You never realize how the pieces of your life are fitting together as it’s happening. Then one day, you find yourself swimming through a world-class wave making photos of the world’s best surfers, and you take stock of how you got there. So many little things in my life, from where I was born to what my dad did for work to what sports I played in high school, led me to a career that seemed almost destined for me.
Growing up in Hawaii, my entire childhood revolved around the water. When I was a kid, my parents would pack up towels, sunscreen and enough snacks to last us an entire day at the beach, and I would play in the water until sunset, learning to navigate the currents and waves. As I grew up, my teenage social life continued to revolve around the ocean. After school and on weekends, there was only one plan: the beach. We’d go out in search of the best waves and the best conditions and come home tired and sunburnt. In high school, I swam competitively and played water polo, meaning that I could be in the water even during school hours. I couldn’t get enough. This instilled in me not only a love for the ocean but a deep respect for it as well. It has been a constant for me, serving as the backdrop for my life’s fondest memories.
The other constant in my life has been photography. My dad is a commercial photographer. His subjects include everything from fashion to food to hotels. I would join him on his photoshoots, carrying his sandbags and eating the food samples he was shooting, always carefully watching his process, his professionalism and how his passion fueled his art. It felt normal for me to be on set, and I thrived on the energy that came along with capturing moments.
When I left Hawaii to go to college on the mainland, I realized fully how special my home was. So I took the two things that I loved and respected most, the ocean and photography, and I combined them to create a career as a surf photographer. With my background in swimming and water polo, treading water wasn’t a problem, and soon I was pushing myself to be more patient and get shots that others weren’t seeking out. I wanted to show people the beauty of my island home, and I knew the best way to do it was to put them in the waves alongside me.
Spending a lot of time in the water, you meet other people who do the same. I met photographers, surfers, bodyboarders and others who shared my obsessive love for the sea, and these connections served as my springboard into the world of professional surf photography. These days, I get to travel the world seeing beautiful places and exploring the bond that the ocean creates between people, no matter what coastline they live on.
I can pinpoint many images throughout my career that evoke strong feelings for me. But the one that instantly changed my mindset and is one of my favorites is my photo “Wave of Change.” It’s an image I shot almost nine years ago and still defines my photographic career. The trip started like most other trips do. Sitting in Hawaii, we pored over swell models and forecasts, studying tides and winds to try to make a calculated bet on a remote wave halfway across the world in Indonesia. When we decided we were a go, we went to book the flights and realized we had just missed the direct flight from Hawaii to Singapore. This meant we’d have to fly from Hawaii to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Taiwan and Taiwan to Jakarta. From Jakarta, we’d have to drive 12 hours in the car to the southern coastline to get on a boat that would take us another eight hours to our destination. It would take a while, to say the least, but we were stoked.
When we finally arrived, we settled in on the boat and organized our gear in anticipation of the swell we’d predicted back in Hawaii. The next morning it arrived. As the sun rose, we were greeted with the most amazing swell I had ever seen, the kind that you wait your entire career for. We jumped in the water to get our waves and photos, giddy with excitement and relief. Wave after wave came through, and with them, something completely unexpected. Trash…and a lot of it. The incoming swell was pushing a sea of man-made garbage right into the waves where we were shooting. The waves that we had traveled across the world to see were filled with wrappers, bags, straws and bits of plastic that barreled over the surfers’ heads, impossible to ignore.
Backwash at Pipeline on Oahuʼs North Shore. This is one of the most sought-after waves for very good reason—as dangerous as it is beautiful.
Our crew had traveled by plane, car and boat to get to this remote wave. We spent hours and hours getting away from the crowds, but the evidence of humans mistreating the planet was everywhere, even in the middle of the sea. Those moments ended up not being about the waves at all, which became un-surfable after only two hours due to changes in the wind, but about the necessity of taking care of our oceans. It was a moment that changed things for me in the snap of a shutter.
After that trip, I realized that photography isn’t just about getting the shot. It can be used to inspire and educate people in order to protect our underwater world. I created the “Changing of the Tides” surf photography contest to inspire and give back to my community. Gaining access and opportunity into the photo world is no easy feat. I wanted to open that door through this initiative and give the next generation of surf photographers the springboard to grow and become all they wanted to be.
So, as the pieces of my life continue rearranging themselves and fitting together in different ways, my constants stay the same. And I hope that through my photography, I can teach the world to respect and cherish our oceans for years to come.
See more of Zak Noyle’s work at zaknoyle.com.