Scott Needham is a man of vision. As a professional photographer, he is one of the originators of the extreme sports genre of lifestyle and photography. His work is astonishingly beautiful and he possesses the rare gift of being able to define culture through his art, especially surf culture. Scott’s CV reads like a who’s who – he’s photographed for companies such as Diesel, Lancome, Volvo, Biotherm, Redbull, Billabong, Quiksilver and Roxy, and his celebrity list includes Helena Christenson, Kelly Slater, Daryl Hannah, Kate Bosworth, AC/DC, Russell Crow, Megan Gale, Ben Harper, Layne Beachley, Jack Johnson, just to name a few.
While this is all heady stuff, Scott is a surfer. Surfing has shaped how he views the world and his approach to art. His surfing is stylish and experimental, and his approach to every wave is completely spontaneous.
This makes him great to surf with and ironically, he’d make an excellent photo subject for a photographer. Maybe it’s his unique approach to surfing that allows him to see fresh perspectives through the eye of the lens. When we last surfed together at Byron Bay, he got a few fun little barrels and then ditched the board for a water camera. The shift in energy of the crew in the lineup was palpable. Though the surf was small, every surfer’s manoeuvres became more committed with the prospect of photo glory . As the shutter clicked, Byron’s 13 year old super-grom Kyuss King put on an air-show worthy of a future champion, before head-butting his board and nearly knocking himself out. Scott’s mastery of the camera even meant that I got a few shots for the wall. It was time to check in again and see what was happening in the world of Scott Needham.
GS: Hey Scott, it’s almost the end of 2011, how’s the year been for you?
SN: Well, after years of constant travel, it’s been great spending time with my children. Lola loves the water so we go boogie-boarding or surfing, where she actually stands up but then loves to sit down whilst riding the wave. She loves surfing [so long as it’s pink..].
I work mostly in Australia these days and whilst I love new places I dont miss the whole airport/airline debacle it is. The golden days are definitely behind us…Bali epitomises this perfectly, though I still love the magic of Bali. Paddling through the cave at Uluwatu is special. I love it.
GS: Photography is such a personal art form, both for the photographer and the subject. How do you approach your role as photographer?
SN: Good question. Photography is somewhere between science and art so it catalyses both sides of the brain I guess. A lot of it is experience and through that knowledge is learned. In the days of film, you only got one shot at things so you had to know your exposure, light and subject matter no matter the situation. I think over time you get more comfortable with the craft and from that your work may also derive technique and style. It’s fair to say it’s personal, much like opinion, as everyone has his or her point of view [pun intended…]. So, I guess I approach each thing I shoot from the task at hand. If it’s commercial work then the client often drives it, whereas personal work is purely my vision. Sometimes it’s a hybrid, whereby you are employed to interpret art direction and vision.
GS: The surf industry has changed a lot in the last 30 years. From counter-culture hippies to multi million dollar surfing contracts for the sport’s elite – what’s your take on the journey of surfing?
SN: To me the surfing industry and surfing have diverged. When I first started surfing everything was backyard and the industry suffered winters immensely until snowboarding helped shops through it. Now, you have more ‘surfshops’ selling the allure of surfing, often without even surfboards in the store. Some of these big name surfing companies have the most insipid office environments. Seriously, Microsoft would have more buzz. One massive company doesn’t even have any windows in its marketing department. It’s shares similar solitude to Guantanamo Bay. Actually, that’s being mean to Guantanamo.
With more money on offer, underwritten by a multi billion dollar surfing industry, the level of surfing professionalism has changed from a few dedicated athletes, to pro surfers now having personal trainers who travel with them year-round. In recent years, we’ve seen young kids offered million dollar contracts. Look at Gabriel Medina of Brazil, he is truly phenomenal winning two, of his first five, CT events and he’s only 16…wow!
I would also say that surfing has fragmented into subcultures in certain areas, as if to redefine itself just as it reaches critical mass. Now, literally everyone on the coast surfs in Australia. If it was popular before, now it has reached tipping point in the line up and surfing by its very nature will always morph just as you try to contain it. That’s why I love it because it teaches you to respect the greater forces of nature.
GS: Some of your photos are unique in their perspective; the pic of Joel Parkinson in Tahiti for example – are these photos planned or do they happen spontaneously?
SN: Actually, I’d say a bit of both. There are things you may think of as working and at times, they do, like the image of Joel as Silver Surfer.
Then, there are times when you are shooting a wave, moment, sunset, whatever, and when reviewing the image you see things you never saw at that moment, but perhaps your mind’s eye did. Maybe it’s an aggregation of collective conscience of all the photography/visuals you’ve ever seen or witnessed since you can remember.
My favourite images are the ones which endure the tides of time. Though given the visual environment we live in today, I almost feel as though I’ve quite literally seen it all. Of course, you haven’t, as a special image will come from nowhere and hit you. Probably less often these days as everything is so contrived, over-produced and branded beyond the realm of infinite space.
I really love art and expression through many mediums. Banksy (British street artist), is a modern Shakespeare to me. Be it music, food, dance, surfing, design or whatever, it’s all one and the same: expression. I love surfing as it is very personal and nothing makes me happier outside of the family. Surfing is my life since I can’t remember.
GS: You’re well known in the surf industry and work with high profile companies and surfers, plus you’re a member of and advocate for GaySurfers.net. This is an interesting mix. How did your involvement with gay surfers begin?
SN: We’ve always had gay friends and I really enjoy the diversity of culture the gay community offers. Friends are just that…friends. I mean, what is even the big deal. To me it’s a non-issue, but for some it’s really, really daunting. I only know a few gay surfers and they’ve always kept that pretty close to their chest in the lineup.
Fuck that! You are who you are, so be who you are. Live it! I mean who cares whether two men sleep together, people are people and born as such. A gay surfer is still a surfer…shit! What’s Kelly going to do with 11 world titles after he’s done everything there is to be done in surfing…come out?! Shit, even Drouyn has done that, and, well, Kelly is pretty competitive..ha!
Paradoxically, it seems the only people who do have a problem with it are those that feel threatened by it. By example: the ONLY time ever in my entire 35 years of surfing have I ever experienced ANY hostility involving prejudice was actually directed at me from another local surfer who often threatened non-locals. This was a huge case of alpha machoism. One day the surf was tiny and he paddled out and immediately began berating a learner guy amongst a very mellow lineup, purely for not being local. I have no tolerance for morons and asked him in front of everyone why he was threatening the guy for getting in his way when he regularly hassle locals [like myself]? Immediately, he grabbed my board and demanded to go to the beach to fight. I laughed, claiming steroid abuse for his actions, and couldn’t believe the bile coming from his mouth. He finished by saying, ”Look at you on your fuckin’ pink surfboard…what are ya? ..a fuckin’ poofta?…Yeah, you weak piece of shit!” Insecurity surely feeds this embarrassing behaviour and people in the line up should not have to wear it.
Now, here’s the irony: This is a guy who struts around with the big mouth in the line up so people think he’s a angry bad local. Most people think of him as a dickhead/Fabio cross. In truth; they’re not far off as he is the very guy who sells ice creams from his boat on the harbour…in a red G-string. He’s completely narcissistic and totally into himself. No one pays much attention to him for this very reason, though I think this speaks volumes on why he punches/threatens others in the water on any given day.
In hindsight, I actually feel a bit sorry for him, as clearly this is a mental health issue that unfortunately flows over into the line up from time to time.
I think that it’s always the fiercest opponent of, or anti-gay person, who somehow feels the most threatened by gay people.
GS: What was it like to film gay surfers marching for the first time at the 2011 Sydney Mardi Gras?
SN: Mardi Gras is always fun and really colourful. I’ve been going on and off since I cant remember. Over the years there’s always the odd surprise as the floats roll by. This year was really cool to be actually sitting on the back of the parade car watching everyone
groove to the music with surfboards in hand. The crowd went fricken nuts and just loved the spectacle. There were plenty who surfed in the crowd and they were screaming with joy, kind of blindsided that there was a surfing theme.
Great to see and a new dimension. I’m sure the next one will be a whole level up again.
Even a former world surfing champ has two younger gay brothers. And that’s just in men’s surfing. I hope to see more of this….way more! Come on… ”Come out, come out, where ever you are!” Ha!
GS: The whole gay thing is such a hot topic issue at the moment. We have gay surfers coming out to the world through articles in magazines such as Tracks in Australia and others around the world. Meanwhile, the issue of gay marriage is on political agendas in the US and Australia – what’s the general vibe on the gay issue when you’re out working in the world of surfing?
SN: Ha, that’s funny because by day I don’t experience any homophobia at all. Of course, boys will be boys and invariably wolf-pack it when grouped, but for me, homosexuality is a non-issue. I honestly believe the term ‘that was a gay cutback..’ or whatever, to be an innocent carry over from skateboarding in the 80’s when Tony Hawk termed a spin he did as a ‘Gay twist’ simply because it wasn’t as rigid or burly as the then tricks of the time. It would not have any more malice when said than “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree…how gay his life must be..”
Look at it half full-not half empty and life is good as long as you don’t live in Africa.
GS: Your website SNP5000 looks incredible, you must have created a huge body of work throughout your career?
SN: BC (before computer), photography held far more mystique and interest. There was a genuine process to it that always made the trip to the lab to view the processed film so worthwhile. Given the costs involved, you kind of had to know your game. I’ve never really shot much stuff I’m proud of as I’m pretty deliberate on what I determine to be a good still image. I’ve travelled relentlessly for nearly two decades and photography has been very kind to me.
Now, our digital lives have structured the photographer in a way to be homogenized, as we all use the same equipment, hard and software, ad websites showcase peoples work. Admittedly, I feel like I’ve already taken the photo so can’t someone else do some web work for me please? I do have a lot of images but really I only show what art directors and creative’s might like. I/we already spend too much time in front of a screen, so if I really like an image I will print it big and hang it at home. 72 dpi is for ADHD bottom-feeders; only prints and galleries will truly carry decent photography.
GS: So, you’ve travelled extensively for much of your life, is there one particular moment captured on film that you’re most proud of?
SN: That’s a tough question! I’ve often thought, if I ever do a book I’ll call it “The Greatest Photographs I Never Took”, because the moment arrives and it’s a choice between shoot it or surf it? I’ll most always drop the camera (unless it’s massive, then I’ll scream and yell from the boat like the best of them).
One magic moment was at Lennox head early one morning. I had the water camera ready to go and the waves were barrelling. A voice inside was saying ”Surf or shoot…surf or shoot..?” Something was confusing me. So, I went surfing knowing/hoping I’d made the right decision. Sure enough, I’m paddling out and this guy is standing bolt-upright in a thick barrell, when 3 dolphins blasted from the back of the wave, through the spent barrel and out onto the flats immediately behind him. Total utopia!
Now, that is a shot burned well into my memory bank….and conscience! Needless to say, I missed the shot but got barrelled nonetheless.
GS: So, what does 2012 have in store for Scott Needham?
SN: Less is more. Less bullshit. More surfing. Less social media. More family.
To visit Scott Needhams website click on SNP5000
Article by David Wakefield
Posted January 16th, 2012.