John Seaton Callahan is a world renowned editor and surf photographer. Since 1988 he has contributed to more than 250 surfing and travel publications worldwide and his images feature in Getty Images, Alamy and iStockPhoto image libraries.
He is a founding member of surfEXPLORE, a group of surfers who bring responsible surf culture to places like Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea and Haiti.
How do you prepare for an assignment?
I think the most important thing we do at surfEXPLORE is to complete as much research as possible before we visit a particular location. Local winds, seasonal swell direction and daily tides are at the top of the checklist and we also try to learn as much as we can about the specifics of the culture where we will be going.
Different places have different attitudes towards foreigners and a little inside knowledge and applied language ability can go a very long way with acceptance – and in many cases, a few laughs with the local residents and a generous and open attitude towards visitors.
Offshore island in China PRC – a new frontier for waves
Your favourite gear and why
Lately, I have been striving to implement a lighter and faster approach, using less equipment to achieve equal or greater results.
In film days, it was mandatory to carry a number of expensive, heavy and fragile large-aperture lenses to get the best results with film, but that is no longer the case. Smaller and lighter is the current trend and I personally have published double-page ink on paper spreads of images shot on a 12 megapixel GoPro camera, which is quite possible with careful post-processing.
Erwan Simon at an offshore reef break in Pacific Indonesia
In a recent interview you said: ‘Exploring new waves is certainly fun, but it does involve a huge responsibility towards the local communities in the area. This is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of surf exploration.’ How can a surfer, or any adventure traveller, explore new places responsibly?
Achieving a degree of social responsibility in adventure travel starts with a consideration of where and how you are spending your travel budget.
Is it with a major multinational corporation that may sacrifice environmental concerns for greater profits (not likely with adventure travel, but possible) or is it with a smaller operator with thinner profit margins who works directly with the host community to put cash in the pockets of local residents for accommodation, food, drinks and adventure and cultural itineraries?
It is a general rule that the fewer hands each currency unit passes through, the more money stays with the host communities. So, perhaps rather than booking two days of stand-up paddleboarding or surfing lessons before arrival, take a day to get over your jetlag and suss out the local operators.
See what kind of programmes they offer and what their connection is to the host community – is there an all-foreign staff or all locals, or a mix of the two, and look up what kind of reviews they have online. Then you will be informed to make a socially responsible choice of where to spend your adventure travel cash.
What keeps you shooting?
Photography is relative to an exercise in pursuit of the impossible. One can photograph the same scene at the same time every day for a year and get a different image every time, so actually trying to go out in the world and find the right combination of atmospheric conditions and physical aesthetics . . . well, it’s a challenge and even if one knows they will never get the perfect image it shouldn’t stop anyone from trying!
Empty left reef break in the Comoros Islands
What’s your latest project?
We are currently filming a surfEXPLORE television series with Puzzlemedia, a French production company, which is broadcast on the Canal Plus network worldwide.
We have completed projects in Madagascar and The Philippines and we are working on locations for the next several episodes in Asia, Africa and the Americas. There is a high probability of a surfEXPLORE Haiti episode at some point!
The north coast of Haiti
A common misconception about surf photographers is…
That the surf is perfect all the time, which of course it is not. What people see in videos, websites and magazines is the edited version of events, which may involve days or even weeks of poor conditions and rubbish surf before the swell, wind and sun come together to produce the kind of waves surfers will travel thousands of kilometers to ride.
Any advice for aspiring photographers/surf explorers?
It’s a big world out there and there are many places to explore for new waves. One thing that is necessary to do this kind of thing is money, regardless of your preference for tropical locations, desert environments or the current trend for ice cold waves with thick wetsuits, ice in the lineup and snow on the beach. It’s going to take money and lots of it to access these places and stay there long enough to find and ride new waves.
Evening sun in Madagascar