“Develop your own voice. Don’t be scared to show the world what matters to you, even if its totally different from what everybody else is doing, and then bust your ass.”
As a senior staff photographer for SURFING Magazine and Globe, D.J. Struntz goes all over the world to capture stories in photographs, also shooting for numerous clients such as Red Bull, Patagonia, Surfer’s Journal and Vice, just to name a few. He lives with his family in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. We catch up with him while on break at home and talk about him getting his start, the influence of Larry ‘Flame’ Moore, what he looks for in a client, his work on Globe’s latest surf epic ‘Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La’ and what you need to do to become an adventure photographer. Word of advice: be yourself.
D.J., I hate to bring up what’s likely an overused question…Could you talk about how you got your start in surf and adventure photography?
Sure. Its kind of a convoluted start, because it was never supposed to be. I started shooting photos for fun in high school with my friends wakeboarding, and just kinda ditched photography. It was kind of a fun thing, it was never a…I never really took classes for it. When I was young, I had art lessons, drawing and painting for 8 years, I guess, that was the only education I had with visual kind of art. My whole focus growing up was I wanted to go into the Air Force.
In high school that changed; I wanted to go into Marine Biology and marine mammals. I was really hyper-focused on academics and I ended up working for the federal government as a biologist in Charleston, South Carolina, right out of college and that was when I kind of started surfing. My boss was a surfer and kind of introduced me to doing it. I hadn’t been surfing before then – I would’ve never finished school’ [Laughing]. I became the 21-year-old supergrom, surfing 4 hours before work – surf ’til 8, go to work ’til 4, surf ’til dark. And it was South Carolina, so any kind of conditions. I was hanging out with the groms. It was funny because one of the groms who would sleep on my couch in hurricane swells ended up being one of the editors at – now he became the Global Editor at Surfer – Beau Flemister. I’ve known Beau since he was a rat. He would come and stay on my couch.
I went on my first surf trip with some of the South Carolina guys – Chad Speedy, he invited me – he was like the underground big wave legend and we went down to Pasquale and I just took a camera and filmed for giggles. That was right before I came up to North Carolina for grad school. And shot photos when I wasn’t surfing, and submitted them to ESM, and Mez [renowned East Coast surf photographer and ESM Photo Editor Emeritus Dick Meseroll] looked at them, and ‘You have a good eye, but you’re using way too fast a film, its all grainy. You need to use, this, this, this and this…’…Being the good, overachieving kid that I was, I took it kind of as a challenge, like, ‘Fine, I’ll show you’ [Laughing]. I bought some equipment and moved to Wrightsville for grad school.
Chad Oakley had been shooting here, and he moved, and there was a big contingent of really talented kids then. The Gilligan brothers were like Surfer Magazine Hot 100 groms, and Ben Bourgeois and Mark Hunt and Jesse Hines, all those guys were here, and there wasn’t a photographer. And basically they were, ‘oh you’re the new photographer.’ So while I was doing grad school I was shooting photos of those guys, and submitting slides to anyone that would look at them, and I was real fortunate because ‘Flame’ [legendary photo editor Larry ‘Flame’ Moore] was at SURFING, Pete Taras was at Transworld, Jason Murray was at Surfer, and they would all answer my phone calls when I called after I submitted photos. So I’d submit five, call them, want to know, ask for constructive criticism, and they were willing to help me. ‘Cause there was nobody shooting on the East Coast, so I was a voice among many, like these days. I was the only real voice calling. Seth Stafford was starting then too, so it was pretty much him and me in the water on the East Coast.
The next thing you knew, I finished grad school in 2002, and six months later, or less, ‘Flame’ hired me to be a staff photographer. Transworld gave me a gig to go on a trip to Nicaragua, which no one had done in years. I did that for Transworld, wrote the story, photographed it, and then came home and ‘Flame’ saw it in Transworld and he got mad, so he gave me an offer to be SURFING staff [photographer] for the East Coast. So it was kind of a real fast progression…
But you were ready for it, and that’s the most important thing. Working hard and building up your craft and improving as you go…
Yeah, always trying to do better. Even now. I’m never content with what I get. I look back at stuff I shot then, for the magazine, and I’m like, ‘Ugh…’ I’m like, ‘What is that?’ [Laughing]
What kind of influence did ‘Flame’ have on you then – and obviously now? [Unfortunately, Moore passed away from a lengthy battle with brain cancer in 2005] Even today, what type of weight does he carry with your work?
‘Flame’ was a real mentor. I mean, he helped with every part of starting to shoot photos, you know. He was the voice on the phone. I never met ‘Flame’ until after he was sick. Even when I started working for the magazine, I never was in the magazine…I was always either at home on the East Coast or on trips. But we all joke about ‘Larry light’ when the lighting is really good, its Flame-like. And for awhile, everyone was kind of over it, but its always beautiful. My magazine kind of went away from the classic conditions for awhile, it was the whole ‘onshore is the new offshore’ kind of thing, the air crew, and those kids never want to wake up early and take advantage of ‘Larry light’, but he’s definitely been a shaping factor in my appreciation for lighting and composition, you know. He steered the ship at the magazine for so long, in a powerful way. You couldn’t help but walk away with, even…probably a lot of its not even in my…its all stuff in my subconscious that I do, that I don’t even realize.
Moving forward from your early days, into the modern surf photography and adventure photography, with such a level of competition that it is on both East Coast, West Coast – globally…What leads you to broaden your reach to become a more well-rounded photographer?
Well, I mean, a lot of that was just what I loved to do. I grew up hunting, fishing, backpacking, climbing, snowboarding – I did everything. So its just a matter of fitting that to your interests. The trips I did, the locations kinda kind of demanded…I was a Brown-water Navy kind of a joke, Evan [Slater, former SURFING editor] never sent me to the Mentawais. I’ve been to land camp the year before that – last year – I went to Maccas for the first time…and never been to the Mentawais in my career. But Evan would send me places like Namibia, Yemen, Uruguay, like all these crazy locations, because he had faith I’d get the job done even if the scenario wasn’t perfect. I rarely got the stereotypical dream trips, I got the adventure trips. So that kind of, well before any of the current crew of quote-unquote ‘adventure photographers’ started, we were doing that just as part of what we did. We didn’t even have models, we’d just have a window…‘Okay, we’re going here for two weeks or three weeks and we’ll see what we get…’
Looking back on it now it has to be pretty sweet to say, ‘Hey, I was at the forefront of that…”
Yeah, I really don’t even think about it like that way though…I’m always looking forward. I seldom sit back, look at all my stuff and go, ‘wow’…It’d be kind of fun to do it at some point. Mostly its like scrambling, trying to keep reinventing myself…you know, some photographers, like Chris Burkard or whoever, has a real kind of formula of what they do, as far as the look they have, whereas with me, I try to be as unexpected as I possibly can be, you know, I don’t really care if you can…and it hurts me as for recognition, as people might say, ‘Chris Burkard influenced me…’ whereas I don’t really know if kids are really influenced by what I do, because I think its so diverse and different, and its never consistent, you know, I might shoot one trip one way and another trip a totally different way, and you know, with Globe movies, there’s a certain look that I shoot stuff. Its always kind of this game of trying to keep stuff fresh and evolving.
Being thrown into all those scenarios puts you into all sorts of precarious situations. I’ve seen your photos with sharks, and lately with oil rigs. Is there a way you prepare or a certain mentality you get into for these situations?
Its kind of weird. I think you get this degree of separation from the camera. When I’m shooting, I’ll swim into situations – or be standing in situations – with a camera in front of me that I normally just wouldn’t put myself in – I wouldn’t just go stand there. I’ll stand…I’ll have special forces operators shoot around me while I’m shooting photos. Now would I just go stand there? I’d probably be a lot more nervous if I was just standing there. But when I’m shooting photos, I don’t – it doesn’t even faze me. So I think its one of those – probably a soldier figures the same thing when he’s behind his weapon – he’s at work, this is what he’s doing, and he’s focused but if you strip him of that and you feel naked [Laughing] so they’re kind of similar.
When I have my camera up, I don’t care. I’m going to get the shot. Maybe that’s the mentality. Its a comfort level, too, I guess, you know, with the sharks and oil rigs, you trust the people you’re with, and then its just a matter of being comfortable in the water, knowing your limits – no, I’m not swimming as deep as Brent Bielmann in the pit at Teahupo’o right now, you know, good on him. Him and Corey [Wilson, SURFING senior staff photographer] are killing it. But my photography is going to show that wave in a different way. A lot of it is becoming comfortable with what your strengths are – you know I can swim fisheye, I just don’t have that often to do it. It definitely gets the heart rate up when you show up to a place when its going off. You’re like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go swim in the pit today’ [Laughing]. You haven’t done it in six months because you’ve been working on the Globe film and Joe [Joe G, surf film director] won’t let me shoot fisheye because I get the shot – I need to use a long-lens. Its all different, but it would be that whole mentality of the camera as a degree of separation.
When you’re given an assignment to a new or familiar place, what first runs through your mind in how you’re going to approach the situation?
Its kind of a combination. I’ll visualize or try to do a lot of pre-visualization on what I want to shoot. Even if its just onsite, you know. Sometimes you can do it at home, but when I’m on location, I’ll try to get the shot list in my head. I can talk to my surfers and be like, ‘Hey, this is what we’re gonna try, this is what I want to get,’ because it always helps. I think really good photographers can pre-visualize what they want to shoot – its not just reacting. Its not just like, ‘bulls-eye, autofocus, shoot’. One of the really important things I’ve learned from Pete Taras – he’s been my photo editor for a long time now – is try to think like an editor, or as an art director. So when I’m shooting, I’m consciously moving, if I’m on land or water, I’m setting my focus points so that I force the magazine to run spreads, or I’ll set it up so that I know where my gutter’s gonna be in the frame. I’m not just shooting and going, ‘Here, art director, you make the best of it.’
Is there anything you look for when working for or selecting a client to work with?
You just want…I’ve built my business on relationships and I don’t view my clients as a means to an end or a paycheck. I value the relationship and its given me my career longevity. You know, I’ve always been a fan of a phone call. I don’t really text like everyone else. I still call Evan Slater a couple times, and its not just to say ‘What work you have for me?’ I want to see how his family’s doing or see what’s going on. Having those dynamics in a relationship are more than just, ‘You’re just a cash cow. What do you have for me?’ I think it goes a long way. They realize that.
What’s the balance – is there any perfect solution – in balancing your family and your work which takes you around the world?
I blew it [Laughing]. I’m the worst example. I almost lost my family. You become obsessed, and the ocean becomes your mistress. You come home, and you’re looking for the next swell…and its not like you’re getting rich from being a surf photographer. You don’t think you have enough money to take the family with you. My suggestion is if you’re single, its a great adventure. If you’re married, be prepared to make sacrifices to put boundaries around your family time, and sacrifice financially so that you can take your family with you, so that you share experiences. Everybody thinks I have the best job in the world, but I’m not sharing those experiences with the people that really matter in my life. Yeah, they’re my close friends, but its not my family. They become family, but…you know, my wife was like, ‘do we get to travel on trips? [Laughing]
Trips aren’t really…most of my trips are a strike mission, ‘cause I’m trying to get home. Its not like its this fun trip where the family would really enjoy themselves, especially since you’re not on your time. Civilians – for lack of a better term – have a hard time understanding that, you know, cause its like, when I’m going, I’m on somebody else’s schedule. I’m not on mine. I don’t get to go kick back, I’m working long hours. At the drop of a hat, I can pick up and move…do a million different things, you know. Its definitely…I see different people handling it different ways…Ryan Miller doesn’t want to even talk to his family while he’s gone, because he doesn’t want to think about them. And then you might take them on a trip somewhere, but he’s on the road, and he’s just compartmentalized. I’m a little like that, too. Its hard. I try to FaceTime as much as I can, but its hard when you’re twelve hours off. Your kid’s going to bed when you’re waking up, or they’re at school when you’re awake…that’s a tough one. There’s no easy answer.
Speaking of Globe, you’ve done a lot of cool projects with them. Talk about your latest project. You wrapped up Strange Rumblings In Shangri-La working with Joe G and a talented group of surfers, also friends…
I call them family. We’re the only group of action sports athletes, photographers and filmers that have worked together for…I mean, its like ten years now. So there’s no other family like that. When we travel together its like a family reunion and that makes it really special. It makes it hard for me to want to go on other trips. Like Jimmy Wilson [SURFING Photographer] said, ‘You need to go on some other trips, because the Globe movie’s over,’ I was, ‘Huh, that doesn’t even sound motivating right now.’ You go and travel with them…its like, ‘Okay…’ – Just because its so fun.
We have such a good time. When you’re away from your family, it makes a world of difference to be with people like that. So I’m extremely grateful to Globe and Joe…I’ve been there for ten years, so its been a huge opportunity. I was there when they were doing Secret Machine…I was the photographer, but I couldn’t go on trips because they were partnered with Transworld. So Dustin Humphrey shot a lot of the trips for that, and then all the way through Year Zero and Electric Blue Heaven and now Strange Rumblings. This one is right in my wheelhouse because, ‘Let’s have an epic adventure…do adventurous things and capture that. I’m like, ‘Perfect’ [laughing].
Was there anything that stuck out in your mind [while working on the Globe movies] that you thought, ‘This is awesome’ while you’re in those situations?
Oh, there are moments like that all the time. In Iceland, swimming around a lake full of glaciers or icebergs or seeing beautiful waterfalls or the Northern Lights. You go to Brazil and the water’s alive and so beautiful in Fernando [de Noronha], and you’re hanging out with that crowd, and Indonesia, which is special for all kinds of reasons…the people and everything else. You get one of the most fickle waves on the planet [in Mozambique] for four hours of perfection.
Everything on these trips, you have to say there’s no atheists in foxholes [Laughing], I say the same thing on Globe movies. The stuff that happens, coincidences, like the stuff that comes together. Joe will be like, ‘’In a perfect world…’, you know, he talks with his hands…its just Joe. And he’ll talk about all these grand things that you’re about to see happen, and every trip its above and beyond of that. Stuff comes together, which is even better than we thought it was gonna be. We’re all just sitting around, scratching our heads, wondering…’Kidding me?’
Its looks amazing. We haven’t seen the film yet, only the trailer [‘Strange Rumblings’ was released a week after the interview took place]
I haven’t either. Its actually premiering [in Wrightsville Beach] next Tuesday night [Sept. 9]. Its coming out on iTunes maybe next week.
What goes into a D.J. Struntz photograph?
Oh… [Laughing]. That’s so tough. Like I was saying, its hard to…a lot of hard work goes into a D.J. Struntz photograph, I’d say. The joke in all my emails to magazines, when I send photo submissions in, ‘Its not for lack of effort’ – that’s my subject line. ‘Its not for lack of effort’. So I will always put everything I have into that image that captures what we’re hoping for, whether its laying in mud, I just don’t care. I put myself out there to try to get it. I don’t know if there’s a visual thing that I can identify as like…it might be a new person looking in rather than me looking from inside out…’Oh yeah, that’s my photo’…I dunno, that’s a tough one.
Are there any current/upcoming projects that you have in the works?
That’s a Jimmy question [Laughing]. Apparently its a baby on the way, so I’ll focus on family time. I’ve got to start mapping out some stuff. I really want to do some more in Africa with Alan van Gysen. He’s an amazing photographer and I love working with him. He’s just like a brother. I also enjoy working with Hamish Humphreys and Nate Lawrence in Indo. That’s always fun. I enjoy working with other photographers on projects, because you can’t be everywhere at once. Finding the right photographers to work with makes all the difference in the world. Guys are willing to put their ego aside and work.
And finally, any recommendations for any budding surf and adventure photographers?
Develop good relationships with your athletes and your clients. That’s the most important thing. Develop your own voice. Don’t be scared to show the world what matters to you, even if its totally different from what everybody else is doing, and then bust your ass. Don’t be content with having a few people on Instagram telling you its a cool photo. Really work…push yourself out there if that’s what you’re passionate about. Just developing that voice and…I try to live by the golden rule: I want to treat everybody the way I wish they’d treat me in return. That goes a long ways in when you’re traveling and dealing with agents or dealing with clients or athletes.