My First Million: Is Surf Photography Still A Viable Occupation? - Stab Mag

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My First Million: Is Surf Photography Still A Viable Occupation?

Two surf media moguls turned multi-millionaires discuss the state of the surf industry and the swell of the year.

// Sep 5, 2021
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 10 minutes

A few weeks ago, Tahiti experienced the best swell it had seen in years.* 

*Ten years, you might argue, if you were seeking to be specific. In 2011, the Code Red swell lit Teahupo’o on fire and stopped the world — as well as the Billabong Pro Tahiti for the day. If you were lucky enough to be there with a camera, you were cashing in. Covers were shot, ads were sold, films were made. It was a massive day for surf media. 

Yet ten years later, when a swell of similar magnitude appeared, things were much different. A startlingly low amount of content was created from the swell and, consequently, a low amount of money was made by content creators. While Covid played a role in this, the swell still serves as an interesting jumping-off point to discuss the current state of surf photography. 

And there are no two individuals better suited for that discussion than Ryan Miller and Morgan Maassen.

As magazines died and the surf industry changed in a way that threatened the concept of exchanging surf imagery for a livable income, Ryan and Morgan began to take radically different approaches to the craft and business of surf photography. 

Miller is a beast. He built a reputation for being talented, hard-working and reliable (as well as speedo wearing) and he focused on volume, volume, volume. It worked. You couldn’t name a single surf company or media outlet that hasn’t purchased a photo from him. In a normal year, he travels with the CT. Hit Instagram in the evening after a good freesurf day and you might legitimately scroll past fifteen of his photos in a row — from a mix of brands and surfers. Shoot, edit, deliver, drink wine, fuck. That’s what he does. 

Morgan is an artist. And art, when you do it right, is something that some people will pay massive amounts of money for. Hint: these people are not surf team managers. His clientele includes brands you can’t afford and media outlets so big you think they are intentionally lying to you. These days, when a major, non-endemic company thinks they wants to tap into the aesthetic of surfing, what they’re really thinking about is Morgan’s style — he legitimately owns that space. 

Their processes may be different, but one particularly fascinating detail unites them — both Morgan and Ryan have invested the money they’ve made through surf photography and turned it into millions of dollars. They ain’t afraid to speak the truth, which is what they will do in Stab’s obnoxiously titled new series, My First Million. 

Morgan went to Tahiti for the swell on his own dime, with no real plan to monetize it. Meanwhile, Miller stayed at home in New Jersey, surfed, and ate very expensive sushi with his daughter. The following conversation was held over text to keep things colloquial and has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Keep an eye out for more, as Miller and Morgan also plan on publicly discussing topics that span from the surf industry to investing. Until then, they’ll be jousting with you in the comments. 

It’s called being cultured.

Ryan Miller: 
I haven’t been to Teahupo’o since August 2019. Morgan, it looks like you’ve been there about half a dozen times just this year. What the hell is going on?

Morgan Maassen:
Covid. I went from 12 Europe, 8 Asia and 5 Australia trips per year to zero. Tahiti made things easier to knock out a 1-day photoshoot than Hawaii. Then I got vaccinated and they rolled out the red carpet. The mountains, beaches and reef are still the same, but the lineups are empty sans a couple local spongers.

10 years ago you couldn’t sneeze in French Polynesia without seeing Reef or Billabong Women’s doing a 10-day lifestyle campaign. If there was a swell on the charts, you’d be lucky to find a mattress on the floor to share with Fisher Heverly. Now it’s all locals. Go check out any random day of sheet glass, overhead Teahupo’o and there’s maybe 3 Tahitian surfers and 4 spongers on it, Dom Mosqueira shooting photos, and Tahurai Henry practicing for his QS campaign. No travelers except the odd trustfunder or Patagonia powerbar hostel-master, pulling a 3 month, $1k travel budget stint.

Ryan Miller:
Yeah that’s what freaks me out. I can only go somewhere if there are literally 50 pro surfers around if I’m going to make any money at all. You go when there are none. How is this possible?

Miller needs Kelly like Kelly needs a 27th World Title.

Morgan Maassen:
I go for non-endemic brands and art projects. Estee Lauder, Air Tahiti Nui, maybe Red Bull if the stars align with a marketing manager. I usually do 3-5 day shoots then I add on “weather days” or milk the travel budget for some fun time to surf and visit friends on my own. The concept of going on a surf trip to Tahiti for a surf brand is all but dead. Scraping money from sponsors didn’t even work during a Code Red swell — Hurley shot down A-grade photos/video of Matahi’s wave of the decade (not mine, but another photog’s).

It’s 100% a fiscal issue. No budgets for sponsored surfers, strike missions are dead if it doesn’t equate to an Instagram blitz for product, and the big brands already have a good looking barrel rider on a cheap sticker there. Hurley and Quik need a new boardshort shot? Call Matahi, Kauli, etc. and FedEx a pair of trunks down. I think most B-grade surfers just can’t fiscally pull it off with 50% salaries and the QS carrot being dangled at the end of this year. 

Ryan, why wouldn’t you go and snap the best swell since Code Red in 2011? You are the master of squeezing every penny out of a swell, capturing the perfect moments and getting anyone and everyone who needs a photo what they need, immediately. Did you weigh it out, or is the dream dead?

Ryan Miller:
For me, it’s dead. When I first started, I kinda used to know how to go somewhere on a swell on my own credit card. Then I would claw back my expenses $50 at a time. That was on a shoestring budget though. A trip to Teahupo’o is quite the opposite. The pressure of that trip will fold even the strongest metallic credit cards of today.

I’ve turned into the Walmart of surf photography. I need to be able to sell dozens or hundreds of images on one trip to make all my money back. That means I really can only shoot the spots where all the surfers have a ton of stickers on their boards. I’m the Amazon model to your Gucci.

Gucci shit.

Morgan Maassen:
An Estee Lauder trip pays my mortgage for a year in 3 days of work. Air Tahiti Nui gets me free business class flights and expenses paid, to spend my time how I want. Earlier this year I was shooting for a wealthy businessman starting a brand in the surf space that I doubt will come to fruition. But this last swell was the first real swell I’ve chased to Tahiti in years (and first ever without brand backing), just for me, for fun, for art films I’m working on.

Between flights, rental car, homestay, food, fuel for the boat, data roaming and a nice bottle of wine to give to your host… you can spend $3000 USD if you nickel and dime it over a week. I average 10 day visits, and spend around $5k. Throw in an extra $2k if I’m chasing swell or whales all day, or island hopping.

Ryan Miller:
For two weeks during CT events it costs me $2000 for airfare in coach (hell), $500 for an aluminum boat, and $50 for a jug of Jack Daniels to trade for the airport pickup each way. $100 a night accommodation is $1400 for the trip, food is $1000. Throw in a few specialty pieces of equipment picked up just for the trip and I’m in for $6000 just to set foot on the island. That is a big hole to climb out of.

Usually I would have 10+ clients lined up ahead of time paying me a retainer to be there. To go for a swell and toss six grand on my card, I wouldn’t even know where to start to get out from under that.

The machine that runs every surf company’s Instagram, near raw fish.

Morgan Maassen:
I’m always amazed by the crazy tourism board or cologne company initiatives you see at Teahupo’o. In America, it’s such a rat race. In Tahiti, it’s just another Monday when Porsche France calls you up and asks you to go drive around Paris because you surf. They promote surfing in a non-exploitive, sane way. Australia does this too. Matahi got flown out to France to foil the Seine and drive around for a feature production. His paycheck from that easily matched his yearly salary from Hurley. And Danny Fuller won the lottery with that Polo perfume thing. I’d guess he made $75k – $125k for the shoot and usage, and then consistent royalty checks every year for renewals. 

Ryan Miller:
How was this swell for the three local alpha still photographers (Ben Thouard, Tim McKenna, Domenic Mosqueira)? The only paid content I saw from it was one Hurley Instagram post and a few photos from multiple photographers on Surfline. Are they selling photos that I’m not aware of or what is happening down there? I’m not seeing it. Didn’t look like there was a lot of money to spread around.

Morgan, accumulating wealth.

Morgan Maassen:
It was bleak for them. Surfline seemed to be the only one waving a dollar in the air, and it was one single downtrodden US dollar. Ben shot straight photos and delivered nightly. Tim did an all-out social media blitz. Domenic shot video for Nathan Florence and/or Red Bull Surfing’s social media — I am not clear on this.

But there were no sponsors with $4500 buyouts and no marquee tour surfers flying in to get their most compelling wave of their year. Just a couple of big wave lords from around the world and the kings and queens of Tahiti. The prospect of selling a photo or video from that swell, compared to any previous swell, is the grimmest it has ever been.

Meanwhile, Ryan, you were sitting at home in NJ surfing knee high waves with your daughter. That sounds like spiritual, family man bliss, but why the fuck didn’t you come to to Tahiti, especially with me goading you on every day leading up to the swell? Was there truly not one surfer there who could potentially ride a wave that would make it fiscally promising enough?

Who’s stock is rising at Teahupo’o? According to MM:
1) Kauli Vaast [pictured here] runs an immaculate operation. Perfect social media, charges Teahupoo, air game, sponsored up the wazoo, PR manager in France, gets GQ covers. A well-educated and hungry young man.
2) Eimeo Czermack is this Jamie O’Brien/Harry Bryant style dark horse. Youtube and Instagram cult following, incredible talent, speaks excellent English and is hungry and creative and runs his social media better than he surfs Teahupoo.
3) Kohai Fierro’s two older sisters are surfing warlords who are advancing women’s surfing on the daily, but she is something else. Magic.
4) Matahi Drollet is the king of Teahupo’o, effortlessly. His talent and charm and marketability are off the charts, but he himself is so low-key and humble.

Ryan Miller:
Something like that is nearly impossible for me to pull off and make profitable. My business plan is so locked in to being high volume and low margin that it’s hard for me to break free of that. Also the bulk of my images have a very short lifespan. You are good at selling old videos to non-endemic clients. I don’t even know how that world works. I think for me it is either unfeasible to shoot a swell like that or I’m just not interested enough to even try.

Morgan Maassen:
I don’t know the mechanics of photography in/around/for the Olympics, but pre-Covid, CNN Asia wanted me to cover surfing for them. We never even got to discussing the logistics of compensation, etc — mind you it wouldn’t be anywhere near as glamorous as what Ralph Lauren could theoretically put on the table — because Covid called it off. So when the Olympics did finally roll around, not only was there no one exploring the idea of hiring a photog/filmmaker, but it also wasn’t in the cards to have any spare cameras running around that weren’t strictly doing broadcast or mainstream news coverage.

Economically, those initial conversations were happening about 2-3 years ago, pre-Covid when there was a tad more money and excitement on the table. Scouting out other potential revenue streams from the Olympics was almost nil, largely due to the sponsor blackout, but also because, how do you appropriate surfing news coverage to the masses?

I would be curious to see if any countries or companies outside of France or Australia did anything to promote their surf athletes competing in Japan on the ‘elevated level’ of nationalistic/non-endemic surf marketing I was talking about earlier. I am pretty tuned in and haven’t seen anything…

Oh, I did get a Washington Post article advertisement on Instagram for a Caroline Marks thing, it was so painful. It placated the Spicoli lingo to the point where it was downright insulting.

For Tahiti in 2024, I have an in with the tourism board and airline, so I would be curious to see what I could squeeze out of them, leapfrogging the opportunity they put on the table to ham it up to some bigger French fish.

Team USA 2024 Olympic travel kit?

Ryan Miller:
With companies not being able to advertise their athletes during the Olympics, I think opportunities for me to make any significant money are non-existent. You saw it this year where the surfers (minus Italo) were unable to have any stickers on their boards at all. With brands unable to market their athletes there is virtually no use case for my images. I would absolutely love to go with team USA as their photographer. The event in Japan looked really fun to be a part of. The pay on this I’m assuming would be quite a bit less than what I’m accustomed to. 

Who will profit though is all of Teahupo’o town. The homestays that are in on the game will make a ton more in the lead up and during the Olympics. Plenty of crew will be headed over to practice leading up to 2024. If a jet ski rents for about $200 a day right now I can’t even imagine what the price will be during the games. I would have to assume it would be in the $500 range. There are some real basic supply and demand principals in action over there during the WCT event. The Olympics will compound that. 

It’ll be great for places like this who are quite on it with ease of use at Teahupo’o. The crew there speaks English, emails back promptly, can help with all other logistics and has been building out infrastructure non-stop. They may have taken a short term hit this year, but in the lead up to 2024 they will experience an annual growth rate that I bet they don’t even see coming.

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