Morgan Maassen Talks Creative Processes & The Production Of His Latest Work, 'Goddesses' - Stab Mag

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Vahine Fierro, the eldest of three leading by example. All frames supplied by Morgan Maassen.

Morgan Maassen Talks Creative Processes & The Production Of His Latest Work, ‘Goddesses’

A serene portrait of three Polynesian sisters pushing their surfing to the limits.

features // Oct 25, 2021
Words by Ethan Davis
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Morgan Maassen returns time and time again to Tahiti.

Despite amassing a considerable amount of wealth between his artistic and financial portfolios and working with the biggest commercial clients in the game such as Apple, Red Bull, Nike, and Quiksilver, Morgan struggles to rest on his laurels and sit still.

Morgan’s artistic strength is a credit to his philosophy of building quality relationships with interesting people, and a willingness to forego a life of rooted stability for chasing swells and opportunities that fruit awe and beauty. His latest clip is a portrait of World Surfing Champion Vahine Fierro and her two sisters, Kohai and Heimiti, accomplished surfers in their own right, at home in Tahiti.

Morgan discusses his creative process below.

Stab: You’ve expressed your great affinity for Tahiti several times. Why, more so than other places, does it capture your interest?

Morgan: My most undying passion in life is travel, and I’ve toiled endlessly to see as many places as possible. Tahiti consistently calls me back, showing me a power of land, sea, and nature that exists nowhere else. Those mountains, that ocean, the whales and waves and reef and jungle and people that call it home, it is unlike anything else. I’m honored to explore it with my cameras, to use photography and filmmaking as a method of appreciation and adventure. 

What is a reliable trigger for you to pick up a camera and push the shutter?

As a photographer and filmmaker, I don’t really make work to sit back and say, “this is my body of work”… I use cameras to be the tools that get me to where I want to go. But once there and with the camera in hand, I love being able to alter compositions, colors, and textures through the scope of a lens, and I do ultimately enjoy creating postcards from all the exploring. 

What makes a good story?

The ocean is what truly captivates me and my time, but I also love meeting people who live strong and pure lives, where their thirst for creativity or action shaves off all the other boring parts of life. I find that I derive so much energy and creativity from that, just by bearing witness to them.

What is the benefit of traveling alone?

I like to be nimble and self-reliant. I want to spend rainy days reading books and editing films, hike at midnight, spend three days in a kayak chasing a cloud photograph that will never materialize. I love being alone as a person, and I find it only spurs my adventures and creativity more. 

Why should we have conversations with others? Even if we like being lone wolves?

I had seen Vahine surfing Teahupo’o, but never spoke to her until one day I saw her at my local Trader Joe’s. We both sheepishly said hi to each other and parted ways, but a couple of months later I watched her catch a beautiful wave at Teahupo’o. I swam up to her and said “I’m making a film on you”, and have since grown to absolutely love and admire her family. I cherish my connection with them immensely.

Your work tends to focus on a single concept or person. It exposes more detail than the average montage cut together with a soundtrack. What’s in the detail that interests you? 

I’m a pretty bad storyteller which stems from my disinterest in working with dialogue/narrative. I try to focus on the beauty in color and textures, sharing environments where someone’s motive can exist without explanation. I like to piece things together visually and take the chance that what I capture and arrange in a film, will make sense to the viewer. 

How do you get people to be candid when you’re waving a camera in their face? What is good etiquette?

I like to work with people I trust, and who trust me. Usually, the relationship is forged before the shooting, or at least in perfect tandem. The more trust on the table, the better the moments shared. I think most people are surprised to see I travel alone (for personal projects), and use a broken-down Red setup with one lens in a little Jansport backpack. Simplicity is key. I aspire to exist with my subjects and it’s paramount that we enjoy each other’s time. 

Do you make your work with an audience in mind?

I actually have a hard time sharing my work, especially the last several years. I like to make things and move on, I don’t want the public to see them, for metrics to claw at the back of my mind and things I’ve made to be re-jiggered by brands and creative agencies. But I am fortunate enough to have a small social media machine where I can release work and it supports further personal and commercial work. When it comes to the creative aspect, I usually just say a quick prayer that people understand what I’ve made and won’t find certain nuances or the music abrasive. 

Christopher Hitchens once said, ‘the more I travel, the more I realize how similar people are to one another’. Is there something paradoxical about travel? Do you think it reveals more of our differences or reveals more of how similar people are to us in our base condition?

I think as you get older, things get simplified, then set in stone. The wonderment of a 20-year-old experiencing a new place and culture turns into a simple spectrum of, “do I like it more or less than my own” for a 40-year-old. It’s youthful exuberance being sucked out of a human, slowly being replaced by both experience and lethargy. I feel it in myself. Like hell will I sleep three rainy nights in the wet hull of a wooden Indonesian fishing junk with cockroaches falling off the ceiling again. Screw that and the gasoline pancakes we ate in the engine room! But I want an adventure of that caliber again, and in that lust, you’ll find 7 billion people and 195 countries to keep you on your toes forever.

There’s an argument in philosophy – cultural relativism – that says you cannot judge another culture by any absolute standard because you evaluate things based on the context in which you developed and therefore bring an inherent bias. In your experience traveling, I’m sure you would have come across certain customs and practices that seem cruel and contemptible. What are your thoughts on cultural relativism?

I leave home to learn, grow, experience, but it is impossible to not carry who I am with me. When you boil cultures, religions, art, most macro facets of society down to their rawest form… They are all interconnected. In the examples of Greeks smoking inside cars and restaurants (disgusting!) and the Chinese committing genocide against Uyghurs (an actual crime against humanity)…. it makes me more curious than ever. In the former example, I might get pissy if we eat in a smokey restaurant, but I’ll go back to Athens in a heartbeat. In the latter example, I will spend hours reading about this, learning and understanding what is happening politically and culturally, refusing work with China, and trying to steer my spending away from corporations that use Uyghur forced labor. The choices we make on judgment and interaction beyond that though can open and close doors to exploring new environments and slices of life unimaginable.  

If you had to completely change careers, where would you go?

I would love to pursue painting or biology. most realistically, it will probably be environmentalism.

For more of Morgan’s work click here.

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