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Peter 'Joli' Wilson Part II - Yes, we can call him an historian

Ian Cairns, Bells Beach ©


Creator Profiles

We continue our profile on veteran lenseman Peter 'Joli' Wilson

Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 2 April, 2017 - Sometimes a photographer's career is so extensive that it can be broken down into several different careers. Last week we took a look at Peter "Joli" Wilson's photography on more recent subjects, World Tour contests, the WSL periphery and this impressive playing field we call the ocean.

In this second part in the series we look back at those early years and some of the iconic images he recorded during surfing's fledgling professional days, from Occy and Curren at Bells to more recent highlights like the Code Red swell at Teahupo'o.

Michael 'MP' Peterson during the 1976 Bells Beach Easter Rally ©


You’ve been following the pro tour since - jeez, since when?
In the 80’s when I worked at Quiksilver I photographed some of the pro tour especially in Hawaii and when I went freelance in 1989 I started covering a lot more of the tour. In August 89’ Jan & I departed for 6 months and began by covering the contests in France, Spain and Portugal. We arrived in Paris and hired a purple Citroen 2CV and over the next 3 months drove to Portugal and back…scoring classic Mundaka and pumping Supertubos (Peniche) in those months. We should have brought the 2CV back to Oz as it was a classic little car. Since then I have photographed somewhere between 50% - 80% of the tour every year.

What were those early years like?
Lots of fun! Lots of anticipation waiting to see what your photos looked like because shooting on film you had to wait to have it processed. At times I could go weeks before I saw what I had shot. No internet. No mobile phones and no wave forecasts other than watching a weather map. In those early days there was a Top 16 but there were no split contests between WCT and WQS so basically there were around 200 plus surfers travelling to every event, so plenty of people to shoot in and out of the contest. In the mid 90’s the concept of the ‘dream tour’ began with events being held in good locations and good waves which added a whole other dimension to a surfing contest. G-land Indo, Fiji and Tahiti were added and the European leg was moved to later in the year to maximize good conditions. The tour through Europe in the early days was non-stop party especially with events in South West corner of France and the Basque region of Spain.

Tom Curren, 1985 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach ©


During the WSL webcasts viewers will often see you, on the beach at Snapper or in a boat at Cloudbreak for example. It’s become a sort of game for web viewers “Spot Peter “Joli” Wilson”. I want to know: What kind of hat is that that you’re always wearing? It’s very distinctive.

It’s RED. I don’t have a favourite I mix the red caps up depending on the temperature!  I have one from the Rioja wine region in Spain, one from Tonga when I was swimming with the humpback whales, one from Fiji and few others. It guarantees my wife Jan can see me ‘on the spot’ or ‘on the job’….

You take these phenomenal images, capture these amazing moments and deliver them to people who would otherwise not experience that point in time. And then you have to turn a coin from the whole process. How hard is it to make a living as a freelance surf photographer?

Now it’s very hard. The digital process has changed the face of publishing with the demise of a number of magazines over the last few years. As a friend mentioned a few days ago, “people have forgotten how to go to the Newsagents to buy their magazines”.

What is that you do professionally that you are most proud of?
I’m proud that I consistently produce good quality images that are appreciated by a huge cross section of people and are published around the world.


Share with us your biggest personal Rocky Balboa moment (running up the steps of the Captiol with your own theme music blaring in your head).
My “Rocky Balboa” moment was winning the Nikon Surf Photo Of The Year for the second time and making a speech at Surfing Australia’s Hall of Fame Awards celebrating the 50th Anniversary which also happened to coincide with my involvement with photography and surfing for 50 years. Standing on stage in front of a massive crowd including dignitaries and politicians including the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia – who surfs and the living legends of Australian surfing.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? Driving a cab?
I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world doing what I love doing… and I’m still doing it. In my retirement I might open a photographic gallery?

What’s been your best-selling image?
The image named Reef Draining which was shot in 1999 during the Gotcha Pro at Teahupo’o, Tahiti. It’s a 6 shot sequence and it looks like somebody pulled the plug and the reef is literally draining away. I shot it with a wide angle lens while most of the people around me were shooting with a telephoto. The image has been described as the definitive Teahupo’o image and won Awards. It was voted #2 in a Tracks Reader Poll of the Top 10 surfing photos ever… the MP cutback was voted #1.

Reef drain 1999 during the Gotcha Pro at Teahupo’o ©


What’s been your biggest letdown (or burn) in surf photography?
Missing the 1981 Bells Beach day due to family commitments is one regret as I was living in Torquay and had shot the Easter Saturday but missed the 20’ session on Easter Sunday.

One of my biggest letdowns over recent years has been the lack of recognition given to the visual creators for the integral part that photography/video plays in bringing images to the surfing industry. If not for the photographers and videographers, magazines and books wouldn’t exist, surf films wouldn’t exist; The surf companies have been successful, the athletes are household names but unfortunately many creators, especially self-funded freelancers, have struggled to make ends meet living way beyond their means in their pursuit of their passion to capture that moment.

What is your favourite part about surf photography?
Surfing and photography have been part of my life since my early teenage years and I am as passionate now as I was then. Capturing and documenting the surfing lifestyle and travelling to incredible locations around the planet has definitely been the best experience.

Andy Irons 2002 Bells Beach ©


Name five all-time sessions from your years of travel and why.
In no particular order…
Code Red at Teahupo’o Tahiti – probably the biggest Teahupo’o I’ve ever photographed with amazing tow-in surfing from Bruce Irons, Nathan Fletcher, Koby Abberton and the boat I was in broke down in the line-up… that was all time.

May Dayz swell in Teahupo’o which featured the Top 48 including Andy Irons in perfect 15’ plus Teahupo’o. CJ Hobgood, Damien Hobgood, Cory Lopez and Shane Dorian just to name a few of the standouts

The heat between Occy and Tom Curren at Bells Beach in the early 80’s

Final between Owen Wright and Pat Gudauskas in the Sri Lankan Pro Maldives. Pat pulled off a rodeo clown and still didn’t win it. Both Pat and Owen went wave for wave throughout the final.

The Thundercloud session at Cloudbreak Fiji were the biggest and cleanest warm water barrels I’ve ever seen. The paddle in session was simply amazing.

I can’t just leave it at five…

When Owen Wright scored two perfect 20 point heats in the Fiji Pro the number crunchers added up how many perfect heats there had been in Pro surfing history. When they released the details I realized that I’d seen and photographed every perfect 20-point heat ever surfed in ASP/WSL history, including the best three wave heat - Shane Beshen at Kirra which scored him 30 points

Ross Clarke-Jones, 1995 ©


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