A Deeper View | New Jersey Photographer Conor Monaghan
In the current world of Instagram, unlimited surf photos to feast our eyes on, and information that seems to travel at the speed of light; it can be easy for some to take photographs for granted.
Yet with the seeming photo overload, I still love to seek out, or stumble upon photos that invoke some sort of emotional spark. In the realm of surf photography, I find myself always drawn to the more artistic approach to capturing surfing, photos that can bring you into the experience. These photos have a subtleness to them, yet can be peeled away like an onion to reveal further layers.
I first discovered Conor Monaghan’s work through Instagram. I dug the surface simplicity that was coupled with a deeper emotional component in his photography. I was also stoked he was writing his own captions that read like Yogic sutras or Zen koans.
I recently spoke with Conor, getting a bit of insight into his photography, and personal philosophy.
How did you get into surfing and what are some of your first memories of riding waves?
Back when I was around the ripe age of 12, I was down in Wildwood on a family/friend vacation. My buddy at the time had some beat up 6’0 challenger that he let me paddle out with. I caught my first wave out there and rode it all the way to the beach. The feelings of euphoria and untapped raw stoke that flooded my body is pretty indescribable; a person just has to experience it for themselves, it simply cannot be put into words. After that I asked for a board for Christmas. I would take the train down and skate to the surf until I turned 17 and got my license. I still have that quick flashback to my first wave nowadays as I’m paddling for a wave.
When did you get turned-on to photography? What were some of your first inspirations, and how have your feel you’ve progressed in your craft since your start?
In high school I took a digital photography class which introduced me to the classroom basic concepts of the theory behind photography such as aperture, composition lighting, etc. Photography and arts stayed dormant in my life until many years later. Fast forward eight years to 2016, I used my buddy Andy Schussler’s camera and housing, swimming out to take pictures of him and a few buddies. After that I was hooked and purchased my first camera, I’ve taught myself the rest “in the field” from since then.
As I’m fairly new to owning my own gear, this has helped me really focus and be in-tune with myself and the camera, both in-and-out of the water. I have by no means any high tech equipment and it’s very limiting, but the limitations force me to shut off my “thinking” and capture what it is that I am envisioning. The feeling I get during these moments in turn make me feel in sync with my mind, body, soul, and environment. At first, I was simply just taking pictures to familiarize myself; as time progressed I started to discover the path towards my own style and how i wanted to portray my “eye” to whoever is willing to take the time to look.
Some of my first inspirations and foundations into the photo world would have to be Woody Gooch, Morgan Maassen, and Chris Burkard. They are some of the top photographers in the world. I am intrigued by their travels, how they capture and portray the images. Whether it be for letting the picture speak for itself or some short storytelling behind what events led up to capturing the raw moment. I have a lot of respect for any person out there, small or big, that takes their passion and puts it into a tangible world.
Now I’m discovering my own thought-path for what it is I want to capture and have therefore been focusing more into mixed media and the gradient between photography and fine arts.
I feel no matter what you’re doing in life there is always room for growth. If you feel burnt out or plateaued, take a different approach. Step aside and view it from a different angle. Every problem has a solution and if you have a solution it isn’t a problem. So I feel with photography, I have just truly began to understand my own style. It has been my stepping stone and door which has helped open my mind to the year’s of repressed creative thinking which in turn has been a therapeutic outlet for me.
I’m always curious to know what surfing means to people who have dedicated themselves to doing it, especially here in New Jersey, where the swells are quick and fickle. Also the love and hate relationship many of us have with our winters.
What does surfing mean to you and what are your thoughts on cold water surfing and photography?
Now that I am not so young and cannot clear my schedule, nor visit the ocean anytime I want due to restrictions and priorities; I have a different outlook and respect towards surfing and what the ocean means to me.
When I was younger, just like any other kid, it was simply another “water sport” to enjoy at the beach with friends. As I grew older and realized that there’s always going to be things to restrict us from doing what we love it gave me a new understanding, a new meaning. Being a lifeguard most of my life the ocean has always been encoded as part of my DNA. Surfing I feel has taught me a lot about myself as a person, especially when I paddle out alone with no one around. Just me, myself, and I gazing out on the horizon waiting for the set. Being alone helps you disconnect from all the bullshit that plagues you daily. It’s just you in your element adapting to the ever changing environment of the ocean. You learn things about yourself that you do not realize with all the distractions around us, especially nowadays with social media. It’s easy for people to get caught up, including myself, in the toxicity of it. To me, it has taught me to be more appreciative of time, and to be patient. Also, I feel surfing unlocks the thirst for new adventures, to taste new oceans, and new travels; so I am thankful that I borrowed that board way back in my pre-teens!
Old dirty Jersey, our winters are most definitely a love hate here. We love it because we finally get some real swell, but we hate it because of the harsh conditions and adversity we have to overcome. I think that’s what makes our community so unique vs any other outside the New England/Mid Atlantic region. Rain, sleet, or snow you bet your ass you’ll see the saltwater soldiers out there if it’s going off. Cold water temperatures, whether shooting in the water or surfing, has definitely taught me how to remain calm when on the brink of losing it. Especially when being held under on a crisp winter swell. Being exposed to these possible hypothermic elements really puts you in check as a human being and the awareness of raw mother nature.
Cold creeps into your bones. You question why you’re even out there going borderline crazy, waiting for the set to come to line up that shot, or get that tube to tell the boys back on the beach.
In your words, what is your approach to your surf photography, what are you trying to express through your photos?
To me an image is just another image if it has no emotional connection behind it. What I try to aim for when I shoot is as if I was that stranger seeing it for the first time, what would my thoughts be? How does it make me feel? Does it invoke any sort of emotions towards myself as the “audience”? Majority of the time I don’t “plan” shooting images, whether it be surfers in their environment doing their thing, or any other type of photography. I enjoy capturing the raw emotion of action and candids. It just has more weight and emotional depth to it then “staging” a shot. I get to sit as a bystander, along for the ride, capturing the raw beauty of a human being interacting with their environment – what could be better?
I tend to take more of an artistic approach to my photographs because to me it’s my emotional outlet towards self-expression. In the end, no matter what you do, you need to do it for yourself. I enjoy any sort of photography and I am passionate about it whether one person sees it or an audience of people is irrelevant to me. Things nowadays are sized up to followers, likes based on societal social media norms. The more likes means the more popularity right? The only factor relevant to me through taking photographs is to those people I engage with through my imagery. If by chance people parallel with my vision or the emotion I am feeling at that time, that’s simply amazing. I want my photographs to be open-ended to be able to show the cover of the book, but have the viewer open it, and write the story.
I’ve notice on your Instagram account you accompany your photos with well thought out captions. Much of the subject matter is what I would call philosophical and existential.
Are your writings inspired by the image, does the thought inspire the capture, or is it something else altogether. What brings it out of you?
I think subconsciously I shoot the material I want, but not until later on when I process some of the shots is when it invokes a certain emotion within me which ignites my passion to help me tell the tale. When I see my captures in their final form, that is when certain moods and ideas start formulating. My mind shuts off, I connect, and write how I feel. As I stated before, I believe an image should have an emotional connection or background behind it. Everything I do is a representation of who I am and I feel photography is another element within me which helps extend that to people through my camera and writings.
Aside from your surf photography, you also have a lot of other styles and genres you’re working in. Tell us a bit about the other photography ventures you’re involved in?
Surfing and surf photography will always be the core foundation of what brought me into the photography world. Some other styles I have been venturing into lately is portrait and humanitarian.
“The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”
I feel portraits ask thousands of questions as we peer into the images eyes, wondering what they were thinking or feeling at that time, what their backstory is. The eyes give away all the truths that are buried and hidden behind their concrete walls. These images intrigue me, especially when traveling in unknown countries. So in turn I have been slowly trying to surround myself in this genre, traveling I feel is a major catalyst in capturing this sort of imagery. A far off distant land, unknown cultures that seem almost alien is where I feel the most comfortable because there is no sort of “bias” factor. It’s just me, my camera, and immersing myself within different cultures to peer into their worlds.
Where’s your favorite place to shoot and why?
My favorite place to shoot is in a foreign country. Everything is new, fresh, and unknown. I feel it really gets my mind moving. As with anything, I have a love/hate at times with my camera, thinking to myself “Oh that would be a great photo” instead of really just capturing the pure beauty of it in my mind and soaking in the journey. On the flipside I feel a photograph is powerful because it brings us back to how we felt at that time, in that exact moment, and it helps that memory live on forever in our minds.
Since you are a philosophical fellow, what is one of your favorite books, and who is one of your favorite philosophers?
“Become What You Are” by Alan Watts. I am very fond of Mr. Watts ideology and writings. A favorite quote of mine, “But my dear man, reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know.” The way I analyze this quote is that reality is in the eye of the beholder. Similar to an ink-blot, only the viewer can see and perceive the images within the ink-blot, therefore the way you see and interpret the world is truly that of your own.
What do you think are some of the unique aspects about shooting surfing in New Jersey?
Waiting for the elements to align, braving adverse conditions such as tubes in snowstorms, or ice cream headaches. It’s all about waiting for everything to come together and once it does, New Jersey is one of the prettiest waves as you can see. I think it’s that waiting period that makes it so much more rewarding. Sure, I would love to surf perfect waves everyday, but if you’re surrounded by beauty everyday then it doesn’t seem so beautiful anymore.
Describe your last surf or photo session?
My last photo op/surf session was in Costa Rica at Playa Grande.
Getting there was quite interesting to say the least. The winds were super strong that day and I was staying with my buddy in Langosta. The only transportation was a moto, so we doubled up, and I put the board bag on my shoulder. Mind you, it’s about an hour to the break, and the winds almost blew me off the bike about twenty times. The swell was very funky and with cross-offshore winds we decided to take a leap of faith venturing out to Grande.
After our interesting ride down the dirt roads to seek shelter from the open road winds we were welcomed with notch overhead offshore waves and fifty of my closest friends in the lineup (ha). The high season in CR is no joke when it comes to lineups. It looked similar to something from Cali. I swam out to see if there was any potential in the lineup to shoot and first wave this 50 something year old dude came B-lining towards me and threw a big old spray and wrap around me. The current was super strong, so after that sequence I decided to put the camera down and surf my own little break just north of the crowds. I always try to balance out shooting first, getting what I need, and then enjoying my own time in the ocean disconnected.