Keoki Saguibo is in a hurry, and for good reason. It’s Tuesday morning, the roosters have been crowing for some time now and his phone has been rattling his desk at the Freesurf office with notifications telling of Pipeline – a few clicks down the road – going berserk with clean 8-10 foot faces and every North Shore hellman currently packing the lineup.
Pipeline is undoubtedly surfing’s greatest proving grounds, and the 31-year-old Freesurf Staff Photographer who’s spent the majority of his life here on the North Shore has done more than enough to prove his mettle not only as a standout photographers at Pipe, Backdoor and Off the Wall, but also as a solid force in the surf photography industry.
For starters and as of recent, the always smiling Hawaiian has scored multiple covers with Surfing Magazine and it’s guaranteed that he can enter any team house on the 7-mile stretch and know the majority of the crowd, whether it’s pro surfers or media. His photos have also been published with Surfline, Surfer’s Journal and Nalu, among others. But it hasn’t always been this way for the former pro longboarder.
About 4 years ago, Keoki had a steady job with steady pay but instead gave it and its peace of mind up to shoot full time. His first monetary result post career change? Forty dollars after shooting for 8 hours in the water at a surf school.
Before running out to Pipe, Keoki says with a contagious smile that he absolutely has enough time to talk story on his humble career beginnings, provide insight into the Pipeline pecking order, and give golden advice to those seeking a like career.
Let’s start with when you first picked up a camera. What’s the story behind it?
It happened by coincidence, actually. In high school, around the age of 14, I was so focused on surfing and I was looking for a class that was easy to get by, something interesting and not boring, so I selected photography as an elective. During that first week, the class went through the technical aspects of the camera and I realized that I really liked it. I began experimenting with black and white film, developing and processing them and it grew from there. My first digital camera was a point and shoot I bought in 2003.
From there, how did photography turn from a passion into a profit?
My first paycheck from taking a photo didn’t come until 2010, and it was a barrel shot of Kawai Lindo at Ala Moana Bowls in Freesurf Magazine. I just happened to be at the right spot at the right time. When I saw the photo in the magazine, I was blown away. Just so stoked. Photography stayed a side thing, and I worked other jobs. I did construction for about 8 years and then I made the big switch in 2012.
Was it nerve-racking to quit your steady job and follow your passion? Or was relieving?
It wasn’t relieving one bit. I was very nervous, because I had a son too and during that time he was 4 or 5 years old. It was of those ‘should I play safe or not’ things, because the money in my other job was good
but my mind was thinking about taking photos and how to create a pathway in that. It was extremely stressful on the emotional level when I decided to not go back to construction. There was one single turning point, and it was when I was shooting the surf lessons down at Chuns. One day, I shot for 8 hours – all day – in the water and made one sale for $40, and I had to fight a guy for the $40 because he was selling photos too. That’s when I realized that in order to make a substantial living at surf photography, it was something I had to start putting in 150% of effort. Since then, things have been going for the better, I haven’t had to fight for $40 a day like that time. It was definitely the most stress I’ve ever been under, but it was well worth it.
It seems things really have been going for the better, because you’ve been published in quite a lot of places as of recent. Can you give us a snapshot of your published portfolio?
I got two covers with Surfing Magazine, shots of John John Florence and the next one was of Bruce Irons. My first cover in print was with Freesurf, of Makua Rothman, and my first digital cover was with Aladdin Magazine. I’ve had recent workings with Surfline, Surfers Journal, and Nalu Magazine too.
Who are some photographers that have inspired you throughout your journey?
The legends. Brian Bielmann, Danny Russo, and guys like Zak Noyle, Tony Heff. I have a lot of photographer friends that push me. John Hook is very creative in the way he sees photos. I draw a lot of inspiration from him. When it comes to the photos that Zak Noyle produce, they are really powerful images in the sense of being in the spot: he’s always in the right spot to get that powerful, in the barrel shot. I like to try to mesh styles, too. Like combine Zak and John’s shooting, because John is very creative and can make a situation where you wouldn’t take a photo and turn that into an amazing shot and Zak likes big barrels, combined for a powerful yet artistic feel. Just taking the best of what I learned and putting it into my perspective.
But the at the same time, there’s a need to differentiate yourself from your peers. How do you do retain a sense of uniqueness with your photos?
My process on the daily is when I go and shoot, say, Pipeline or Off the Wall, I’m going to look at what people are already shooting. I’m not going to rush out, because if people are shooting in the channel, I have to suck it up and shoot wide angle in the pocket because no one is going to have that shot. If everyone’s shooting fisheye, I may go on land for a different angle. I don’t like being a part of the group, I like being different..
Let’s talk about gear. If we see you on the beach sizing up the crowd and the conditions during the day, what will you be shooting with?
I use a Canon 1DX, 70-200 with other telephoto lens from the beach, and in the water I like my fisheye and 50 mm. My favorite lens is a 16-35 mm in the water because it has a bit of range, and you can get those close in the barrel shots but have range still to capture the whole wave. With surfing, it’s harder to get a shot when you’re shooting wide…you have to get a lot closer to your subject where you have the range to zoom. I like getting in that zone even though it’s harder or more work. I think the outcome is worth it.
And in the water, what’s the pecking order at Pipeline like?
It’s just like surfing. If a legend like Derek Ho paddles, you don’t paddle. If Brian Bielmann is in the lineup and he wants to get a shot, its respect first. The photographers in the lineups, it’s a tight group, we respect each other. But the order is very respectable, and is professionalism at its finest. In the end, you don’t want to be that person to jump in front of shots, killing these guys working and you don’t want that done to you. A lot of the respect has to do with putting in your time. Everyone has to put in time to get that respect. If any of the legends come out, I’d love to watch them do their thing. It’s not like ‘oh Brian Bielmann is coming I have to wait in the back..’. I want to watch where the guy sits. There’s times when guys will swim out in front of me, but I don’t say anything and then a big set will come in and clean them out. And there’s times when someone will only be shooting company team riders and say something like ‘hey boys if you guys don’t mind I’d like to get the next shot of so and so, and when they get one, we let them go for the shot. We let him get his work done, he’s making a living but don’t expect that when Kelly [Slater] is on a wave. Then, we’re all going for it and whoever is in the best position gets the shot. We respect each other’s work. Pipeline is such a prestigious spot, where you don’t need a foreground or a background. The wave is a beauty of itself, and I’ve been around the world, even at Padang Padang and the pecking order isn’t like that anywhere else.
Every year, it seems like the crowds at Pipeline grow and grow – what’s the crowded photographer scene like?
The biggest crowd I’ve been in was probably this past December, at big Off the Wall. There were six surfers in the water, and 18 photographers. Fifteen of those were shooting fisheye, and a few in the channel. It was very hectic. It’s almost like…imagine something like construction, like everyone is working in this little room and the wall is 20 feet high and everyone’s working, going hard and the wall is starting to come down and everyone’s trying to finish their job and suddenly boom the wall comes down and everyone’s scrambling. Out there, you’re just trying to stay in your spot and get the wave. You’re limited to where you can point your camera…everyone is on top of each other. It’s happened to me quite a few times that I got landed on and I landed on people. It’s mayhem. It’s a 6-foot surfer with a 10-foot barrel, and you can only fit so much.
In that mayhem, have you ever had any close calls with other surfers or the reef at Pipe or other North Shore spots?
I don’t want to jinx myself, but the closest call as of now was taking a 10-footer at Pipe on the head. I hit the reef on my stomach, the wave picked me up, ripped the leash off the housing. I lost the camera and my fins and when I came up I didn’t have anything, just a helmet and my wetsuit. My camera was at Backdoor and my fins were at Pipe and there were more waves coming. I thought I was done, because I lost my $8,000 camera and my fins and I thought I’d never get them back. But I found both of them at the lifeguard tower. Other than that, I’ve never had any broken bones, never been washed into any caves. I’ve been lucky.
How has being in the water so often shooting helped or changed your surfing?
It puts me in different perspective of the wave and helps me understand the wave better. When you’re on the board, you’re on top of water and compared to being in the water, I can see how the wave breaks and what it does when it breaks. Being out there shooting has made me a lot more comfortable on a board because I have a better recognition of how the wave flows and how to get behind when I fall.
Let’s switch gears and talk about the evolution of surf photography. From your perspective, where is it going? How is it going to continue evolving?
The equipment is evolving on a yearly basis. But what remains the same is being in that spot at the right time. You might have technology to shoot down the beach 600 yards and look like you’re in the zone, but it comes down to manpower. If people are pushing themselves, manpower triumphs technology. Putting yourself in that critical spot where a camera hasn’t been before is the next level of photography, especially in the water. Now, photographers are becoming known as athletes as well as artist. As far as the future, a lot more people are pushing the limits. Technology is a big pusher too, but in the end it’s what the mind thinks and where you put yourself in that situation to get that shot. I know that photographers are training more like surfers to put themselves in those situations.
Do you have any words of wisdom for those trying to invade the surf photo industry?
Knowing your limits first if you want to be water photographer and photography technique second. A lot of people have the gear, and that makes them think ‘I have the gear, now I can swim Pipeline’
but it’s the other way around. You have to be mentally and physically ready to handle these waves. When you’re swimming big Pipe, you’re doing 2 things at once and if you can’t do one of those, you’re lining yourself up for disaster. And if you don’t know technique you’ll block a lot of shots. Don’t get a camera if you can’t bodysurf 6-8 foot Pipe. If you want to be a surf photographer, know the ocean, and know the water. First, get comfortable.
And what about those wanting to submit photos? Have any helpful tips on that?
A lot of photographers who are coming up, tend to submit everything. I learned not to do that, in all essence when a photo editor gets all those files, he’s not going to have time to look over all these. The editor only wants the best, so submit your very best because it will also give the editor a better idea of the style you shoot. That way they can come to you with a ‘hey we need this kind of shot’. You’re just as good as your worst photo, and if you submit a bad photo and it does run, that label gets stuck with you. Just get to know the photo editors so they can put a face to the name. Feel free to go up to them introduce yourself. Editors aren’t the gnarliest people, just because they don’t answer an email doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Throughout my path I did get help from editors so of course I’m going to return the favor. Don’t be discouraged, and try again and again.