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‘I remember thinking, what the hell am I doing here?’

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Feature by Michael Canning

For photographer and creative director Luke Shadbolt, travel and creativity came together early in his career. establishing himself as one of the world's top surf photographers, he soon garnered accolades, winning the highly prestigious Nikon Surf Photo of the Year in 2017.

His sculptural photographic work has been exhibited around the globe, featured in publications including TIME magazine, and in collaborations with brands like Qantas and Audi. In 2018, Luke and his wife moved across the ocean and are currently based in New York. We spoke with him about creative life in NYC, travel stories and a few favorite spots to discover.


On where you’re from

I’m originally from North Avoca, which is about an hour north of Sydney, Australia.

On what motivated your move to New York

The main motivation was work and inspiration. My wife and I had wanted to live overseas before we settle down and start a family, and New York was always at the top of the list. Australia can feel quite isolated, so it’s nice to be based somewhere more central to Europe and the Americas and be able to explore a completely different part of the world.

On your relationship with New York

I had my one-year anniversary of being in New York in October 2019. I’d never lived in a city before so it was a bit daunting going from sleepy coastal town to the Big Apple, but New York is feeling almost like a second home now. It’s such a contrast to North Avoca, and inspiring in different ways, but I do need to get out of the city every month or so and reconnect with nature.

From Sydney to New York. Top: Sydney from 10,000 feet by Jamie Davies. Bottom: The evolving Manhattan skyline by Brian Anupol.

On your transition into New York as a new home

The first morning I woke up in New York, I walked out onto the street and I remember thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’, but it was a fleeting moment of panic that I haven’t felt since. The first few weeks, we had friends from home here on holiday and I think that really softened the initial transition.

On some key challenges moving to New York

There was a lot of starting all over when we made the move. Having to find an apartment (with no credit history), setting my business up and starting from scratch, having to get a driving learner’s permit. Settling into a new routine was the biggest challenge — that took a good couple of months to figure out and be able to feel productive. I’m only getting anything close to feeling settled recently, a year in. Not being surrounded by nature was the biggest change, but we ended up in an apartment with a view of the east river, so it was nice to still have that connection to water.

'The first morning I woke up in New York, I walked out onto the street and I remember thinking "what the hell am I doing here?”, but it was a fleeting moment of panic that I haven't felt since.'

On when your career and travel first intersected

I’d always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be able to travel for work. I’d been in graphic design for around six or seven years when I got a job as the art director for a surfing magazine in Australia. The editor happened to be an incredible surf photographer — Phil Gallagher — and I’d just finally saved up for a camera and underwater housing, so I was shooting photos and learning from him at the same time, which led to opportunities to shoot stories for the magazine both around Australia and internationally. That was the starting point of work travel, and although I don’t shoot as much surfing anymore, I shoot a lot of travel and lifestyle work, which keeps me mobile.

On how travel influences you creatively

I think travel is essential in order to expand perspectives. There seems to be at present a severe lack of empathy in the world, something which I feel is exacerbated when you get stuck in a singular mindset or bubble. Getting outside your comfort zone is the best way to broaden your scope which leads to new ideas and understanding.

Top: Luke Shadbolt shooting a large reef break. Bottom: 'Infinity Wall' shot from behind a wave at Pipeline, Hawaii, which was featured on the cover of 'Surfing World' Magazine. Images courtesy Luke Shadbolt.

On a memorable location for a creative project

I was in Tokyo, shooting a short film for Qantas, and one of the locations we were hoping to shoot was an onsen in Hakone, which is around a two-hour drive from the city. The timing of the shoot also happened to coincide with a typhoon. On the way to Hakone, we were told they were evacuating the town due to fear of flooding, but we somehow managed to get there in one piece. As we were trying to figure out how we would manage shooting in torrential rain, the clouds parted and the sun started streaming down on this small pocket of paradise that we were in; we realised we were in the eye of the storm. Having the contrast of chaos transform to calm in seconds in such a tranquil location really emphasised the beauty of the surrounds.

'There seems to be at present a severe lack of empathy in the world, something which I feel is exacerbated when you get stuck in a singular mindset or bubble. Getting outside your comfort zone is the best way to broaden your scope which leads to new ideas and understanding.'

On your most dangerous experience for a creative project

I was in New Zealand, shooting a surf story. We were at a break I’d never been to and I wanted to get a wider angle from up the beach to show the incredible scenery. I had to scale over a few rocky outcrops to get to where I was going — nothing too strenuous but a small amount of climbing. 

After shooting for a few hours, the sun was well past the horizon so I started making my way back towards the car, but the way I had traversed was now completely surrounded by water from the tide coming in and the building swell. I tried to time it in between waves and climb the rocks, but kept getting tangled in elephant kelp at the base of the rocks and couldn’t get a footing, so was trapped on the opposite side of where I needed to be. I started walking back around to see if I could find an alternative route, but all I could see was wilderness. In my attempt at getting back to camp, I managed to find myself in a field of thorns, nearly walked off a cliff (it was pretty dark by this point and the temperature was also dropping rapidly) and then eventually came face-to-face with a wild flock of sheep. They formed a perimeter around me and started closing in, so I challenged the leader to combat, successfully wrestling him into submission. Once I’d earned their trust and respect, they showed me a way back to the car through a secret passageway in the dense forest and I returned to safety.

On shooting in oceans off the USA

I’ve spent a lot of time around the oceans of the USA, mostly Hawaii and the West Coast, but I am hoping to explore the East Coast a lot more now that I am here. Living in New York, the biggest difference I’ve noticed is the amount of trash that comes with surfing at Rockaway Beach. I recently did a beach cleanup there with Take 3 For The Sea and before we started, we went for a quick paddle. In the half-an-hour surf, I managed to fill my pockets with trash before we’d even started the beach cleanup.

On a piece of advice that travels with you

Always travel with a reusable water bottle, and avoid plastic where possible.

Images from spectacular and highly awarded photographic series and exhibition 'Maelstrom' by Luke Shadbolt.

On creative inspiration in New York

Walking around the streets. Two blocks away from where you are is a totally different world. I just moved two blocks and discovered all these new things I never knew existed right around the corner.

On a few favorite New York restaurants

Miss Favela, Oxomoco, Devoción (for coffee). 

On a good New York spot for celebrating


On people-watching

Central Park and the subway.

On one thing to do if you’re passing through the city

Seeing an NBA game at Madison Square Gardens or Barclays.

On something from Australia you need a fix of in New York

Butler in Williamsburg or Bourke Street Bakery in Manhattan for a sausage roll and a flat white. 

On window seat or aisle

I’m more of an aisle seat person. I try to stay as hydrated as possible on flights and I like to stretch my legs as much as possible.

On New York in one word


Creative life from snow to surf. Images courtesy Luke Shadbolt.


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