Add Water and Stir

For Don King, surf photography is an inside job.

November/December 2006

Reading time min

Add Water and Stir

Photo: Bob Jones

If I die today, it’s fine—I’ve lived a good and full life. The ocean has given me so much. One day it will need to take and I will give.

Hawaii surf photographer Jon Mozo wrote those words before he died at age 33 of head injuries while doing a water shoot at the big-wave Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu in February 2005.

Surfing photography and cinematography are extremely physical artistic jobs, not for the faint-of-heart camera enthusiast or the no-risk-taker. It helps to be an unusually strong swimmer, a competitive athlete, a former water polo player and someone who’s been in the big swells since what’s called in Hawaiian-style pidgin “small-kid time.”

Which describes one of the best of the current water workers, Don King.
If you can handle the pounding and unforgiving near-shore waves of Makapu’u Beach as a body surfer when you are 5 years old—that’s when King started, with his father’s supervision—you likely can handle anything that comes bigger and later, as King, ’83, did.

He was among the first to discover how to get right into the wave with the surfer in order to capture above-and-below images. Consistently rated among the 10 best water photographers, he branched out from surf magazines to Hollywood: shooting footage for Endless Summer 2, Blue Crush, Riding Giants, the James Bond movie Die Another Day, that sequence of Tom Hanks thrashing in the water as his makeshift raft sank off Fiji in Castaway. Recently he’s been working as cinematographer for the ABC series Lost.

King got hooked on surf photography when he was 14. But the photos he sent to magazines were rejected. “I thought my pictures were much better than they were.” There was a big breakthrough while he was still in high school. Surfing Magazine took one of his photos for a cover and paid him $350.

“Photography has allowed me a lifestyle out of the box,” says King, 46, a resident of Lanikai, Hawaii. “And I think Stanford prepared me well for that in terms of being open and creative about approaching problems or situations.” A psychology major, King played on the water polo team—mostly on the bench, he says—that won the ncaa championship three of his five years on the Farm. He joined Delta Tau Delta, which King says “was great because it was a lot of nonconformists. A big clubhouse of friends.”

There’s fun involved in being out there in the big waves with the boarders you’re shooting—and risk. King has had only one really close call. It was an encounter with a surfboard that had a hydrofoil wing extending well below the water surface.

“Normally, I can dive down under a surfboard quickly and get out of the way, even if they run me over, which happens quite a lot. This time, the jet ski tow-in operator drove right by me and obscured my view of the foil. The foil guy might not have seen me until the jet ski passed. I then saw that the foil was lined up straight on me, so I went down as fast as I could, but my leg wasn’t deep enough. It hit my ankle; that knocked the guy out of his boots and off the board. I got a few stitches, that was all.”

King says surf photography is “extremely rewarding, although not financially. I think some combat photographers probably have similar passions about what they do. The thrill of capturing the moment in such high-energy situations and the personal risk only heighten the feeling.”

Still, his work has taken a new direction, King says in an interview at the ocean-view house shared with his wife, Julianne, and sons Beau, Aukai and Dane. “I feel I’ve gone from just creating an image to telling a story.”

He’s done that by going into movies, and by throwing himself into a documentary called Beautiful Son, the story of his and Julianne’s efforts to work with their youngest son, 6-year-old Beau, who is autistic. Nearing completion, the film shows scenes with Beau before and after age 2 1⁄2, when the once bright and happy boy started to regress. It includes interviews with parents who have had some success with recovery efforts. The couple started the project with their own money but enlisted the fund-raising help of legendary surfer and good friend Laird Hamilton, who in June crossed the English Channel on a paddle board for the cause.

King got into Hollywood work through a word-of-mouth recommendation to the producers of Endless Summer 2. Then came a surf sequence shot at “Jaws” beach on Maui for Die Another Day—where James Bond and two colleagues supposedly are landing on a North Korea beach by surfboard. King and another water worker, Sonny Miller, were selected to do the ocean shots for the popular surf movies Blue Crush and Riding Giants.

Water cinematography has its own challenges. Photographers on land, in boats or in helicopters can use light meters to get an exposure reading, but King has to rely on his instincts. “I just know what the exposure should be,” he says. It’s also an exercise in getting it right the first time: the situation won’t be repeated. And for movie shots, such as the Castaway scene with Hanks in the water, a lot of production money was riding on King’s doing it on the first try. He did.

His work on Lost has been the most difficult transition. “I was used to being totally independent,” King says. “I’d find the shot and shoot it, sort of documentary style. Now, somebody wants the camera moved two inches this way or that way. There’s rehearsal and all the setups for the shots. But I enjoy it, I really do.”

He’s also signed on more and more to shoot commercials. “It’s short-term work, meaning I can spend a lot of time with my family, and that’s important to me,” King explains. “It also allows for a lot of artistic creativity,” he notes.

“But I still get back in the water,” says King, who rates himself as “a terrible board surfer” but as a good, competitive body surfer who won a meet at Pipeline. “I’ve always felt so comfortable, so capable in the water. I enjoy being close to intense, powerful waves. Ideally, I’d like to be able to just fly around next to the waves, right inside the tube.

“I want to be in the big waves and surfing when I’m 60.”

BOB JONES is a columnist for MidWeek magazine in Oahu, Hawaii.

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