Stab Magazine | Something Tangible: The North Shore Alphas In Justin Jay's "HI 1K"

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Something Tangible: The North Shore Alphas In Justin Jay’s “HI 1K”

From the archives of an annual North Shore pilgrim and Hip Hop photog to the stars’ new book. Plus, how you can support a dying medium.  

style // Jun 14, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 11 minutes

There’s something intoxicating about the North Shore of Oahu.

And it’s not the waves, although they certainly play a part. In winter just walking down the bike path is an exercise in top drawer people watching, so it’s no wonder that photographer Justin Jay became so enamoured with the goings on of the houses and institutions that make the North Shore such a hallowed surfing space. Jay’s been documenting what happens out of the water on the miraculous seven mile stretch for a decade, and instead of letting the moments lay dormant in the digital sphere, he’s printing and binding them to the delight of coffee tables everywhere.

We caught up with the photographer to talk about his new book HI 1K.

Stab: What brought you to the North Shore originally?  

Justin: I’ve been a fan of surfing since I was a kid growing up in Santa Barbara, but I moved to NYC right after high school, so I fell out of the surf scene for a while. I had been to Hawaii with my family, but never to the North Shore. I got an idea that I wanted to shoot a project in Hawaii documenting the surf culture. Over the course of my photography career in NYC, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to travel and shoot a lot of hip hop artists and musicians. While I was working as a personal photographer to Sean Combs, I was given access to witness the lives of some really compelling people. I learned how to distill several days or weeks into a series of images that freeze time and convey a narrative. My goal was to document the North Shore with that same mindset and capture surfing in a way that I felt hadn’t really been done before. I wanted to tell the story of things that happen before and after the surfers hit the lineup instead of the actual surfing. 

Whose images from Hawaii resonated with you before your first visit? 

In many ways, some of the images and experiences that Steve Sherman has had travelling and shooting with Kelly have a lot of parallels with the time that I spent traveling with Sean Combs and Outkast. Sherm has an amazing ability to be where he needs to be in order to get the shot. Anticipation is half the battle. I’m actually staying with Jim Russi while I’m here, his photos are spectacular. It’s pretty rad to be able to run into Brian Bielmann and Tom Servais on the sand and be accepted in that tiny photo fraternity. Thankfully there are a ton of dedicated water and action photographers getting amazing shots of all the guys ripping in the water – that kind of material is ultimately what really helps makes my candid images matter. Without the epic water shots, you don’t have the context to appreciate my behind the scenes pics. 

You’ve managed to gain the trust of some serious characters, which isn’t easy as a photographer. How’s shooting Jay-Z compare to, say, the Rothman Family or the Volcom House?

Surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities between my experiences shooting hip-hop artists and my time shooting surfers on the North Shore. The psychology of being able to integrate yourself into an environment, get people to trust you, and then train them to forget about you and act naturally is what I really love focusing on. None of these guys are looking for a new best friend, they get enough of that already. I do what I have to do in order to make my presence known – sometimes it’s as simple as just looking someone in the eye, giving them a nod and leaving them alone until something compelling happens. I’m here as a free agent with no allegiance or association with any one particular brand. That helps me immensely, because I can float from house to house and everyone there knows that I’m going to be non-intrusive, respectful and shoot them in a manner that showcases authentic natural moments.

Looking back over the ten years, is there anything that standouts as a pinnacle moment?

Ten years is a relatively short amount of time in the context of North Shore history, but in that span I have very candid pictures in my archive of several legendary surfers that aren’t here anymore – Andy Irons, Sion Milosky, Buttons and Brock Little. Those pics are the most special to me because they captured moments that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. In a way, those pics act as a metaphor for recognizing the fragility of every day that you’re lucky enough to have on this planet. I also cherish the pics where I’ve captured an unguarded and emotional moment that I’ve been able to experience and preserve on someone’s behalf. Being on the sand with Mick Fanning when he was waiting for a score to drop with the title on the line in 2013 was pretty moving. He was frozen in a sea of people waist deep in water trying to hear the announcer. When he got the score that he needed for the title, I saw him break down and have a brief emotional private moment. Then he took a breath, composed himself and his whole face transformed into the purest elated scream I’ve ever shot. This all happened in a matter of seconds but it now exists forever in my archives.

Any years that were less than ideal? 

2015 was a difficult year for me on the North Shore. I live 12 hours away by plane and I have a three year old, so that is a very difficult combination for a quick strike mission to the North Shore. I had to plan my dates in Hawaii well in advance. When I got here, there was a solid week or so of lay days with horrible winds. The Pipe contest ran on the last day of the window and I missed most of it. You would think that when the waves are terrible, everyone that would otherwise be in the lineup would be hanging out instead. But it doesn’t work like that. When it’s flat, everyone turns into ghosts and there really aren’t many interesting moments to be captured. I ended up switching gears and working on a portrait project for my son’s first birthday instead. I shot 65 portraits of people holding a sign saying ‘Happy First Birthday Jasper Jay’. I got the entire Ho family, the Rothmans, Kelly, John John, Kala Alexander, Bruce Irons, Gabe Medina and many others to pose for me. It ended up feeling like a souvenir yearbook of that season on the North Shore. I had a hard cover book printed and I’ll give it to my son when he’s old enough to appreciate it.  

Why put together a photo book in the digital age?

Printing high-end photography books is expensive, so it has definitely been a challenge getting this project off the ground. In a visual landscape dominated by social media, photography has become diluted and devalued by the constant content-stream delivered to us each day. I still believe in the unique power of photography to bridge cultures, convey important narratives, document history, and emotionally affect people. The public has come to expect all of their content to be free, infinite and delivered effortlessly via their digital devices. Our challenge with HI 1K is to convince people to break this cycle and support this book project. By purchasing HI 1K, you will be investing in a unique, tangible and everlasting document of North Shore surf culture that wont simply fade away when you put your phone down. I’m confident that the passion, time, energy and history represented in this book will make the cost worth the effort. 

What work are you most proud of?  

I’ve been fortunate to have had some terrific access over the course of my photo career. But I’m really proud of this book project, simply because  it wasn’t an assignment or something that was handed to me. I’d never been to the North Shore and I’d always wanted to try and embed myself deep into the scene and document it similar to the way that I’d shot some of my music projects. I’d been able to get amazing access to Sean “Diddy” Combs and Outkast etc, but to some degree, those projects arose because of my existing work in the music world. But with HI 1K,  I had zero track record shooting surfers before I started – I had to start from nothing and earn my way in. I had to manifest it from the very beginning. Because of that, this project really means a lot to me. Hopefully the passion and the heart that I invested shines through in the photos. 

“John John Florence had just won the Triple Crown – his second in three years. But judging from the look on his face, he viewed this win as a Pyrrhic victory. John John’s coveted Pipeline Masters win had been snatched away from him by Kelly Slater in the waning moments of their heat. His dramatic last-minute upset is something that we’ve witnessed Kelly execute against countless competitors, sometimes with seemingly sadistic timing. But this heat felt different. For a brief moment, it appeared that John might actually be able to trounce the master and steal the pebble from Kelly’s hand. Not this time. John John stood on the manicured lawn above Pipeline. His hand-carved Triple Crown trophy was at his feet and a vibrant wreath of victory flowers rested in his hair. He was flanked by friends, family and sponsors. He deserved to be proud. He deserved to be revelling in his illustrious performance. He wasn’t. It was a bittersweet moment.

‘Just minutes earlier, Mark Cunningham as one of the first people to greet Kelly at the water’s edge when he won the Pipe title. The bottle of champagne that Kelly chugged was actually handed to him by Mark. Despite this, Mark is one of the few people that had the credibility, the history and the warmth of spirit to be able to toggle between the Slater and Florence camps so quickly and effortlessly after such a potentially divisive heat. He strolled up to John and gave him a heartfelt and compassionate hug. His embrace conveyed an untold measure of empathy and kindness. An unmistakably elated grin appeared on John John’s face, but only for a brief moment.”

“The sunsets at Pipeline are breathtaking. Sometimes the late afternoon light can evoke an almost biblical atmospheric. Rasta is one of the most graceful and fluid surfers. of all time. If you were to swap out the surfboard for a crucifix in this photo, I could almost imagine this image as religious iconography… Charlie don’t surf, but Jesus might have.”

“The entire surf community mourned the passing of Buttons in 2013. He was a true original and a style master. The day I took this photo, I had just spent the afternoon shooting with him at Sunset. We ended up back at his house for some lunch. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Buttons appeared with a huge grin wearing this pink wig. I snagged one frame and then he disappeared back inside his living room. It was no secret that Buttons had battled with substance abuse and had endured some legal problems in the past. But he had managed to put those issues behind him and he seemed to be in a very content and positive place in life. At one point I found myself alone with him in his kitchen. Out of the blue, he looked at me very contemplatively while he candidly confessed, ‘even with all of the trouble that I got myself into, I never did anything bad to anyone else…. I only hurt myself.’  Later that afternoon I found myself singing karaoke in his living room with his wife Hiriata and legendary shaper Reno Abellira. It was a very surreal day. I particularly love this picture because it perfectly captures the warm spirit that Buttons always radiated whenever I got to shoot with him.”

“Parko’s retirement party was quite possibly the North Shore’s soirée of the decade. It began with a series of touching toasts and heartwarming sendoffs from Joel’s family and closest friends. Around the periphery of the party, there were clusters of guests sipping cocktails and engaged in polite conversation. But when when the band took to the stage and the Sabbath covers dropped, Stephanie Gilmore jumped into the heart of the lions den and rocked harder than the boys.”

“Gabe Medina boosted a massive, stylish straight air and the distinct sound of his board buckling could be heard all the way from the sand at Off The Wall. As he exited the water, I saw Herbie Fletcher approach him and ask if he could have the creased board. It is very common to witness the ritual of a pro-surfer removing the fins and leash and then gifting the broken board to an excited fan. These requests however usually come from young children. Herbie makes massive art installations crafted from dozens of broken surfboards. They’re visually stunning and critically acclaimed. From his initial body language, I couldn’t determine if Medina actually knew about Herbie’s storied legacy as a surfer and his accomplishments as a fine artist, or if Gabe simply thought Herbie was a random middle aged fan. Regardless, he definitely took some convincing before he eventually handed it over. Herbie was grateful and Gabe was ultimately pleased to be able to help him out. It was a very awkward and amusing moment to get to witness.”

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“Bruce Irons had agreed to sit down with me and do a short interview ‘I’m gonna go surf for a few minutes. Let’s do it after.’ Of course nothing with Bruce Irons takes just a few minutes. Over the next 90 minutes, I watched as every surfer slowly exited the water. The breathtaking North Shore golden hour had came and went. The tranquil cool-colored twilight that gently silhouettes people in the lineup had also ended. It was straight up night time. Dark. There was still no sign of Bruce. I stood on the steps of the RVCA house wondering if I had somehow missed him getting out. Just moments away from giving up and leaving, I saw a faint figure slowly emerging from the darkness. He wasn’t surfing to get clips or attention. He revelled in the fact that he was alone and nobody was out there bothering him. He was the literally the last man standing.”

HI110923 5

“For Filipe Toledo, Julian Wilson and Gabe Medina, the stakes for this contest were massive. It was a three way title race. The world champion would be determined at Pipeline. Even though Kelly was thirsty for another Pipe trophy, he had no shot at winning the title. He was essentially surfing just for fun, with little consequence. The previous afternoon when Kelly Slater was told in his post-heat interview that he’d be surfing an elimination heat against Filipe, he was visibly disappointed. He admitted that he had hoped to stay out of the equation and not have to play spoiler so early into the contest. Slater eventually defeated Toledo, effectively killing any chance for him to be the world champion. At the water’s edge, Kelly gave Toledo a heartfelt consolation hug. The usually steely and competitive Slater seemed genuinely sad to have had to be the person to squash Toledo’s world title dreams.”

“It was the last heat of Joel Parkinson’s professional career. With just minutes left, he tucked into a heavy backdoor barrel with his impeccable position and his trademark style. If he made the exit, it would have certainly earned him the mid-range score that he needed to advance. But instead, the wave clamped shut, and his competitive career came to a close. Julian Wilson had already exited the water. Joel, however, seemed to be revelling in the moment and took his time paddling in. Julian was in an awkward position. He was standing on the sand and the crowd was starting to surround him. He had advanced, and world title dreams were still alive. But rather than escaping the chaos and rushing to the competitor’s area, he patiently waited for what seemed like ages. Eventually, Julian sprinted into the waist deep water for a final farewell to Joel. He wanted to pay his respects.”

“Kelly was out of the Pipe Masters. He threw down some amazing scores over the course of the event, but ultimately he seemed to lose some of his trademark discipline and eventually lost to Julian Wilson. His lingering foot injury was still an issue, he had stiches in his hand from a free surf the previous day at V-Land, and his knee was freshly bandaged from an encounter with the reef in his previous heat. Perhaps to assuage some frustration, Kelly lingered around the competitor’s area signing autographs and talking to fans. He was in an affable mood, but he was clearly agitated by the circumstances. He walked over to Axel Irons and gave him a playful ruffle of his hair which was followed by a proposition that sounded more like a dare. Despite some good-natured goading from Pat Tenore, Axel ultimately decided to not accept Kelly’s offer to punch him as hard as he could in the stomach.”

“When the announcement was made that Medina had won the world title, the beach went wild. It was utter pandemonium. Amid the cheers, tears and congratulations, Medina was chaired up the beach through the chaotic crowd. Security struggled to maintain order as the Medina camp slowly made their way to the competitors area. Gabriel eventually climbed onto a raised platform where he gave an interview on the live broadcast feed. Meanwhile, 20 yards away, I spotted a jersey-clad Josh Kerr struggling to navigate through the hordes of fans in order to reach the water. Kerzy might as well have been an anonymous tourist – the crowd simply wouldn’t budge to let him start his heat. The entire beach had apparently forgot about the fact that the Pipe Masters contest was still going on. Even more bizarre, Medina was actually supposed to be surfing in a heat at that exact moment. As the heat clock continued to wind down, Medina casually made his way back to the water where one lone competitor was sitting in the lineup. Despite missing the majority of his heat, Medina still posted a solid score, defeated the other surfer, and advanced to the next round, I can’t decide whether his decision to celebrate and give interviews during a live heat was cavalier and completely reckless, or if it was the most gangster thing I’ve ever witnessed in a surf contest.”

Support print and get yourself a copy of HI 1K here.

Follow Justin on IG here.


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