Environmental Science student and president of the university surfing society Pompey Surf, photographer Liam Westpfel discusses a turbulent but memorable year, the allure of traditional photography and how surfing has influenced his life's journey so far.
When did you first start surfing and what drew you to it?
I was 15 and had been skating for three or so years. A few mates were heading down to Wollacombe and I stowed away with them. I’ve always been drawn to surfing because of its links to skating, plus it just looks badass!
You spent your final year at university as the president of the university surf society, how was that?
Turbulent. It’s been tricky balancing a degree, pat time job at O’Neill, socials for the surf society and studying for a degree. Everyone is always on 'surf time' which makes organising anything tricky – it’s like trying to organise a tribe of lost boys in Never Never Land- but it’s been worth it!
How do you think surfing affected your time as a student?
There’s a mindfulness to surfing that carries over into every part of my life, university included. I actually chose to study Environmental Science because of my love of the ocean and coast. The mindfulness however was definitely counterbalanced with some crazy social commitments. So I guess surfing has helped me stay focused and present, but helped me have a few wild nights and make the most of my time at university too!
Like surfing, I have always just felt drawn to it. It has the same nostalgic, authentic feel as the old family photographs I grew up around. There’s so much more depth and perception to traditional photography, something you can’t get with a swipe and a filter. Plus there’s a lot to be said about the value of a physical photo in your hand.
What does traditional photography mean to you personally?
To me, traditional photography captures a moment much more accurately than digital photography. A moment, the feeling, that exact point in time. It gives me more chance to experiment with personal style and freedom to add perception to what I’m documenting. It’s special to have film capture time as your eye sees it – it is an organic experience all round.
What gear do you use and why?
My go to camera is an Olympus Om10 with a standard 50mm lense but I'm currently also using a point and shoot Canon Sureshot Telemax from a car boot sale and a Practika b100.
I’ve started to move away from landscape and scenery images into capturing people in portaits. It’s challenging but I love the stories an image can tell!
What does the sea mean to you?
A lot. So far most of my life choices have been driven by the sea and surfing! Even as a kid in London I was drawn to the oceans and connected to how important they are. I chose to study Environmental Science to learn how I can best help and protect the sea. I just want to make a difference, whether that is through art, science, surfing, environmentalism – just some way to help!
As an Environmental Science student, what have you learned about protecting the sea?
It is without doubt one of the biggest, most important environmental issues facing our time. Communities in peril, wildlife extinction and destruction of habitats… everything we do on land revolves around the ocean and it is all connected. There simply aren’t borders at sea.
Studying Environmental Science has been both a horrifying realisation of what is happening and what is at stake and also a reaffirmation that we mustn’t stop trying or lose hope. We’ve not gone to far but we must wake up. We’re at a turning point as a species. We can halt this, maybe not ever reverse it but we can stop causing such insane levels of damage. If we want to that is…
Any advice for people wanting to make a difference?
Empathy is key here in my opinion. If you can make people feel and empathise with the plight of the oceans they’ll react. Small changes become big when everyone adopts them. Being mindful of consumption, waste and cutting out, or at least cutting down on, animal products are everyday ways to make a change. Being less wasteful with food and clothing, avoiding fast fashion wherever possible also add up to make a difference. Taking recycling seriously is important but we also need to cut out the need for these materials off by not consuming them in the first place. Just being more conscious of the cost of your convenience makes a huge difference in people’s attitude towards reducing and reusing.
Finally, favourite UK break you’ve discovered so far?
Pembrokeshire for its rural off-theigrid feel. Hopefully you get the vibe I’m talking about by checking out the images!
Nomadic writer and designer