it that good again. I hired a place on Bronte Marine Drive after I saw a for lease sign when the cab stopped; I said, ‘I’m taking that.’ I lived right on the beach at Bronte for four years. It was $400 a week, which was huge for me. I surfed Bronte before and after work. In WA, the wind comes in at 10am and you can’t surf or do anything for the rest of the day. There’s no protection. Here, you surf all day and there’s swell all the time, whereas in Perth it doesn’t break during summer.

What do you love most about Bondi and the Eastern Suburbs?
The light. It’s amazing because the sun comes up over the ocean here. The colours you get in the morning are off the hook. I love the morning vibe down at Bondi, because everyone’s up early and they’re really motivated to go and better themselves with exercise. Most of the people I meet down the beach early are great people. They’re beautiful beaches and I love the community around here. Bondi cops a lot of flak for its tourism and backpackers, but there’s a really good young Bondi family community here.

Is there anything that gets your goat about Bondi?
As a surfer, getting mowed down by beginners all the time sometimes rattles you a bit. It’s really dangerous. I just can’t get my head around the rubbish on the beach either. Who on this planet would still leave rubbish where they’ve just been and walk away? That just spins me out. Sometimes the pissed larrikins get on my nerves a bit. It’s okay most of the time, but it’s more at night when the kids are asleep and you hear guys just going ballistic on the street and smashing every car window, which does happen. That shits me.

If you could pick one other country to live in besides Australia, where would it be?
Hawaii; it’s epic. I think part of my time will always be spent there. It’s just a beautiful climate and a stunning place with spectacular waves. My wife wants to go there for two months next year. Currently we are spending 5 weeks a year there.

How is it balancing work when you’re overseas?
It’s extremely hard, because I’m in holiday mode, I’ve still got to do work and I still have to do updates on my website. It’s a constant juggle and I need to watch the balance between family time, work time and holiday time.

When did you get your first SLR camera?
I would have been a teenager when I first got an SLR, but before that I had a tiny little camera I used to carry in my pocket and take it to school and everywhere. When I was a teenager, like in year nine or ten at school, no one wanted to do photography. Media class was where the dorky kids ended up. We had a dark room at our school and I used to just wag class and hide in there quite a lot. No one used it – it was my sanctuary.

Did you shoot surfing and the ocean back then?
No, I used to document my school life, because we were an all-boys school there was a lot of testosterone. I used to shoot portraits in black and white and then go to the dark room and just disappear for the afternoon. I wasn’t really into school; it just didn’t suit my skill set. Most of the day I was dreaming, looking out the window watching wake boarders let loose (we had a ski park right next to our school). I was interested in art class and sport. That’s about it.

How many email addresses did the first Aquabumps newsletter go to and was it called Aquabumps back then?
Fifty, and no. It was just an email that came from Eugene Tan. Really personal.

When did your first email go out?
Officially, that would have been 1999. It was the year Google started; I remember that. I remember Google coming along and thinking, ‘I dunno if that will take off.’

How has social media affected your business?

It’s been so interesting. I just want to show my work to as many people. I think everyone pretty much knows that I sell prints now. That’s how I make a living. The problem with social media is that everyone’s just upside down about it. Facebook came out and it was the be-all and end-all. You had to be there and I put every effort into that. I was just like, ‘I’m just going to build the biggest Facebook page ever.’ My email subscriptions, which were my core, slowed down and Facebook grew like wildfire. Before Instagram, if you said to me that you could take a picture, upload it on your phone and show it to a zillion people on their phones, I’d be like, ‘No way, that’s just crazy talk.’ That’s a dream; that’s what I do. The only problem with social media is that they can move the goal posts. The key to all this is to own your own list. You must own your customer. You can’t be at the mercy of someone else, whether it be Facebook or Instagram. Social’s media’s helped build my business and awareness. We’re reaching more people. It’s helped internationally to reach more people faster, but I’m trying to bring them all back to the Aquabumps website and newsletter where I have more control.

How many online email subscribers do you have?
We’re on 47,000 at the moment. There’s a count on the home page but it hasn’t grown that much lately. You can do a history on a lot of people, and a lot of them have been on there for over 12 years.

Where’s your favourite destination for a surf trip?
The Mentawais. I’m going over in June and it’ll be my 16th trip there. I love shooting those waves. To surf there is a bit of a torment though, because you get cut up so much on the reef and it hurts.

Have you copped much grief over the years for taking photos of localised waves and sending them out to thousands of people?
In the early days, like 15 years ago, for sure. People just didn’t understand what I was trying to do. I copped a bit of flak at Tamarama. It’s a small beach. Everyone’s very attached to their beaches and their local. You’re seen as showing the world and they think everyone’s going to rock up at their beach the next day. It just doesn’t work that way, even with the big audience I have now.

What time do you get to bed at night and rise in the morning?
I go to bed at about nine-thirty or ten o’clock and rise at five-thirty quite consistently. Sometimes in winter it’s a bit later because I have to wait for an hour for the sun to come up. I’m not naturally a morning person, but I think after 16 years I’ve just forced myself to become a morning person. You definitely get the gold in the morning. That’s when you see the best colours of the day. People say to me every day, ‘Did it really look like that?’ And I go, ‘Well, get up and have a look out the window and you will see.’ It’s not that early.

How do you continue to find the motivation and inspiration to shoot?
The new stuff is really hard and I try to break it up with these big sabbaticals to Hawaii and Indonesia. You need to break it up, because shooting the same beach for 16 years can be monotonous and I can go on autopilot. My rule is that if I’m standing in the same place I did yesterday, it’s bad. I’ve got to get out of there. I’ve got to go to somewhere where I’ve never stood and shoot. That’s why I’ve chartered helicopters and I’ve gone under the water. I’m always searching for that new angle. There are still so many angles I haven’t covered in Bondi, even after 16 years of shooting it daily.

Do you still do helicopter stuff or do you just use drones these days for the aerial shots?
Drones – the buzzword. I owned two, and then went off them. I never use them anymore. They are just too much hassle and cause too many problems when shooting around people. I’ve always got to get the edge though. I’ve got to be in front of everyone else and innovate. Innovation is in my personality. I’m doing something new right now and no one can work out what I’m doing, but I’m getting an unusual angle. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but I was doing it in Hawaii and everyone was looking at me on the beach going, ‘This guy’s a lunatic – what is that?!’

Do you think you can continue to find new perspectives to shoot from?

Yep. There are a zillion angles, lenses, settings on my camera and depth of fields that I can play with.

You’ve been married for four years and you now have two kids; how did that love blossom?
My wife Deb just rocked up at the gallery and I thought she was a mega babe, and smart and funny. A friend brought her in to the old gallery at Brighton Boulevard and I was like, ‘How you doing?’ We connected from there – after she purchased a print, of course.

How has fatherhood changed your perspective on life and business?
I’m more balanced, because I’m naturally a workaholic. When I started Aquabumps I was so focused. I was a maniac and I drove everyone nuts with my passion for Aquabumps. There’s a bit more balance in my life now. I go home at six o’clock to see my kids no matter what’s going on really; I never want to work at night, whereas I used to just work through the night.

Is it true that your missus is the brains behind Aquabumps these days and you’re pretty much just a monkey with a camera?
Yes, this is true. It is awesome having help. Deb was very senior at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. She was the sales director, so basically she did all the commercial deals with Harper’s Bazaar and she came from an advertising agency background. She knows what things are worth. There was a phase where I was trying to do everything: accounting, answering all the phones, working on the floor, and trying to deal with all the commercial deals, the sponsorships and selling advertising. I thought I was losing my mind. It was awesome when Deb came on, because I don’t have to tell her what I want to do and not do. She just knows. She just goes out and gets it, and she’s amazing at her job. Everyone’s trying to poach her. It’s lucky I locked down her down with marriage.

What’s Aquabumps worth without Eugene Tan?
I don’t know what it would be worth. It’s very personal to me, the business. It’s basically documenting my life. It’s hard to divorce the lines between business and personal. Are you making me an offer?

Besides spending time in Hawaii, could you ever see yourself leaving Bondi?
I think I will always be around here. I really like it here. I love the winter months. When it’s sunny, there are waves and it’s quiet, I love it. All my friends live around here and it’s a stimulating place.

Do you have any other big projects going on at the moment?

I did an exhibition in Singapore and it went gangbusters. I’m looking at London and New York now. I went there eight months ago to investigate it because we keep on shipping to London and New York constantly every week. I thought I better go and see what’s going on over there, and see where we’re sending all this stuff. It’s all corporates. It really is a big market we want to expand on.

Is a move into the London and New York markets likely to happen soon?
Yeah, I think the boys are old enough and I’m ready for action. I can take on a lot more. I think I’m going to attack a bit more now that we’re out of the baby phase.

Do you reckon it would be a lot easier to open a gallery now that you’ve done it here?
Yes, but I’d probably do a pop-up first. These galleries cost so much money to set up and to run, with physical bricks and mortar and leases that go for ten years. They kill you if you get it wrong and make a mistake. I like online business. Less risk.

What makes Aquabumps stand out from the other surf photography websites?
Brand. Coming from graphic design, I’m a brander, so I build brands. There weren’t many other surf photography websites when I started. First to market is a pretty big competitive advantage. I was the original, and that’s a global thing; I could not find anyone else doing what I do. It’s an original idea.

What do you think prevents more photographers from opening galleries?
A photographer natively is a wanderer; they want to go exploring and shooting. All the really good guys that I know ask, ‘What’s it like running a gallery?’ I just say, ‘You’d absolutely hate it.’ There’s retail for seven days a week and you only close three days a year. You’ve got to make sure someone’s opening, closing, putting the alarm on, cashing the tills, printing, checking that you’ve got enough stock; all that boring stuff. Most photographers don’t want to do it. It’s just too big a commitment.

Besides surfing and photography, what are your other interests?
I’m really interested in graphic design, architecture and design interiors, which are all related to my work.

Do you have any role models or people that you look up to in the photography world?
Definitely. Christian Fletcher is a guy in WA and he shoots a lot of landscapes. He doesn’t do much beach stuff, but he is the nicest guy, a fantastic photographer, good at post-production and he has four galleries. He does really well. Also Peter Eastway is a guy in the Northern Beaches who is technically A1. And I love Ray Collins; he’s a good water shooter.

Do you have any advice for youngsters looking to make a career out of photography?
You definitely need a new, never seen before angle, technique or style. You’ve got to develop a style. I love it when people say, ‘I went to dinner at a person’s house and I could tell it was your work.’ I see that as a biggest compliment ever. In a world where there’s a sea of photography, you need to stand out with a specific style. Don’t even think about trying to emulate someone else’s because you will get nowhere. You need to be known for something. Ray Collins is known for a slab wave at a critical moment in good light. Clark Little does his shore breaks. You need a style. Be persistent. It’s not going to happen overnight. People say to me, ‘I’ve been posting on Instagram heaps but I’ve only got 20 followers.’ You think that this grows overnight? Keep at it. People are very impatient these days. Don’t be too focused on equipment. I think you can still shoot good stuff with gear from five years ago, and it’s getting better.

Do you support any charities?
Yes, SurfAid is my main charity, because I love the Mentawais and helping the people there. They’re very poor and sick. I’m an ambassador for them. We donate to every school around here too, and to the surf clubs. I think it’s important to support the local community.

When do you think you will retire?
I reckon I’ll shoot for the rest of my life.

In an ideal world, what does the future hold for Eugene Tan?
Better photos, more travel, maybe one more book and lots of time with my kids. I want to have more amazing trips. There are so many things I want to see. A few weeks ago I ticked off something I‘ve wanted to do for about 20 years – I swam out at Waimea Bay on a big day to shoot photos. That was pretty incredible. It was only about 15-foot, but it’s a very steep drop. I really want to continue to do all those bucket list kind of things. It’s a big list.