Becoming a professional surf photographer is a tough nut to crack. In one of the most saturated parts of the industry, making a living by taking photos of waves isn’t easy, because everyone with a camera and an eye for angles wants it. What it comes down to, like almost anything else, is a mixture of passion, talent, and a bit of luck. Kirstin Scholtz has all of that in spades.
As the Association of Surfing Professional’s lead photographer, she spends her life documenting some of the best waves on the planet. Whether you know it or not, the vast majority of contest photos you see on the Internet are taken by Scholtz.
Originally from South Africa, she speaks with a lilting, delicate accent. She laughs often, and with ease. Scholtz originally planned on being a journalist, but photography was never really on her radar. While getting her journalism degree at Rhodes University, a few things fell into place that would pave the road she ended up on. Because of the way her University program was set up, the first year was spent focusing on photography, while the second was originally going to work on writing. Then some things changed. “I started off with photography and then I was going to do writing the second year,” she remembers. “Then they changed it and made you stick to the first one.” After the head of her department contracted malaria and died on a trip to Mozambique – he was a working photojournalist on assignment – the University assigned an assortment of other professionals to lecture the students. One of them was Pulitzer Prize winner Greg Marinovich, who was part of the Bang Bang Club, a group of struggle photographers that documented apartheid. During one of his lectures, Marinovich said something that clicked. “He was just amazing,” says Scholtz. “He told us that there are so many photographers out there, and to really make it, you really have to find a niche and specialise in that. I surfed, and I was passionate about surfing, so I just started shooting our surf club.”
From there, Kirstin began following Pierre Tostee, who was the ASP’s photographer at the time. “It was just a pipe dream,” she laughed. “I never thought I would end up working on the Tour.” She started off writing press releases and working as an admin at the Billabong Pro Jeffrey’s Bay, signing people in to contests and generally tying the smaller threads that hold a large contest together. But she wasn’t going to stay there for long. She had bigger plans.
Now she calls Melbourne home, although she’s not there very often. One of the trappings of her job is nearly constant travel: ten months out of each year are spent following the World Tour, which, as one might expect, can take its toll. “It’s almost like love/hate,” she told me via Skype from Australia. “You get into this role – instead of seasons, you just have Tour events. Once I’m there, I love it. I get to see incredible things all over the world. You go back to these places, and you know all of your little favorite spots. But at the same time, it’s hard to be away from your life, you know? Your life gets put on hold, and then you go to a bunch of these other little worlds. Then you come back to your life. It definitely has its challenges.”
Although it may have those challenges, being a travelling surf photographer is a pretty amazing gig. “I do think of it as a dream job. It’s not a job for me,” she says, pulling her brown hair back from her face. “I know that sounds clichéd, but it’s just part of who I am and what I do. It doesn’t feel like I’m going to work. As much as some of the travelling and living out of suitcases gets annoying, it’s still an amazing experience and it’s an amazing life to live.”
And she’s been living that life for a long time. When she was offered her current position as lead photographer back in 2008, she packed her bags and hasn’t unpacked since. In that time, she’s been there for almost every single event and all the craziness that goes with them.
Following a tour that hopes for perfect waves inevitably leads to being in the right place at the right time. During the Tahiti Code Red swell, when Teahupoo turned into the heaving monster that worked its way into the history books, Kirstin was there, camera in hand. “My brain couldn’t even comprehend what I was seeing,” she says about the swell that maxed out one of the world’s heaviest waves. “It was like the end of the world – so heavy.” After bribing a Jetski to take her out into the maelstrom, she ended up with a boat driver that was determined to put her closest to the action. “We were the deepest in. I just remember looking at the wave, and there were another four boats above us on this giant wave. It was sickening. That just blew my mind.”
Scholtz doesn’t take anything for granted. She loves her time on Tour and savours every moment, because part of the job is sitting through all the mediocrity that Mother Nature can dish out. “I feel so blessed… we had about five years of small, very average contest surf. I was questioning whether I’d ever see a swell like that in Tahiti.”
It’s not all fun and games, though. It is still a job, albeit an amazing one. During contests, it’s a grind. ASP photographers have global deadlines to meet. They are the ones that get the photos out to the world, and they have to do it quickly in the digital age. “It is intense,” she says during a rare piece of downtime in between Bells and Rio. “We’ve got deadlines we’re trying to meet all over the world. We’re getting photos up after every heat, and then distributing throughout the day, so we’re constantly shooting, editing, shooting, editing. There’s no kicking back – it’s just non-stop. It is pretty exhausting.”
Kirstin Scholtz is one of the world’s leading surf photographers, and she got there by working hard at her craft and never giving up – qualities that show through in the photos she takes. At every event, she manages to get shots that other photographers might wait a lifetime for. Her mentality towards her job can be summed up in something she said back when her early days working as an admin girl in the trenches. “I’m going to get on Tour,” she told herself. “I don’t care what it takes.”
Peep some of our favourite Kirsten shots below: