Board. Camera. Go. Everything else will take care of itself. Mat Arney has spent the greater part of his twenties drifting between world class surf spots, with a surfboard under one arm and a knackered old analogue camera in the other hand. Mat is a quiet observer and carries a notebook and shoots documentary style surf travel images of rad places and beautiful faces, often focusing on the wider aspects of the lifestyle that goes hand-in-hand with a love of the sea. Based on the rugged north coast of Cornwall, UK, he works freelance for a range of international print and digital publications and his work has been exhibited both in the UK and internationally. He likes being in the sea, drinking tea, making things, general wayfaring and smiling.
What’s your connection to the sea? What drew you to the sea and why surfing?
I’ve had a fascination with the sea and the coast ever since I can remember, and it was always encouraged when I was a child. My Mum’s family is from Port Isaac on the North coast of Cornwall and I’ve always felt such a strong pull to that stretch of coastline, which I struggle to articulate. Surfing keeps me in an area a short distance either side of the high tide line, right where I want to be. Why surfing? I’ve never gotten over that feeling of being picked up by the whitewater and rushed towards the beach because that feeling has just transferred from experience to experience as my surfing has progressed.
When and why did you get into photography and writing?
That’s a bit of a combination of me not really trusting my memory, my Dad, and losing a bet. I have photos of Port Isaac that my Dad helped me to take from before I can really remember, and he always made sure that I owned a camera of some sort before giving me my first 35mm SLR for my eighteenth birthday. Ever since then I’ve taken photos and kept a journal because, to be honest, I don’t really trust my memory; I figure that there’s only so much space in there and that if I manage to fill my life with interesting things then I’ll end up forgetting stuff. I spent most of my early and mid-twenties working and travelling overseas trying to get as many good waves as I could and amassing shoeboxes of prints and notebooks. Eventually a friend of mine persuaded me to get my images out of the shoeboxes and onto a website, and then he made me a bet. He said that websites are all well and good but that people only visit once or twice, whereas a regularly updated blog builds a following. He bet me that five of my favourite photographers and surfers would run or contribute to a blog, and that if they did then I should start my own. I picked five of the most left-field, off radar or anti-establishment characters that I could and I’ve spent the last three and a half years since posting a blog every Sunday.
What piece of your work are you most proud?
Ah, nothing from my portfolio really springs to mind to be honest. I mean, I have my favourites but I suppose I associate being proud of a piece of work with it being the result of incredibly hard work, and I see much of my work as being the result of being in the right place, at the right time, with a camera in my hand. You can only plan and prepare so much with photography. I don’t see any of it as the result of the hours put in learning a craft or the money burnt on kit, that stuff doesn’t even figure. I’m proud of the boat that I built, that I managed to “join the circle” of my family heritage of boat building and that the thing didn’t just sink to the bottom of the ocean on it’s maiden voyage. Going to sea in a home-made boat is a pretty big test of your craftsmanship, and I do feel a real sense of pride every time I push it off the beach.
Who do you most admire?
If I have to choose a well-known person, then I guess Jeff Johnson is somebody who springs to mind. He’s ended up taking photographs and going on surf and climbing trips for a living, but it strikes me that he got there as a happy accident having based most of his lifestyle and career choices around surfing, climbing and documenting his adventures. He’s found a way to get paid for being him, and I admire anybody who’s taken risks and made tough decisions or just straight up grafted to get to a position where work and play are one and the same.
What would be your dream session?
I could give a different answer to this question every single day! I’ve been lucky enough to surf a lot of amazing waves all over the world in pretty optimum conditions, but I’d liked to have shared a lot of those sessions with less strangers and maybe just a few friends instead. Somewhere without buildings at the back of the beach and probably a reef to sand-bottomed right-hand point break. I can think of plenty of spots like that in the Indian Ocean. A little overhead, with barrel sections (preferably ones that you get a run-up at) and big walls that I could go top to bottom on, so I’d be on a shortboard. Probably the 6’2” that I snapped the summer before last on one such wave. But there’re so many waves out there that I still haven’t surfed, so many boards that I haven’t felt under my feet. Maybe I can give you a proper answer when I’m an old, old, man and have a lot more knowledge, memories and experience to inform my answer.