Posts Tagged ‘California’

Risk Perception

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Risk Perception

The image above was shot during the 2010 Maverick’s Challenge where I worked as support and Photographer for K38 Rescue, who ran Event Ocean Safety and in process was in charge of training a cadre of local watermen to be a Rescue team. That local team was headed up by Vince Broglio. It was a big and perfect day. Possibly the biggest, best surf, ever paddled into for a competitive event.

The quote is something Shawn said in one of our project groups this week. And I immediately turned it into an Oceanlovers Blue Note. Blue Notes are wisdom gleaned from the Sea, basically. You can find them here on Oceanlovers’ site, and you should be able to right click grab them. They are meant to be shared.

I study risk. Have for a long time now. As someone with a background in high risk competitive sports as well as a depth of Ocean experience, if I were not risk aware, I would not be sitting here typing on a Saturday morning. But this week has prompted me to want to expound a little on Risk Perception. You see, Risk is always there. But it is our understanding and awareness of it which allows us to potentially manage some of that potential threat to our own and other’s life and limb, with our choices and actions, and hopefully, to come away unscathed.

This is a very complex and layered subject. I have written a little bit about Shawn and I’s affiliation and relationship here in this regard in Peaking in Seconds and Feet. The people I work with via K38 Rescue and in my other various affiliations, are world leaders in various aspects of emergency response. We all support each other, mentor, and yes hold ourselves accountable, as members of a large Community. Accountability is everything when managing risk.

Understanding is what we strive for, as responsibility for our own safety and that of our subjects as professional imagers, needs to underpin our life. Without that you would see a pattern develop in and around your work which would include injuries-damage  to yourself, equipment and subjects. So we study to learn the risk, safeguard ourselves, and push for a more pleasant experience and to set an appropriate example for others.

Let me underscore something, speaking of accountability. I have never been hurt filming or shooting. With the exception of smacking Sean Tully, one of my long term collaborators in the head, when a lip grabbed an overly large waterhousing, I have never hurt or lost anyone. (I repaired Sean’s scalp wound. Being able to do that is another story) So in almost 15 years of filming all over the world, that means no bad cuts, head injuries, sprained or broken anything. Zilch. Nada. Zip.

I believe it is possible for anyone to have that track record. But Risk Perception, it is multi-layered, and I want to share one of the layers here.

This week has been full of Kite board filming and stills shooting. I consider this subject and utilizing a water POV to be exceptionally high risk for a number of reasons. A photographer could suffer instantaneous death from a variety of means. I am not going to go into the details, but this week it went smoothly. Here is one of many images collected and a part of a film I am developing. And yes, another Blue Note.

Blue Note: Kite

I always watch the Ocean. My connection to it is so involved and intimate, I am not going to endeavor to explain the relationship in a technical manner. But I will share some precepts.

My wife has been surprised to see the large volume of very high bar water work I have generated this Summer along our coast. That is unusual, as it is rare for the large combination of variables I require to attain my image quality bar, to happen in Summer. She sees the commitment and struggle, some of it anyway, as we talk about managing the vast array of details which comprise a career. Nevertheless, she has been remarking on what has wandered in the pixel door lately.

Two days ago things lined up for a special evening. I had been watching a break for some time now. Studied it, learned the parameters of tide swell, current, conditions etc. I thought it had potential to provide for some great work. But I had not yet swum it.  Eventually understanding risk comes down to going. You must go and challenge your understanding at some point, in order to convert the experience into knowledge.

Driving down Coast on a hot, blue, placid day I was inexplicably unsettled inside. When I got to the break I had thought we would be filming at, perfect little shoulder to head high peaks threw out in hollow top lit blue cylinders, in an idyllic California-esque  beach day. Woo hoo! But inside was a voice.

Looking down coast at that spot I had been watching, I saw a few waves break and recognized that today was likely as good a day as ever to swim the place. Lars Rathje arrived, who is one of my close collaborators. His younger brother Hans was on the way. With increasing excitement we watched a few well overhead sets roll through and I carefully loaded my SPL waterhousing, placing the Canon 5DM2 with wide angle zoom into the case, setting everything and then buttoning up and prepping the port. It is a routine and process which I have done literally thousands of times.

I tugged my wetsuit on, grabbed my housing and fins and we picked our way down the cliff to a narrowing sandy beach strewn with the odd big rock. Neither of us was 100 percent on what the bottom looked like. We suspected it would be soft sand as we had seen the break shifting a bit over the course of a year, and that shift usually indicates sandbar movement related to littoral flow.

As we got to the water’s edge I turned to Lars and said this on the most perfect beautiful risk absent day one could ever imagine. “Pay close attention out here today. Really close attention. There is something not right about this.

And we swum out. Below are the first and last frames I shot that night. Easy, perfect, brilliant, fun. Right?

First Frame

Last Frame

Here is what happened.

The lineup features two peaks, one a left and one primarily a right. On high tide (tide was filling in) a side wave pushes across the lineup creating an explosive and dramatic backwash condition. Part of what we were there to experience was the water morph. The first wave Lars barely got into it via the back door and as the side wave hit it kicked open. That dry hair shot above was the first one of the evening .

We had to play everything very close due to the combination of conditions, so frequently we were in touching distance. That is not so unusual for water work. I actually call this type of shooting “contact work” as one is generally within touching distance when one shoots. You endeavor to have the ocean and your approach create a near miss scenario. We both laughed that in the first 5 minutes we had nailed it. That does not happen too often. Perfection is complex. It takes some effort.

An hour later a wave double concussed and as I came back to the surface I saw that my housing had leaked. The dreaded Death all Water Photographers seek to avoid was in process. Due to the design of SPL’s system, the camera sits on a plate which keeps it elevated. You can technically semi flood a housing and not lose the camera if you are careful. “Hey Lars, I am out. Housing leak. Going to the beach and see if I can fix it. Camera is still alive.” Hans had just paddled out to join us.

I swum in, managing to keep the housing out of the water and in the shore pound saw I would need to take a wave to the body. In spite of backing in to the beach, I was very aware of my position. I knew that one big rock was nearby and where it was. The wave slapped me ashore and housing held high, I was swept up the beach right past that rock. Hmm. An hour down and several high risk potential things had gone down.

I climbed up the cliff, went to the back of my car, and disassembled, dried, cleaned and re assembled my gear. A half hour later I was back at water’s edge. The boys had moved back up the beach. The lineup was empty. I normally love that. But inside the voice was an alarm bell still. I had a close look, nothing apparent, dipping my housing, it was holding the seal and all seemed fine, so into the blue I plunged, and in 50 yards I was in perfect position for a beautiful backwash blast. The loud crack as the two waves blasted into oblivion made for a great capture. We all sort of live our lives in the impact zone, those of us that do this, and we truly love being there. So we mind the blasts. That is part of our innate risk management

Popping up I saw a sea lion gliding by. He was acting skittish. Not unusual. They tend to be a lot like dogs and are sometimes very friendly and at others, stand offish or aggressive. He disappeared. I noticed that I was the only thing on the surface. Then came that voice and something new: a tap on the shoulder. Something was out there with me. That never alarms me believe it or not. I just watch the water, keep my housing down around my legs and pay attention. It is not uncommon for sharks to come up and take a look at me and the sun was getting low on the horizon. It was nearing dinner time for the Sea.

I saw nothing. It had been awhile and the long period Southern hemi swell seemed to be lulling out so I worked my way into the shorepound, wishing that the boys would come back so we could shoot a bit more surf stuff. Near shore my inner alarm went off. It is this imminent collision intuition one has that was saying “Do not be here”. So I swam back out. Yep. As a blue wave danced onto the sandbar I saw the shadow and profile of the shark. Looked like a 6-8 footer.¬† I could not tell what type but assumed it to be a Thresher. Sort of reminded me of a Tiger though, by it’s movement. But that would be odd. He was headed away. The “alarm” went off. My inner voice was still alert.

I set about capturing and creating the images I was after, and in a bit Hans swam out to join me sans board. Bodysurfing the warm, slabby wedges. We connected a few times and were both laughing. In a bit we saw Lars wander back down the beach with  a stunning looking woman with him. They chatted a few minutes and he joined us, and began to work some difficult angles.

An hour later as the sun began to drop behind a coastal mountain to our West, I had bait rise flash all around me, and fish flew out of the water, encircling me in a silvery rainbow. I laughed. But I knew something caused that. I had seen it before swimming a remote wave in Mexico right before a very large Tiger had appeared mid wave and shown me the door.

Swimming back out, a wave doubled up and I eased under it. Uh oh. Shallow spot in the sand bar. The lip bounced me off the bottom, rag dolled me and as I surfaced, I saw some scratches on my housing port. Shoots. Damage. Repairable and the marks were not in the lens’ line of sight. Whew. Next wave was perfect. Nailed it. Then Lars, who was sitting further outside said “Hey David, check it out, we have a bait ball just offshore. Wow, did you see that? Two dolphins, a baby and an older one!”

We worked the last half hour alone as Hans had gone in and was watching us as the light ebbed. Then Lars went in, and I was out alone in the stillness of evening, light waning and realized that all was quiet inside of me. I swam to the outside shot a couple more frames and began to work shoreward. A set missed the outside sandbar and doubled up just as a backwash wave hit and I shot a final last frame, that beautiful one above.

So I dragged you along on this tale to explain that though what I do looks easy, and I make it out as such, one of the primary reasons is that I know the risks, yes, but that my perception is highly trained and tuned. That part is not so special nor as arrogant as it may at first read. It is how we all should be, who have a grasp on what it means to be human, living in a body, designed to walk the land, but composed largely of salt water, and wedded to the Sea.

Below are a few more of the 24 A list images from the evening.






Friday, September 2nd, 2011


I had planned a nice little piece on Water for this week. A large SW swell had been making it’s way towards Ventura, and the subject seemed rather appropriate. Teahupoo in Tahiti had gotten it earlier in the week. Mass carnage, as surfers turned media whores, went for the liquid hammer that was a pretty much unrideable swell, were it not for jet assist. Cool, and somehow not…

I left the office late in the day for a drive down coast, and as I pulled into my normal checkout spot for one of those remote waves that rarely breaks, a white Ford Focus 4 door sort of cut me off. As I nosed my car in to a stop, I watched a woman get out, and look around in bewildered fashion.

Standing on the cliff I watched as a big set loomed and then fired down the rocky point. A double overhead barrel throbbing with energy from that distant storm which spawned it, was remarkably impressive.

Turning, I saw the woman get back in her car. The sight was one that sort of made me shake my head. Something just seemed wrong. Eyes went back to the surf. A moment later and in a glance left, I saw the white car do an abrupt right turn, accelerate at the berm on which I stood, and fly over the cliff. I was running immediately, dialed 911 and gave an operator the details.

Below me lay the crashed car, engine running, perched on it’s driver side. Looking down, I realized I was wearing thongs. “Shit” I slipped them off and clambered down. The car seemed to be safely pinned against a large boulder. The passenger side was high in the air. Fluids leaked from the destroyed front end, and remarkably the engine was still running. Not good. It looked like it would roll over and into the water if I tampered with it.

A quick look at the wedge points, and I decided it was reasonably safe to go in. The driver’s window was down about 6-8 inches. The airbag had deployed and the woman was laying against the glass, not moving, with a tuft of auburn hair blowing in the breeze.

I reached in and checked her. She was out. Pulse was steady. I could not reach the key to turn off the engine, no matter how I maneuvered myself. She began to stir and I began talking to her, stroking her hair, and told her where she was, what had happened, that she was going to be okay.

In process, she said she needed to reach her mother and made motions to the passenger seat with her arms, as if she was trying to grab a hold of something. No one was there. The car was filling up with smoke and exhaust fumes and I knew that if I could not get the engine off, she would not last long. I saw a rock. But it meant the back window, and climbing in. I did not want to do that.

“You need to turn your car off. Reach up and turn the key!” I said it loudly. Repeatedly. She was out of it. Not cognitive. “Shit” I went to the back of the car, resigned to get the rock and remarkably, the car shut off. Happy. A group of bystanders was cliff side and cameras were out.

I could hear sirens. Maybe ten minutes had elapsed since my call. That was fast, I thought. I went back and checked on her and she was out again. Elderly woman. Maybe 65 0r 70. Once more I told her that help was on the way. I then climbed back up the cliff, slipped into my sandals, went to my car and shot three frames.

I moved my car down from the scene and got out, just as the first fire truck arrived. I stayed for a few minutes and shot a few more images. Then headed down coast. Not wanting to be anywhere near the place, as traffic began to pull over and new hazards began to develop. I have never understood why people do that.



Soon I was at another break, and camera in hand, decided not to make the trek down to Malibu. I felt like being alone. But as is typical of this stretch of coastline, a few people saw my lone car parked, and pulled over. The large RV behind my car with five people, each with cameras in hand looking at me, said it all. Bleah. Dangerous place to stick a family and RV, on the narrow shoulder. My car was nestled far offroad. Their’s was not. People sometimes seem to have little regard for the consequences of their actions.

A much larger set broke up coast and as I suspected, the real sets were spaced approximately 20 minutes apart. One of my friends, an expert waterman and swimmer, told me he had almost drowned surfing that morning. I had been talking to some of the other water photographers in my network, warning them about this swell. It was going to be risky to swim due to the way the energy would sequence in, from two separate directions, with long and relentless, wave rich sets, that would recycle you back into the impact zone.

Big swells are funny. It is as if people get intoxicated by all the energy being released, and can do things similar to what one would see a drunk person engage. I shot a few more remarkable waves, as the Pacific unloaded in all it’s glory, the light turned deep amber, and flared down.

Driving back up Hwy One I saw emergency vehicle lights, two sets and locations now, not just the first airborne incident. “Shit”

Here is something I hope no one will ever need to use. How to escape from a sinking car.

I spoke with my son Jon on the phone as I pulled into my driveway and flicked on the carport light. “Man Dad, I am glad you are home safe. That sounds crazy” he responded to my little story of the evening’s events. “Yea it sorta was Jon. Hope she made it. I think she will. ”

Ringing off, I went in to start dinner for Donna and I. The cats were glad to see me. Outside, some birds sang in the last bit of waning light. A few days earlier I had watched online while up in SF, as Teahupoo in Tahiti unloaded on this very same swell we had here at the moment. A few were doing the unthinkable, and being launched into death barrels that would slap shut mercilessly. Carnage and confusion reigned in the clips I watched. I did not spend much time with it, as what I saw, made me feel ill.

I am all about life’s challenges. But I swear, when cameras come out and our tech gets used to elevate and facilitate the exercise of inordinate stupidity in order to achieve media coverage, I feel somewhat ashamed of the human race. I like what Bruce Irons, one of the few people thoroughly qualified to ride Teahupoo,¬† pointed out, as he called it quits. “I have a family, my kids, wife, they come first. But then again, we are surfers.”

At the end of the day, your choices,  knowledge, and application of your skill (or lack thereof) will have been illustrated. Life is about living, and learning. That part never stops: the learning. I am not sure if the woman in the car had attempted suicide. Could be. Maybe not. But she was alive when I left her. I hope that as we move further into what I am convinced will be a very active year in terms of challenge, that we realize collectively,  our actions can affect many.


A California Opus

Saturday, July 9th, 2011
Napa Orange Gold

Napa Orange Gold

Chapter 5 in the California Series.

I have not always lived in California. My Dad was going to college on the GI Bill in Milwaukee Wisconsin, at Marquette University. I had never asked him why, being from Hawaii, he chose the Mid West. He met my Mother there. That was where my two Brothers and I were born.

We were sick a lot as infants. The family pediatrician had told my parents that our Hawaiian genetics may have been to blame, as we did not tolerate the cold of  hard, Midwestern Winter very well. In fact, I ended up in the hospital. I remember the experience vividly. It was a bleak time of laying in an oxygen tent in a ward, and staring out a third floor hospital window, looking at the City, watching.

Eventually, the family moved to California where my Father explored his career as an Engineer. My parents bought a home in Whittier California.  The design of the first computer, as well as launch of the Space program, became a regular part of our household, via my Dad’s work.

In some ways, we were healthier in the warmer climate of California. However, a problem arose. I developed allergies. Those caused a lack of energy, and attendant respiratory problems. I began getting injections twice a month (one in each arm), which helped alleviate the symptoms. I still get a phantom muscle ache, when I think about those shots.

I recall days where one could not see the nearby foothills, which created the basin in which Whittier is located, such was the density of the smog prevalent in California in the 1960’s. It had been around this time that the massive citrus groves disappeared from the area, being replaced by housing tracts and strip malls. Part of a methodical, concreting over of the Los Angeles area.

I was already a swimmer at this point, having learned to bodysurf, ride foamies, and inflatable mats, at the beaches in and around Newport, Huntington, Palos Verdes and South Bay. I swam for a local AAU team. But those allergies were a persistent problem. The only time I had true respite, was when we were at the beach.

Due to my diminutive size, and sort of sickly nature, my parents decided that I needed to wait to get a surfboard. By this point, it had been a topic of discussion for a couple years. But my water activities, which included fishing and diving, kept me pretty busy.

I craved those idyllic long days at the beach. I have fond memories of ten hour days in the water,  a piece of chicken, or a few rice balls, snatched on the run, from the picnic lunch my Mom would have made, very early that morning, as she loaded up the white 1955 Chevy wagon, for the long (to me) drive to the beach. I had fallen for California.




A Day at the Beach

Friday, May 13th, 2011
California Glide

California Glide

My parents moved to California when I was four. It was at that time when I saw my first surfer gliding to shore on the South Side of the Manhatten Pier. We lived in a walk up a couple blocks from the beach. I have no idea why a four year old would retain such sharp memories. I can only assume he was getting his foundation tutored to him by the land and sea.

In the years since, I have seen a LOT of change in this State. My understanding of the place comes from a deep connection to our ocean based culture here in California, and is rooted in my genes  and experiences acquired while running and founding a plethora of businesses as well as my current career as a commercial and editorial Photographer, Writer and Film Maker.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will examine my home. California: land of the warmly toned sun rise and yes, sun set. She is struggling a bit more than other places right now. So I thought that maybe a look from my perspective may be a good thing to proffer. It is a very beautiful place.  Most of the time.

Dawn's Early Light

Dawn's Early Light

“A Day at the Beach”

Dawn Moonset and Fog

Dawn Moonset and Fog


In the late fifties and sixties, it was the allure of California Beach Culture that drew people from all over the US, to California. The promise of sun, sand, surf, freedom and a burgeoning economy, were this brilliant siren song that caused us to eventually become the 7th largest  economic entity in the world.


The State utilized the talent and passion of that large influx of people, seeking golden shores and fair weather, to build all manner of things.


People needed jobs, so they set about designing and assembling the accoutrements of what would eventually affect the popular culture of the globe.

One of those funny little projects, which was manufactured both in Oakland and Van Nuys, was the Corvair. The Euro styled little car was designed as the answer to the VW Beetle and Renault. It soon disappeared into a sort of time warped oblivion as a mainstream effort. Big block V8 muscle cars of the day, took advantage of an abundance of cheap fuel and the need to haul families around in a little bigger vehicle, and became the design direction to be followed.

Here is a great little piece on the Corvair by Jay Leno. I find people like Jay, one of the better, and more enjoyable aspects of Californian popular culture.

Here is another by Chevrolet.

California has always set trends. The Corvair was decades ahead of it’s time.

And the fashion, which has arisen as a result of surfing and our beach lifestyle, quite frankly, is stronger and more influential now than ever before.

Deep Magazine recently offered me the chance to do a swimwear shoot. The theme was up to me. My answer was to hearken back to what made our Fashion develop and endure, our State grow and flourish, and what today, still offers a laundry list of assets that continue to lure: the California Coast, a rich and beautiful Ocean, pretty girls, and lots of laughter, fun, and our own, very unique lifestyle.

A day at the beach is almost always pretty special. I bet just reading this, you will recall some of yours.

Seth Godin has this to say about being an exceptional brand. For that is what California really is: a brand.

Click on any of the images below to toggle through as a slide show.

The “Models” are all surfers. But why wouldn’t they be?

Hans Rathje, Lars Rathje, Ruby Kernkamp, Jentry Huntington, Taylor Bruynzeel, Alma Billgren

Assts: Joshua Pu’u: 1st , Angela Izzo, 2nd and 2nd camera, Dante Sigismonde 3rd

Stylist: Donna Von Hoesslin

Hair and MU: Donna Von Hoesslin, for Betty B, and  Meagan Scott  for Boyandarrows.

Car wrangler, owner, camera car operator: Keith Huot

Project Coordinator: Andres Nuno for Deep Magazine


Monday, March 14th, 2011
Love's Secret Domain

Love's Secret Domain

This is a little deviation from the Loves serialization. Though the subject does relate.

The other night, I got roped into doing something I rarely ever endeavor. My son invited me to a “dive bar” to see him play. He had been working on creating a band to perform his music, and the never visited “hole in the wall” on a section of Ventura’s Main St, was to be ground zero for a shake down performance.

Josh Slavin is the stage name for Joshua Pu’u by the way. (People keep asking me.) I usually sort of just smirk. Hyperbole is everything.

His rather complex interpretation of music and performance was pretty much nailed in Seth Godin’s blog today. Bring me stuff that’s dead please. Josh is doing this. I was impressed when I finally figured it out.

It had been a busy week for Josh. One of our local papers, the VC reporter had done a little story on him. That sort of adds a  subtle layer of pressure. Especially when one spends all of their time writing, designing, and recording, pretty much alone. Guitar lessons, vocal lessons, plying the music scene in LA. Josh had delved into most of that on his own, in pursuit of interpreting something pretty much dead.

His new band shows a lot of promise. The complexity of their music and level of performance requires the refinement of a hundred dive bar performances, but that is how a craft is honed, one swing of the axe at a time. It never was lost on me that term: “axe men” for guitarists.

The process was related to me by my friend Samuel Shoemaker, who fronts a band with his brothers, called of course, The Shoemaker Brothers. (Those lyrics say everything.) Sam told me the story of them leaving home in Washington, and playing their way across the US and back, one performance at a time, each night ending with loading their gear back into their van and moving along. Zuri Star has related similar dues paying, and craft building performance campaign tales. It is just how becoming good works, in anything: one must undergo a trial by fire. The grand test is whether it ever matters of course. That is the risk. Life is lived  in a handful of moments. A career is like a fuse. Artists know this.

Here is a great NPR piece on Neil Diamond finding his music and voice.

At the end of the night, it was Josh alone in the corner of the bar. That said a lot. Because I know that for any performer, when all is said and done, it all comes back to being willing and able, to stand and deliver.

Artists are brave Mofos.

Here is the Music Video our group did for Josh and Love’s Secret Domain, for the song, “No Substitute”.

Here is a gallery of Art based branding imagery that I produced for LSD. I do a lot of this for a variety of clients and artists. It is a bit of work, but as in all creativity, when passion and inspiration rises, the hours shooting and interpreting in post seem to slip by un noticed, till at the end of the day, eyes a little gritty feeling, one swings open the door to the outside, and wow, another day in a life just passed. Glad that it mattered. Hope that is does for someone besides me.

The images were shot as we filmed the music video. The performers are Josh Slavin and Gabe Witmer.

Click on any of them to toggle through as a slide show.

© 2009 David Pu'u. All rights reserved.