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Interview Jon Steele


Interview by: Jan Bernard

Hi Jon, it’s been a while since we last saw each other.  If I remember correctly, it was when we were charging and shooting some insane photos in Puerto Escondido last summer. First of all, could you tell all our Planeta Surf friends where you grew up and how you got into photography?

R:    Aloha and it’s great to see you again, friend! Puerto was good this past year and it was great to run into you and hang out again, as well as surf! I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas and started surfing around 12 years old, there in the fickle and challenging conditions that the Gulf produces. I was turned onto a camera while traveling in Mexico around 17 years old with a girlfriend of mine at the time. Her father was a journalist from Laredo and, after shooting a few big waves and lineups randomly; I was thrilled by the results and really turned onto the process.
When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer?
R:     I was painting at the time and wanting to be a professional artist. Finding that the camera could take a shot of the place I wanted to paint and let me produce the art later, I was pretty hooked. I wasn't that good at painting or drawing so I knew I had to figure the camera thing out so I wouldn't have to get a real job. [Laughs]

Who do you look up to (surfer, photographer, etc)?
R:     I am blessed to have many colleagues that I call good friends and I learn a lot from them, as they are the best and have been inspirations to me for years. Art Brewer, Jeff Flindt, Brian Nevins, Pete Hodgson, Vince Cavataio and so many others, as well as just random shooters and big LA-type fashion shooters. I'm always just ingesting magazines and reading photo credits, always learning.

Surfer-wise, another inspiration and good friend has always been Christian Fletcher, as well as Wardo, Archy, Crimo and all the early air guys who kept surfing "radical" and didn't care what others thought. Pushing the envelope, which carries over to tons of inspirational surfers nowadays. John Florence and Gabriel Medina who got Pipe barrels to air and made that the norm’! Variels and progressive surfing, as well as Alex Knost and guys just approaching surfing differently.
Where has your camera taken you?
R:     When I actually stop and think about where the cameras I’ve owned have taken me, it’s amazing. I have shot and scored epic waves in so many amazing places: Jamaica, Italy, Alaska, Indonesia, Fiji, China, Galapagos Islands, all of Central America, Hawaii and many, many more, as well as upcoming trips this year. It really has been a whirlwind and I'd like to make a book here soon and let the imagery speak for itself.
What difficulties have you encountered while shooting?
R:    Difficulties could be chalked up as part of the trip and without them, it wouldn't be an adventure and everyone would be doing it for work. [Laughs] But on the road and in foreign unfamiliar countries, there are always hiccups that arise. Missing flights, language barriers, inner group disagreements, sickness, injuries, rain and natural disasters, these are all exciting life moments to experience when you step outside of one’s comfort zone of home. It makes a traveler who they are and how they approach life. There have been flipped boats, broken vertebrae’s and teeth, overdoses and dehydrations, lost luggage, coup d’états, etc. and none of it can be experienced behind a desk job. A life less ordinary...

How do you prepare for a photo trip?
R:    "Have Camera, Will Travel" is my motto. [Laughs] I'm pretty much packed and ready at all times. I have been on the road for over a year now with renting rooms for only a few months at a time or on trips, couch surfing, staying at the Sector 9 team house, etc. Everything else is in a storage unit in San Clemente and I just swap out gear and boards there depending on the upcoming trip.

But yes, there is a ton of preparation before a trip. Camera gear is always cleaned and inspected, as well as the right clothing, wetsuits, vests, water and land gear. I've been doing this for so long, I'm ready to go on a moment’s notice. Depending on the location, there are maps, weather charts, rental cars, plane tickets to be bought, talking to sponsors and outlets and tons more behind-the-scenes type work.

Do you get to surf on a photo trip, and how do you manage to be behind the lens when you score the perfect day on an exotic location?
R:    Some jobs, like the recent one to China, I wasn't allowed to surf but most of the time I can slip out for some water time. I have been living in different countries for months at a time lately so in-between getting the shots; I can get my shred on as well. When the surf is the epic day you had hoped for, sometimes I don't get to score it and just have to shoot.

The window of opportunity and the job itself is relying on it, so one must sacrifice in order to finish the job. When an image is created and the story is done, it's like you got to surf that day and it's very rewarding just the same. It's different shooting those days in water vs. Land, as swimming is more exercise and makes you feel like you got your "tube" on that day, so I would prefer that to land shooting. My favorites are shooting lineups, it immortalizes that spot and how perfect it was that day and you can always look back and enjoy it.
What type of equipment do you use?
R:    At the moment, I'm shooting with Canon 7D bodies, which fit in my water housing as well as long lens land work. Plus, the bodies shoot video as well.  I have a few new GoPros and a variety of lenses for various jobs and rent equipment when needed for larger jobs. I still have all my old film cameras and pop off rolls when the occasion is right.

Besides photography, I know you are quite an artist. Where did you get your inspiration in painting and how did you start?
R:    Thanks and I'm truly thrilled to be recognized with my painting and art as well as my shooting and being able to combine them all. I mentioned earlier that I really doubted myself in college that I could produce art that people could connect with, enjoy and understand. So, thanks. I get inspired for the need to make money for my next surf trip, as it’s relaxing after editing or computer work all day. I used to paint all skulls and death metal stuff but now I have been catering to selling more pieces and doing smiley faced suns and kind of "cute" type lineups.

These sell well and I do enjoy painting them. I gain inspiration from life, seeing my other friends’ and artists’ work and how they sell. It becomes a job for sure but it’s still super fun and I’m constantly learning. I get a lot of inspiration from hanging out with Dibi and Herbie Fletcher. They are both amazing artists and are always learning and enjoy doing and talking art. My family has always been creative so it was just always around it seems like. My sisters and mom are just always doing arts and sewing and decorating and my brother was always drawing badass dungeon and dragons type sh*t as a kid, which was very inspiring...

Best trip ever?
R:     Every trip is the best trip ever, as one is constantly learning about themselves and growing. If, on a trip, one scores epic waves or a lover you connected with or found yourself centered, or opened yourself to a new experience out of your comfort zone, I feel that that justifies a "best trip ever "nomination. Every wave is just beautiful and every trip is one of progressing or learning. So, I don't feel my "best trip ever" has happened yet. Where are we off to next?

Do you have any pointers for the amateur photographer wanting to take it to the next level?
R:    Surely! One must always help up-and-comers. I was blessed to be guided from some amazing photographers when I first was starting out. Do whatever you do in life with passion and do it 100%. No one else will believe in your work unless you do. I would suggest an internship with someone who's work or field you are interested in. Assist on as many shoots as you can and also learn the business-side of the work. Don't be afraid to ask for help.