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In the impact zone with Edwin Morales


Interview by: Jan Bernard

Translation: Heido Sundstrom

If you think surfing the “MexPipe” is complicated and dangerous, imagine swimming in the middle of the impact zone and dealing with giant sets, rip tides, as well as other surfers. There are few surf photographers with the skills needed to defy these waves while, at the same time, getting the perfect shot, but Edwin Morales is one such photographer.

EA Puerto Escondido local, Edwin is one of the most renowned and recognized surf photographers in the media. He has collaborated with the most prestigious surfing magazines and, at the same time, put the name of his country on the map in countries around the world.



Planeta Surf: Hi Edwin, first of all congratulations on your job and thanks for sharing your experience as a photographer with us.  Could you tell us how you got drawn into photography?

Edwin Morales: Hello, friends at Planeta Surf.  First of all, I want to thank you guys for giving me the space to share my experiences with all of you and to be able to promote a little bit of my work for all the readers of Mexico.

Everything started thanks to my older brother, Abisai Morales.  He was studying photography in the city of Oaxaca when we were in college in the late 90s. He had a dark room where, on occasion, I was able to assist him in developing and processing images. While watching him work, I got instantly hooked on photography, since creating your own images behind a lens is quite an art. Using all of the different methods of developing and processing (depending on what you planned to obtain in the image) also fascinated me. From there, I started shooting with his camera to learn everything he had to teach me about the basics of photography: shutter speed, aperture, iso, lighting, etc. At the beginning, it was really more of a hobby.



PS: There aren't many professional surf photographers in Mexico. Could you share with us the first time one of your photos was sold and the moment when you decided you wanted to make a living from photography?

EM: As I said before, it all started as a hobby for me. All I wanted to do was take pictures of my friends surfing. I remember that my motivation has always been to expose the talent that we have in Puerto Escondido and in Mexico. I never imagined myself having a professional career as a surf photographer though. At that time, I was struggling to become a professional bodyboarder and was focused on my training for national and international competitions to qualify for the World Tour. Slowly, I began to work with Puerto's top surfers, like Oscar Moncada, David Rutherford, Coco Nogales, the Ramirez brothers, etc. I started to meet people from other countries that got me in touch with people in the surfing industry and helped me via email to promote my images. But if I had to mention one specific detail of photography that had an impact in my life, it was the fact that you can freeze a specific moment and turn that moment into an eternity.



PS: Playa Zicatela is recognized as one of the heaviest beach breaks in the world (if not the heaviest). Unlike a point or reef break, a beach break can make the wave break in whatever part of the water. Experienced surfers have lost their lives or have been paralyzed in spots like Puerto. How does it feel to take photos in such a dangerous place? Are there any stories or situations in particular that had you spooked?

EM: I’m glad you brought that up; it’s a very good point. It is really dangerous here because there’s nowhere to escape to if need be. You always have to be very alert about what the ocean is doing. Before entering the water, someone like a photographer must evaluate the situation and know if they really have the ability to confront those waves. When the waves are smaller, it is easier, but I also don’t want to say that it isn’t complicated. When the waves are big, the biggest danger is that you’re always in the impact zone and your life is always at risk. When a big set comes, you can see all the surfers paddling fast with their longboards, but we only have one free arm and a pair of fins to move us and the camera housing, which can sometimes weigh up to a few pounds. This reduces your speed by about 70% and sometimes you can’t move because of the fear. [Laughs]

One scary experience I had was during a session I had with Timmy Reyes and Alex Gray here in Puerto. I wasn’t paying attention to a current that was forming and got trapped and couldn’t get out. The current carried me almost a mile out to sea. Everyone at shore looked so small and far away. It took me about thirty to forty minutes to swim back to the impact zone. On another occasion, I was about ten feet away from a shark. Fortunately, he wasn’t hungry and left pretty quickly. So, not only do we have to deal with currents, waves, surfers, etc., but also the wildlife that lives in the ocean.



PS: Do you have any special routines or physical training to prepare for taking photos in the water?

EM: It’s important to be in very good physical condition. In sports, I’m always combining a lot of tennis, cross fit, swimming and occasionally basketball, wakeboarding or some other sport. The most important part is your nutrition and it should be rich in protein and carbohydrates. Also, staying well hydrated is key, since the physical exertion in the water is pretty strong. Sometimes you end up swimming for up to eight hours in separate periods.



PS: What music do you listen to? Is there any group or particular song that motivates you?

EM: When it comes to music, it all depends on the moment, the size of the waves, the place, or what I want to capture in my images. When the waves are big, I’m always listening to some mix of Maceo Plex, since electronic music keeps me awake and not having lyrics helps me to stay focused. When I’m on some surf trip in an exotic and incredible place, I always like something that's more chill, same as when I’m editing my images.



PS: What kind of equipment do you use? (Lens, fins, camera body, flash, etc.)

EM: I’ve always bought Canon gear for photography. Right now, my main camera is the 1D Mark 3 and the replacement is a 7D; I still have my 30D as well. As far as lenses go, I use a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS L (my favorite), a Canon 300mm f/4 IS L, a Canon 50mm 1.8, a Canon Extender 1.4 III, a Tokina fisheye 10-17mm F/3.5-5.6, SPL Water housing, Viper fins, a Manfrotto Tripod and Monopod, and an Xcel lifejacket.



PS: What photographers or surfers do you admire? Did you every have a mentor?

EM: One of the advantages of being born in Puerto Escondido is the fact that you get to interact with people from all over the world, especially from the United States. The first photographer that shared his secrets with me was, and still is, one of my favorites—my good friend and retired surf photographer, Scott Aichner. He’s always a lot of fun inside and outside of the water and has a lot of courage to face the great waves of Zicatela. Another one of my mentors is a good friend of all the locals in Puerto, Jeff Flindt, who has also been nice enough to share his secrets and tips with me to help improve my style, just like another of the best and well known photographers, Todd Glaser, who recommended that I get the equipment that I’m currently using. I also really admire the style of Chris Burkard and his passion for the color gold and for remote places. There’s also Ray Collins from Australia, who has a very particular style and takes incredible photos on stormy, cloudy days with low light.



PS: Do you still surf?

EM: I’ve been a semi-professional bodyboarder for fifteen years. I had the opportunity to represent Mexico in the 2006 ISA World Surfing Games in Huntington Beach, California and was ranked 17th in the world. I qualified for a few years in the world tour of the IBA in Puerto Escondido, where there were only two wildcards. I also participated in many national and international events. This is one of the most important factors in my performance as a photographer in the water, since I have the knowledge of the ocean from the point of view of a surfer and I’m also used to wearing fins. If we pay attention to that minor detail, we might notice that some of the best surf photographers in the water were bodyboarders at one time in their lives or another. Nowadays, I also surf, since it’s a different type of adrenaline that exists when standing on a board (especially catching tubes in Puerto Escondido).



PS: Can you share with us a memorable experience that your work as a professional surf photographer has given you?

EM: I remember vividly the day that my career took a giant leap in the professional field. It was June 17th, 2006 when we witnessed the biggest swell in seven years on the Oaxacan coast—waves of over 50 feet! All the restaurants along the beach had to be evacuated, military personnel executed their emergency plans, and there was destruction everywhere and total chaos! I had the luck of capturing the sequence where Coco Nogales pulled Ken “Skindog” Collins (with the help of a jet ski) into a wave that, months later, would become the best wave of that year. The wave won two prizes, the 2007 Billabong XXL Ride of the Year and Monster Tube. The latter gave me the most important award to date, and not because it was the Monster Tube Photo Award, but because it put me on the map with some of the best big-wave surf photographers in the world.  I was also hired to cover the Rip Curl Search event in Barra de la Cruz, which started the next day and was one of the best events in the history of the WCT



PS: What places has your camera taken you?

EM: Honestly, I haven’t really traveled to too many places, but I can say that I’ve been to Teahupoo, Tahiti three times. Actually, one of those trips has been the best trip that I’ve ever had abroad, since I was with two of my best friends, Oscar Moncada and Coco Nogales, who I shared some super fun and unforgettable moments with. I was also in Hawaii with Oscar two winters ago during the Vans Triple Crown and I’ve traveled with Coco Nogales a few times in search of big waves along the island of Todos Santos in Ensenada, BCN. I’ve been to Finland five times and on one of those trips, I had the opportunity to travel to the Finnish archipelago with Kalle Carranza and Juho Mikkonen in search of waves on a super remote and extremely cold island. Plus, the occasional trip through Western Europe to experience different countries and cultures.



PS: What type of photography do you prefer? Inside or outside the water, and why?

EM: Photography inside the water is much more exciting and fun since you’re in the water with the surfers, fighting the currents and trying to be in the best position to capture the best shot of the surfer riding the inside of a tube. All of this creates an amazing feeling and adrenaline rush that makes you feel like you were surfing too. It’s also a big satisfaction when you know you’re in a very critical moment and that the possibility exists of capturing a memorable image. Sometimes you come out screaming after a wave passes!

But it should also be mentioned that when the waves are big and there’s no possibility of being in the water, it’s also a rush to watch the surfers riding these giant waves and challenging the limits of humanity on shore. So, in that sense, shooting from land can also be a lot of fun but still has its own set of challenges, like finding the right angle, the right height to be able to capture the real size of the wave, observing lighting, etc.


PS: Do you have any favorite photos?

EM: It’s hard to have a favorite photo. Whenever I’m asked to make a choice for a profile, portfolio, gallery, magazine, etc., it’s very hard to pick just one. Plus, you’re always trying to improve your style and techniques and are experimenting with new horizons, so you always have a new favorite photo.



PS: What do you consider to be the main obstacles you had to overcome by becoming a professional photographer? What advice would you give to photographers who are just getting started and want to make a career in the media?

EM: I think one of the main obstacles is that the surfing industry is very small in Mexico. We lack brands, magazines, websites, even a public who is interested in what this great sport of surfing is. That’s why I had to make my career and myself known abroad. My job is much more recognized internationally than in my own country, which is a shame because Mexico has a lot of talent, as I mentioned before, whether that be through surfers, bodyboarders or photographers that need a good platform where we can exhibit our talent.

My main recommendation to all who are starting in this field is to really follow your dreams, to keep fighting and never give up. The sun shines for everyone and at some point, your work will get into the right hands and you might get the exposure you really deserve. Then, little by little, you’ll keep climbing the ladder. Always train hard and respect the laws of nature and of the sport.



PS: Do you have any special projects lined up for the future?

EM: I’ve been working for a couple of years on the development of a book, which I’m not going to reveal too many details about so that it stays a surprise, but I can tell you that it’s a work that has involved a lot of research, since it has to do with the past and before I was born. It’s not easy, but the day that it’s ready will be one of the greatest days in my life and one of my biggest achievements.

Obviously, there are plans to travel to exotic places with Mexican surfers to continue showing the world that Mexico slowly realizing its potential. It’s great to see the younger generation playing a larger role these days and approaching this sport with great commitment.

Thanks a lot for your time, Edwin; we hope to see you soon. Good vibes and good waves!  

Instagram: @moralesedwin


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