Q&A: Life Lessons (and Photos) from a Top Surf Photographer

Red Bull Illume winner Morgan Maassen talks experience with athletes and the ocean

Morgan Maassen/ Red Bull Illume

Pictured is one of Maassen's photos that won a spot on Red Bull Illume's top 50.

For those of us that have a divine love for the extreme sports, but aren’t quite good enough to hang with the pros, action and adventure photography is the next best thing. Red Bull Illume is an international contest and tour that celebrates the energy, creativity and vision of the best action photographers in the world.

One such photographer, Morgan Maassen, won Red Bull Illume’s Athlete’s Choice category, and had two of his photos place in the top 50 overall. Maassen is a 23-year-old photographer and filmmaker who works with some of the best athletes and organizations in the world. He is based in California and travels frequently; we were able to catch up with him this week.

The Active Times: I read that you more or less fell into your profession, could you explain a bit about how that happened?

Morgan Maassen: When I was 16, I left high school early for a full-time graphic design job. While working, I began to hatch the idea of traveling around the world, to pursue filmmaking. I got closer to my goal but continued to dabble in making funny little films around town. Right around the age of 18, as I was nearing my departure, my dad tossed me his film camera and said, "give this a shot.” It immediately clicked. After a year of shooting avidly, I suddenly found photography to be my profession. It is definitely different than what I thought I’d be doing for a career.

What about film and photography was initially appealing to you? Are those same things appealing now?

As a teenager, I gravitated towards filmmaking as a way to express my appreciation and obsession for the ocean and document the adventures my friends and I would take. It was a creative outlet as well as a way to memorialize what I couldn't explain. It fascinated me so much. Now that I’m working in the field of filmmaking and photography professionally, I’m proud to say that this initial earnest outlook was the catalyst for me to see the world, and is still the main reason you can find a camera in my hand every day.

And what is it exactly about capturing water sports that has sparked such passion?

I grew up in the ocean. I've surfed since I was seven, and have spent almost all of my free time at the beach, in the ocean, and on boats. The ocean means the world to me, and surfing, bodysurfing, and all the other water sports are amazing because of the constant interaction with the water.

So, to us, the combination of keeping up with the world’s best surfers while also capturing such amazing shots seems an impossible task—how do you manage to do it so well?

A huge part of photography—typically overshadowed by the resulting photos—is the logistical side of getting the images. Flights, travel, hotels, cars, companies, magazines, politics, athletes, managers, agents, emails, and so much more loom heavily in the making of just one photo. After navigating those elements, a photographer like myself ends up on a beach in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with an athlete. Once onsite, there are environmental and personal elements to consider; whether the photo requires that we swim in shark-infested waves or have to work to capture an elusive smile. But, when it’s just the two of us out there, a friendship can be formed. Photography is wild, weird, and so powerful. One image can kick start an entire career. Basically, we fly by the seat of our pants! But staying even-keeled, working to develop strong relationships, being a good traveler and always bringing new ideas to the table helps a lot in working with athletes and the powers that surround them.

Do you ever get the chance to go out and be active without a camera? If so, is it a different experience?

In my free time, I'm constantly surfing, hiking, exploring new places, and doing so many of my other hobbies. Photography has taught me to always keep a camera on-hand in the event an unknown moment may present itself. But sometimes I defy that and will just go surf with my friends.

How do you feel about your work winning Red Bull Illume’s Athlete’s Choice category?

It was a top honor and one of the proudest moments of both my career and life. The event Red Bull put on in Hong Kong was exhilarating to be a part of, and something I will cherish forever.

What are the standout lessons you’ve learned through your time in the water?

Practicing safety and listening to my intuition are first and foremost. But inversely, exploring the ocean with an open mind can show you things you never could've imagined. 

What would you say to an aspiring action sports photographer; what advice would you give them?

Two things that have really helped me have been: shooting photos every day, ideally of new subjects and with new angles; and becoming sufficient in the back-end of photography. It’s critical to know how to run a business, with a dedicated website, thorough accounting, timely emails, etc..... It all makes a difference!

How do you maintain creativity when working with mainstream organizations that might prefer a more standard shot?

I've always stuck to my guns and shot photos and video the way I wanted to, which has helped me grow and define my style very neatly. And ultimately, I think my style and work is usually what invites or denies me from situations I photograph.

What’s next for you?

I'm working on several video and photo projects that I am really excited about, as well as relaunching my website.  I'm trying to formulate a book, and heading to Hawaii, Canada, and Australia next month.

Click here to see Morgan Maassen's Surf Photography.


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