Johnny Gonzales could play it safe and buy an expensive telescopic lens for his camera and stand on the sand to take his photographs, but “What fun would that be?” To capture a charging backside ride up close, he would rather strap on his fins, grab his camera, and swim out to where the waves are breaking to join a professional surfer inside a barrel.
Gonzales, a Redondo Beach resident, will graduate with his bachelor’s degree in digital media arts (DMA) from California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) May 19 with the College of Arts and Humanities’ Class of 2017. He is known as a “waterman,” a surfing photographer who swims out through the pounding surf to shoot his subjects from the break.
“There are a very small percentage of watermen out there because it’s one-thousand times harder to shoot when you’re in the water,” said Gonzales, who grew up in Los Alamitos and hung out as a kid on the sands of Seal Beach. “There are so many elements that come into play—you can get water spots that will totally ruin a great photo; but you can also get awesome angles that you won’t get from the sand, where you’ll likely be standing next to 10 other guys getting the same shots. That’s boring. I need to be in the water. Besides, surf companies and magazines would rather have the water shots.”
… you can get awesome angles that you won’t get from the sand, where you’ll likely be standing next to 10 other guys getting the same shots. That’s boring. — Johnny Gonzales
Gonzales began pursuing his passion only seven years ago, but in that time has become a sought after photographer for professional male and female surfers, and up-and-coming team riders who are sponsored by board and gear manufacturers, such as USA Surfing team member Cole Houshmand, who he shot for Vissla. His work has appeared in such online media outlets as Surfer Magazine and Surfline.
Growing up in the water—usually on a body board—is where Gonzales would frame shots with his fingers while imagining surfers getting “big air.” Eventually he was able to afford a GoPro and started shooting images and video in the water until he saved up enough cash to buy a “real camera” and a water housing to protect it.
“There’s nothing better than swimming out on a beautiful day when it’s hot and the salt water is on your face before you nail the shot. It’s so fun, but don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to shoot surfing,” according to Gonzales, who said one of the toughest challenges is just swimming with a camera in hand past the surf to where the waves are breaking. “It’s hard to duplicate a good shot when waves are always changing, and there can be some pressure when you want to get paid for shots you submit. And it can be hard to make a living being a waterman. Often times, I just do it because I love it. I also like just shooting waves.”
After transferring to CSUDH in 2014 and enrolling in the DMA program, Gonzales parlayed his passion for water photography into the short documentary “Surf Photography: The Watermen,” which he produced as a DMA class assignment with fellow students Jon Domingo and Cynthia Gutierrez. The film was awarded the top award, a “Gold Remi,” in the college student level category at the 50th Annual Worldfest Houston International Independent Film Festival, the world’s largest festival of its kind.
Gonzales and his fellow students are in good company. The festival is where many industry giants have won their first awards, such and Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Oliver Stone, and the Coen Brothers.
“Winning that award was amazing. It’s hard to put into words how honored I was. I had entered about 20 festivals and had been denied four or five times by small festivals. It was the best experience I’ve ever had,” said Gonzales, whose film also garnered 1st Place in the “Creative Category” at CSUDH’s 2017 Student Research Day. “I’m giving the award to the DMA program,” he said. “It deserves it. Our program might not be as well-known as programs at such campuses as USC or UCLA, but our professors are just as good.”
After he graduates, Gonzales plans to continue taking photos and producing films, and he has more plans for “Surf Photography: The Watermen.” On May 5, the film won Best Student Documentary at the Student World Awards, it will be shown at the South Bay Film and Music Festival July 21-25, and he will work with Mario Congreve, Emmy Award-winning producer and lecturer in CSUDH’s DMA program, to pitch a full-length version of the film to PBS.
“The PBS film would be the same concept, but I want to go to Canada, England, France, Tahiti, and Hawaii and show the passion of those in different parts of the world where surf photography is big,” said Gonzales. “In our DMA film, I had the opportunity to interview Tom Carey, who I went to high school with and is now one of the best surf photographers in the world who shoots for Surfer Magazine, as well as Chad Wells, team manager at Quicksilver. So I do have some connection. I hope we can get the green light and start raising funds.”
Whether it’s for PBS, or another project, Gonzales can’t wait to start traveling and shooting exceptional surfers and great breaks in beautiful locations across the globe.
“That’s the game plan. I really want to make documentaries. It’s my niche now. My DMA professor [George Vinovich] once asked me, ‘Do you want to have a safe and secure job, or do you want to get out there and do what you love?’” said Gonzales. “Yeah, I want to get out there.”