The Photo Issue

[IMAGE 1]Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality and realism.” Susan Sontag

We underestimate the power of photos. They’re our connection to everything outside our immediate frame of reference. Few of us have been to the base camp at Mount Everest, or stood feet away from the Mona Lisa, or met the President of the United States, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t describe any of these subjects in great detail. Photographs are our links to reality, and they’re one of the reasons the information age has been such a successful period in human development. Because of photos we know war is bad, the Earth is round, and that both our feet leave the ground at the same time when we run. The understatement of all time could possibly be that a picture is worth only a thousand words.


And while we rely so heavily on the medium of photography to provide us with views of our world, our politics, our conflicts and their resolutions, our heroes, and our past, we sometimes forget that photography is an art form, and because of that, it’s subject to interpretation. Photographers, if they’re so inclined, can make women more beautiful, cars faster, and politicians more evil or trustworthy. Because lenses, lighting, and camera angles can all be manipulated to portray a subject in a number of different ways, we have to wonder if reality is what we photograph or if photographs are our reality.


Surf photos are no different. I’m always shocked by how playful Off The Wall looks in photos, when in reality Pipeline’s western neighbor is as fierce and deadly as any wave on Earth. Similarly, Dustin Humphrey’s photos of Padang-Padang and the other left-hand pointbreaks of the Bukkit give the appearance of a goofy-footer’s paradise, surfable for any who can find it. But what these images seldom convey are the peninsula’s down sides—razor-sharp live reefs ankle deep at lower tides, ferocious crowds battling for the take-off zone, and swing-wide close-out sets that send everyone in the lineup scratching for the horizon. Surf photographers, like the pros they shoot, have mastered the art of making life-or-death situations seem casual and even inviting. They have created the legends of our sport, their work has motivated us to travel to the ends of the Earth, and the risks they’ve taken give us views that we may never otherwise be privy to.


They provide us with our reality. Joel Patterson