'I love the weird and whacky moments that happen with light and water.'

Meet Surf Category Judge: John Respondek

John Respondek isn’t long in the tooth and yet he’s already locked in a plaque at Kelly’s forthcoming the Surfing Hall of Fame Café restaurant chain.

I just made that up, but it could happen, and if it does, it will be sometime around the year 2035, and one of the glass memorabilia cabinets at the flagship location will contain Spono’s camera equipment with a plaque reading ‘This is some stuff belonging Legendary Surf Photographer John Respondek.’ Children and adults alike will fog up the glass as they marvel at Spono’s stuff, and the guy in charge of Windexing the displays (Vaughan Blakey) will have to spend extra time on that cabinet because it’ll always be smeared with handprints and snot from all the marvelling. What I mean to tell you is John Respondek is an incredible surf photographer, and he’s judging the surf category in this year’s comp. We spoke with him.

The surf judge shot by Dirty Harry Bryant

When was the first time you looked someone square in the eye and said, ‘I am a surf photographer’?

I think I was claiming it pretty hard after I got my first double page spread in Waves magazine way back in the day. Ha-ha!

I’ve done a few trips with Dane. We always seem to get skunked for good waves… but we drink a lot of beer, which is fun! This slow shutter image was a lucky score from Mentawais 2019.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about surf photographers?

 I’m actually not sure—I don’t know what they think about us!

One of my favourite surfers to shoot, at one of my favourite waves to shoot.

What’s the biggest thing people don’t know about your line of work?

I don’t think people understand the amount of time and effort that goes into capturing the images. We travel far and wide and spend shitloads of hours swimming in the water or standing on land to capture single moments. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a fuckin’ great gig—one of the best—but it’s not all roses like people might imagine.

‘Dark Hollow’ is a film by Dion Agius. I was lucky enough to tag along on a bunch of the shoots for the project. This image came out of one of our trips to South Australia.

If you hadn’t got into taking photos, what would your life look like right now?

I actually think about that from time to time. When I was young, I worked as a labourer, and also in bars. Maybe I would’ve been a tradie or bar manager or something. But far out… Actually, nah…. I don’t think I was ever made to fit into any ‘normal’ sort out mould. I was always going to follow my heart, see where I ended up.

Ozzie, Craig, Dion – Macaronis 2014 – This moment always bring back good memories for me… it just feels like good times every time I look at it. I actually made some t-shirts with this one screen printed. Came out nice!

What do you take on every trip?

Too many pairs of shoes. I don’t know why, but I always pack way too many shoes. Most of them never even get a run.

What’s one moment you came out of the water and thought, ‘Holy shit. Did that actually happen?’?

A few years ago I got the flogging of a lifetime in South Oz while shooting water. I was shooting at the sharkiest reef break, and it was really big. I was sitting in the impatient zone because I thought sharks would be there—ha-ha. The biggest fuckin’ wave jacked up and broke right on my head. I still have visions of that fuckin’ wave, man! The thing looked like a three-story building folding over. When I got back to land all the boys were laughing at me. Then we had some beer.

When I shoot surfing from the water, I find that it can be very hit and miss in terms of the results. When everything lines up, it’s all worth it though!

In judging the surf category this year, what will you be looking for?

I will be looking for images that display a strong point of difference. I’m hoping to see interesting angles of perspective and intriguing shooting techniques. The winning image will have to convey the art of surf photography. I’m also a sucker for weird and wacky moments.

Craig is mostly known for his pleasant surfing style. He is, however, also an underground big wave Dave. We shot this one on the South Coast earlier this year. He stacked it pretty hard on the next wave and busted his ribs.

What’s the absolute best way to guarantee you won’t win the surf photo category this year?

Don’t enter it. Shit joke! Standard action shots won’t ring a bell with me personally. To guarantee you don’t win, you’ll have to show no creativity or vision.

If a 7-year-old in a Sponge Bob t-shirt came up to you and said, ‘Hey Spono, ya mad bastard, I’m gonna be surf photographer one day too!’ what would you say?

I would say, ‘rad!’ If you’re passionate about surf photography, go for it 100%. When I first started, people would say, ‘But what are you going to do for a real job?’ I never really responded, but the next day I would leave on another trip to Indonesia. I was travelling and drinking beer with friends and getting paid for it.

Ozzie Wright – Indonesia 2001. This was my first ever trip to the Mentawai Islands, and it was for Waves magazine’s ’Seven Day, Seven Slaves’ trip. This is one of my all-time favourite photographic moments. I have it blown up and framed on my wall at home.

What would you do with the $5K prize if you could win it (which technically you could, but you’d be very unpopular)?

Hahaha… That would be Heavy! I’ve actually won the 5k prize before. Holy shit it was fun. The five grand prize is really nice…. and it’s so sick when they hand you one of those giant novelty cheques. I went straight out and bought a new BBQ for summer cook ups and beer-drinking sessions.

Enter the MC 2021 Photo Comp Here.

Dion and I worked on this shot at a surf break just down the coast from my house. Sometimes it’s fun to work on a specific shot. It’s better when it actually works out kinda nice.


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