surfer wade carmichael deep in the barrel at snapper, by swilly

Surf photography is a tough game, and it’s one that doesn’t stay still. Relatively few people possess the combination of talent (both behind the lens and in the water) and tenacity to rise to the top; fewer still stay at the top. Simon “Swilly” Williams is a rare one, having carved out a career with his camera that’s a quarter of a century long and still going strong. Originally from fair Cornish shores but a resident of Australia’s Gold Coast for over thirty years, there aren’t many of the world’s best surfers who Swilly hasn’t photographed either on the sand bottom right points where he’s based or in far-flung tropical locales. We’ve known him for a long time and he’s our man on the ground when it comes to capturing our Australian team riders. This year the East Coast of Australia has had the season to end all seasons, with seemingly endless back-to-back swells, great banks and good weather. In spite of barely having had a day off in six months and right before packing for an upcoming Indo trip, Swilly was kind enough to spend an evening on the phone with us to share some stories from this special cyclone season, and to talk about his career to date.

right hand point break wave on australia's gold coast


You’ve called The Gold Coast home for over a quarter of a century now. What was it that drew you to that stretch of coast?

I guess I started in Western Australia. I landed there in 1986 and then my friend and I drove from there right across to Sydney and made our way all the way up to Cairns, briefly stopping at the Goldie and Noosa, before coming back down to the Gold Coast. I mean, what can you say? This stretch of coast has got perfect points, beautiful weather, insane waves, and at that time I was a single young man and there was great night life and amazing girls. This is where I met my wife. I think the main thing was that for years I’d seen the Gold Coast portrayed in movies and I’d always wanted to go there. When I finally got to experience Kirra and all the amazing points, and Durranbah, I fell in love with the place. Then there’s the fact that on either side you’ve got the Tweed Coast and Straddie [South Stradbroke Island], all very accessible from here as well as the points further south. I think it’s an amazing place. I absolutely adore the Goldie.


surfer kieren perrow off the top on the gold coast photographed by swilly


Can you talk us through your formative years surfing, and how you got your start in surf photography?

Surf photography for me took off at the grand old age of 16 when I went with fellow St Agnes surfers Martin Wright, Mark Joule, Turnip and Teep to Sri Lanka. At that time I’d done minor contests and competed in the South West in the juniors, and was sponsored by Tris. I love my surfing but I suddenly discovered that I really wanted to be a photographer. I came back and did courses and got qualifications, and from there I travelled more and then moved to Australia. Once I was here in Aus I did quite a few years of minor jobs, then I had a studio with a one-hour film-processing lab in it that my wife and I ran. I was lucky enough that when I was living in St Agnes I’d met Rabbit [Wayne Bartholomew] and I’d stayed in contact with him, and slowly but surely I started making more and more contacts with all the surfers around here. We left the shop after five years and I announced to my wife that I was going to become a professional surf photographer and she said, “If you make any money out of it I’ll eat my shoes.” Well pretty much within the first year I’d made more money than I’d ever made, and yes I did suggest to her that she eat her shoes but she refused! I was lucky – I got taken under surfboard shaper Nev Hyman’s wing, and that’s how I met Parko, Rasta and Dingo. From there I also started meeting more of the professional surfers and developed a pool of talent that I could shoot regularly. I also had Martin Tullemans, one of the world’s first premier professional surf photographers, who gave me a lot of advice along the way. It all moulded my career and from there I bumped into this guy called Darren Handley who introduced me to Mick Fanning. And that was it: We became lifelong friends and that bond with Mick, Joel and Dean, when they became The Coolie Kids and rose to fame, I basically rode on their coat tails and went along. I was the one with all of the footage of them and it just catapulted me into lots of work. To this day they still remain some of my best mates and I’m very, very, lucky to have met the people I’ve met. I also at the same time met this young girl called Stephanie Gilmore and I’ve been friends with Steph ever since as well. Obviously there’s been a lot of work on my behalf, but there’s also been quite a bit of luck and I was very fortunate to meet the people that I did because without a doubt they moulded my career.


surfer wade carmichael carving off the top on a right hand point break wave on the gold coast, photographed by swilly

Before emigrating to Australia, you did your fair share of missions escaping the Cornish winters to search for waves in the tropics. Can you tell us a bit about some of those trips?

The first one was that trip I did to Sri Lanka in 1980. The following year I went with Martin Wright and his girlfriend to Barbados and we toured around there, and that was an amazing experience. But really the biggest one was at 18 years old leaving and going to Nias all on my own via Amsterdam, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, and then finally into Indonesia. It was four months of my life that I’ll never forget. I was all on my own, but I met loads of amazing people and made loads of lifelong friends, a lot of who were from Australia. One kneeboarder by the name of Nick Jane actually ended up coming and living in Cornwall for quite a while. I think that really cemented in me the passion to come and live in Australia. I went back to Sri Lanka in 1984 when the coup went down, too. When I went to Nias there was nobody there. After those trips we went out to Bali and then on to Australia, and I’ve been based from here ever since. But I’ve still got that travel bug!


silhouette of surfer billy kean at sunset on a boat in indonesia

You’ve travelled to some of the most remote locations in search of perfect surf, but you also live in one of the most crowded and competitive surf zones on the planet. What does each offer a surf photographer?

That’s an interesting question. What do they both hold? It’s funny really, with some of the places that I’ve been to, in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and the South Pacific around Micronesia and all those outer islands, they’re so, SO, remote. But yet, they’re so beautiful in their remoteness, and unspoilt. The Gold Coast is a different scene. I love it. For me it’s absolutely amazing because I’ve got such a huge number of professional or professional level surfers in front of me, and there’s such a strong junior and girl squad here as well.

surfer marie-moana troja forehand hack on a left hander, photographed by swilly

For a surf photographer really, there’s two things – one is the beauty of going and checking out remote islands, and on the other hand with the Gold Coast you’ve also got that on-tap armada of amazing surfers that spans the generations, from the likes of Occy and Kieren Perrow down to surfers like Sierra Kerr. So there’s plenty to keep you going. If you think about it, I’d be stupid to be anywhere else. I’ve got all of my subjects in front of me and there’s a lot of companies out there that need good photos and footage of their surfers, so the Gold Coast is a very good wage earner! At the same time, I love travelling and I love going to new and remote places. I love the feeling you get when you arrive somewhere new – not knowing what to expect. You’ve got a different eye, looking for the unique shots that encapsulate the place you’re at. Here I’m doing jobs for the firms but at the same time the Gold Coast and Tweed and South Straddie and Morton Island and down into New South Wales, the beauty is just unbelievable. That also inspires me. In a nutshell, the remoteness is so cool, and here, why would you go anywhere else when you’ve got a bank full of surfers that need to get photos?!

australian surfer billy kean in the barrel on a big left hand wave in indonesia, photograhed by swilly

You work with some of the best surfers in the world. In your opinion, what is it that makes a good surfer great, and what makes some great surfers better subjects to photograph than others?

Another good question! What makes a great surfer? I think style, and I also think that they have an unpredictability about them– any moment they can do something incredible. There’s an X factor in it. Great surfers, you can just tell. They seem to be able to find the best waves, their style is phenomenal, and they have such grace in what they pull of. They pull of manoeuvres and make them look so easy. For years, everybody always said that was Parko’s problem, because he was so stylish and so graceful that it looked like half the manoeuvres he was doing were half baked when in fact they were so on-rail.
The other about great surfers is that you can be at somewhere like D-Bah or Snapper, and you can see your Kellys or your Micks paddle out and they STAND OUT immediately. They’ve got some je ne sais quoi that makes you go “wow!”. There can be 400 people out on the point but a Mick Fanning, a Joel Parkinson, an Jack Robinson, a Steph Gilmore, they all stand out because they’ve got that flair, grace and ability to do things that just blows your mind.


surfer wade carmichael air dropping into a hollow wave at snapper rocks with two surfers looking on from the shore, photographed by swilly

As well as that, some surfers are a photographer’s dream because they do crazy stuff and pull it off… surfers like Chippa Wilson or Jack Robinson. Especially Chippa! Every time you shoot with him, you don’t know what he’s going to do. And aerialists like Matt Meola… he’s amazing to shoot.
I think that what makes some surfers great is their style and grace, and with other surfers it’s that unpredictability and that incredible versatility to go 35 feet in the air and land it. Both are unique to shoot

looking up at surfer matt meola boosting an inverted aerial over the head of surf photographer simon swilly williams

It’s been a bit of a standout season on the Gold Coast points by all accounts. How has the last few months compared to years past in terms of the swells, the quality of the banks and the calibre of surfing going down?

It’s been incredible. Since Christmas it just has not stopped. The banks have been superb, and the calibre of surfing has been amazing because everyone’s been home. Nobody has really been away anywhere apart from for the QS’s. All the Championship Tour surfers are in town and the Qualifying Series didn’t’ get going until February. There’s been a lot of talent on tap and a lot of amazing waves. I don’t know if it’s been the biggest run of surf we’ve ever had – it could possibly be. Some people may argue that it’s been better in past years, but I basically have had three or four days off since the start of the year and it’s now the start of June, so I’ve basically been working for five months with probably a week off if I’m lucky, if you tally it all up. It’s been the most phenomenal run of waves and incredible weather. The water clarity this year! Last year we had those terrible floods, this year we’ve been to the opposite of having Caribbean style blues. From a photographer’s perspective this year has been one of the most epic seasons I can ever remember.

wade carmichael tucking in to a barrel on a clear day at south stradbroke island, by swilly

What have been your standout moments of this season on The Gold Coast?

My standout moment in the last six months up here… phew! I guess one session with Wade doing step-offs down on the Tweed Coast was amazing. Just solid 8 foot barrels.


wade carmichael barrelled on an big wave


Then there’ve been a couple of incredible moments at the end of last winter of at South Straddie - one day was amazing, with flawless 4 foot A-frame peaks and the best cast out there. And of course you can’t go past Snapper, Greenmount and Coolangatta. As Liam O’Brien said, the best training for the wave pool that he could find was the bank at Coolangatta, and he reckons the similarities between that bank and Kelly’s wave pool, and the tube section in particular, are just spot on. I guess you’ve got to tip your hat slightly to Kelly that he’s made a wave pool that resembles something like that. But I think I’d rather have the natural version at Coolangatta any day!
Over the past six months there’s just been exceptional days on all of those areas. I don’t think any one particular moment stands out.

in-water photo of surfer wade carmichael in the barrel at coolangatta, captured by photographer simon swilly williams

You can get a regular dose of Gold by following Swilly on Instagram @swillpics.