While Derek Dunfee has built his reputation on riding some of the biggest and nastiest waves the world has to offer, he has also quietly been honing his skills as a surf photographer. Whether shooting from the shoulder of 30ft Mavericks or a jungle path to a secluded Mexican beach, his photos provide an incredibly candid look into the life of a hellman...
1. Who are you?
Derek Dunfee, I’m a photographer based in La Jolla, California. I’ve been a big wave surfer most my life, I had sponsors for a long time but now I focus all my energy on photography and making art.
2. Describe your medium & process for your photos...
I love water photography! I’ve been working on a long-term big wave project so I have been mainly shooting photos. I made two 60 page zines that covered 10 years of big wave photography called "DEKKA Volume 1" and 2 (2004-2014). I had a few photo shows and parties to share it, also enlisting the help of the artist ‘Sketchytank’ help me with the logos and design. Recently I made "DEKKA Volume 3", which covered the past three years of big wave surfing. I focused on capturing the best big wave action photos, getting as close as possible. In my older zines, I shot a lot of portraits and landscapes, where as now I’m spending a lot more time trying to nail different big wave action photos.
Last winter I packed up my water housing in a back pack and paddled from the beach to shoot Mavericks. I really wanted to capture the big wave surfers POV by taking photos off my surfboard. It was a really crazy paddle out, but I took it as a personal challenge. Every wave my backpack would catch and drag me backwards... I love to surf big waves and I want to share that perspective. This winter I started hitching rides out on a jetski or boat because I’m out there all day and I’m trying to prepare a little better, bringing water, food, extra batteries and cards.
Sometimes I swim in big surf too, if it’s too dangerous to have my board, such as at places like Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
3. How did you find your passion of photography?
I traveled a lot when I was younger, most of the time by myself. I loved to take photos and write about all my trips so I could share it with my family/friends. I have stacks of photo albums now. Additionally, when I was sponsored I wrote a handful of articles for Surfer and Surfing magazines. I would provide the photos for the articles too. As I couldn’t afford to pay for a photo/video guy to come with me everywhere, I would often shoot everything before and after my sessions. If I was making a video I would buy the "action" clips and make my own video edit. I traveled for 10-15 years with cameras and tripods.
4. How has it been intermixing/transitioning into photography with big wave surfing & traveling?
It’s been really awesome and exciting. I love it. I know how to read weather maps so I know when to be anywhere in the world and score good waves, but in photography I feel like there’s an unlimited amount of knowledge to learn. I can handle the traveling and knowing where to be, but now I’m stressing on the lenses I’m using or if my batteries are charged, if I backed up my best photos in three places, if my waterhousing is water tight (and dry). I worry about using sunblock because I don’t want to get it on the port, I try not to open and close my waterhousing on a boat because I don’t wanna get seasick, I always wonder if I should bring a backup camera in case my camera takes a shit.
5. Who/what influences your work?
I feel like I spent a few years looking outside of surfing for inspiration and influence, but I keep getting drawn back to surfing and the ocean. Photographers and Videographers all over the world are making some very radical and magical content about the ocean. I really love the ocean and surfing. I live in La Jolla California, it’s really pretty here and I’m always inspired to shoot.
With that said, a few influences are:
Todd Glaser for his skill, drive and enthusiasm, being insane in the water and his Proximity book.
Zak Noyle for his pipeline tube photos.
Bruce Brown and John Severson for EVERYTHING they’ve done and contributed to surfing.
The artist Sketchytank, I love his California surf and skate art.
Woody Gooch for his different outlook on photography.
Laraunt Pujol for his follow cam work.
Frank Quirarte and Curt Myers for their Mavericks coverage.
Craig Stecyk for years of art/projects and influence.
Fred Pompermyer for his big wave and adventure photography.
Mark Oblow and Taylor make a funny but good photo team.
Sebastien Zanella for his artistic approach to the core surf and skate scenes.
Ben Grillo- Tattoo/Photography and artwork.
My surfboard shaper Stu Kensen.
Grant Brittain for all his iconic skate photography.
Morgan Maasaan, his photography and short films inspire me big time, Also I love Breakfast!
Luke O’Keefe and Brooklyn Hawaii for they’re women’s surf photography.
Serena Lutton for her photography and magazine Herewith.
Ed Templeton and Thomas Campbell for all of the art/photo/video projects over the years.
6. What excites you about your work?
Being in the water! It’s always fun getting in the ocean and shooting, I feel like I always capture something worthy. Sounds cheesy but it’s true. A lot of big wave photography is very exciting and keeps the adrenaline going. I like to shoot off my surfboard at Mavericks (and Jaws more recently). I try to get real close but it gets scary!! I’m always on high alert so I don’t get caught by a big wave. If that happens I bail, grab my camera and swim under. I’ve only had to do that a few times but it’s terrifying. I am wearing a self-inflating life jacket just in case of emergency. It gets dangerous in the channel too, last year I got ran over by a boat and it broke my board. I remember hanging on the front of the boat, if I let go I would’ve gone under the boat and into the propeller.
I love printing zines too. I’ve made 5. Its really fun laying out all my photos and printing them. That's one of my absolute favorite parts.
7. What do you struggle with?
Luckily, not much. I’m happy right now, sometimes I get greedy and want 2 or 3 different camera set-ups with all sorts of ports and lenses. But it all costs so much. I’m super happy with my current camera (Canon 1dx Mark ii), but I want more. I don’t really need it but I want it.
Sometimes it’s so bright I can’t see the photos on the back of my waterhousing, that’s annoying. I’m sitting there in the water squinting my eyes at the back of the waterhousing trying to get everything right. I also sometimes put too much pressure on myself to get the perfect shot, but in big wave surfing and photography there is a lot of things that happen that are out of my control. I always have the desire to be better, with my photography, my surfing and family life.
8. What are your goals and where do you see yourself going?
Short term goals are finishing my next big wave photography zine. I chased a lot of big swells with Kai Lenny over the past 6 months and I’m going to print a zine and have a few art shows (May 2018). He’s an amazing waterman, never scared as well as having unlimited energy. It’s been exciting.
Otherwise, the sky is the limit. I want to keep pushing my photography and video work. Recently I was on a boat out at Peahi with Mike Prickett and he had a Shot Over camera strapped down, that was crazy inspiring. Talking to him about the movie business was really awesome. I want to print more books and work on more short films!
You can see more of Derek's work here:
website • instagram