The Kirstin Scholtz Interview
COASTALWATCH | Interview
Kirstin Scholtz: That Monumental Moment In Surfing
The World Surf League (WSL) publishes breathtaking photos throughout the year as they travel between competition venues. Their team of photographers is small but powerful and extraordinarily talented. They’re part of the ride for the ups and downs as the top male and female surfers travel, hang out, warm up, free surf, compete and reflect.
Kirstin Scholtz is one of the crew’s senior photographers; some say she lives the dream life, surfing and photographing the best waves in the world and getting paid to do it. In 2015, the world tour surfers and crew experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows together, and Kirstin was there with her camera every step of the way.
For twelve years Kirstin Sholtz has produced image after image of surf legends, breakthrough stars, triumphs and tragedies. She has shaped a visual journey of athletes’ entire professional careers as they qualify through their rookie year, through wins, losses, injury, retirement and sometimes revival. She shoots frothing grommet’s surf heroes riding waves that seem out of reach and beyond perfection. They are the images said groms save as their desktops and establish ideologies from. Some of those images are the inspiration for future world champs, just as they were for a young Kelly Slater as he gazed at the surf posters on his ceiling as he fell asleep dreaming that he too would one day be a world champion.
Schotlz’s story starts with her upbringing on two opposite sides of South Africa; “Cape Town was where I developed a deep love for the ocean and Gauteng / Limpopo Province is where I fell in love with Africa’s wildlife and the outdoors.” She said. After studying photojournalism at university, she was fortunate enough to meet and begin working for Pierre Tostee, who was then, one of the world’s first digital surf photographer and senior photographer for the World Surf League. It was the leg up she needed and a connection any graduate hopes to establish. She said “After about four years working for Pierre, the WSL hired me as a full-time staff member and I have been with them ever since.” It was the start of a pretty neat new life.
It is the dream job you would imagine it would be. She emphatically confirms, “Nothing beats traveling the world, visiting wave rich destinations, photographing the best surfers in the world and meeting all sorts of wonderful people along the way.” That’s not to say it doesn’t have its challenges though. “Sweating it out in the hot sun all day, dragging heavy bags through airports, being away from loved ones - like anything in life, there are compromises and its not as glamorous as it looks but it sure beats sitting in an office all day!”
CW: What’s of the greatest stories from your nomadic lifestyle as part of the tour?
KS: Wow, there are too many! There’s the time I came down with mumps in Fiji and was evacuated from Tavarua and quarantined on mainland Fiji for a week.
There’s the time I got kicked out of a country and banned for three years for mistakenly overstaying a visa. How about being on a boat in the channel at Teahupoo during the Code Red Swell? I was convinced I was going to die.
Being a water photographer naturally means lots of ski incidents in the midst of big waves. I was washed off the ski in front of thousands of people in the shore break of Bells Beach on Easter Sunday one year. I also had the sled hit me over the head and cut my lip open on my water housing.
I’ve had some spectacular helicopter rides including one over the African bush on an anti-rhino poaching mission.
Probably the best memory would have to be meeting and eventually marrying my husband who was my jetski driver whilst shooting the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach a few years back.
CW: What has been your most memorable experience yet?
KS: In 2015 Kelly Slater and Owen Wright on a Rhino anti-poaching mission with the Chipembere Foundation in South Africa. I was lucky enough to join the WSL initiative and this particular mission.
We darted a white rhino from the air with an experienced veterinary team before drilling a GPS implant into its horn and put a tracking collar on its foot.
It was a life-changing experience for me. To be so close to such a majestic animal, to hear it breathe, touch its rough skin and realise just how vulnerable it is. I was inspired to become more involved with saving the white rhino which is on the brink of extinction and am now a volunteer and ambassador for the Australian Rhino Project. The aim is to establish a breeding herd of Rhino in Australia as an insurance policy in the event of extinction of the species.
CW: You’ve got to have a favourite, what’s your favourite tour stop?
KS: I love JBay because it is the opportunity to go back home. The whole bay has incredible surf, stunning light and scenery and we are so close to all the wildlife we don’t get to experience anywhere else in the world.
CW: Has there been any event, location or swell that has taken your breath away?
KS: Yes, the Code Red Swell in Teahupoo was by far the most breath-taking swell I’ve witnessed. It blew my mind and I have never felt as much fear as I did on that boat. No experience since, has come close to what I saw and what I experienced on that day and in fact every adventure activity I do now is almost boring because of that experience. It still gives me shivers to think about it.
CW: This year has been one of the most hectic ever. You were there to capture the biggest moments at each of the venues. Talk us through the JBay Pro final through your eyes?
KS: It was set up to be one of those epic finals. A great match-up between two incredible surfers, the waves were good, there was a big crowd, clear skies and sunshine. It couldn’t have been scripted better.
I was making my way down the boardwalk just as Julian was finishing his first ride. The ocean was flat so I wasn’t paying attention to the water. As I got down to the sand I heard the commentators screaming. I looked up and I saw splashing around Mick and I went cold. I was in shock, I couldn’t even take a photo.
My first thought was, we are watching Mick Fanning die in front of our eyes. The first thing I did was climb up the closest TV platform. These are normally out of bounds, but in this case I was desperate to get higher to see what was happening, as you couldn’t see much from the beach. I think it was only when I saw Mick swimming backwards and I knew he was alive that I started taking pictures. From the beach I remember screaming in my head for the boats to get there. It felt like an eternity.
As soon as Mick and Julian were on the boat my thoughts turned to Kelly Cestari, our water photographer who was still in the water. I remember running down to the rocks and waving for him to come in. He seemed to be swimming so slowly. Once he was into shore and ok I headed up to the competitors area. I still wasn’t entirely sure exactly what had happened as you could see very little from the beach. As soon as I got up there, all the surfers where watching the live video reply on their phones and I saw what happened.
It’s times like these when the surfing community becomes a family. Everyone was hugging each other, all the surfers wives and girlfriends were crying or had tears in their eyes. It took quite a while, maybe 45 minutes for Mick and Julian to get back to shore. When they did they were dropped off at the top of Pepper Street and as they came walking down there was plenty of cheering and clapping from the crowd with lots of people and cameras crowded round. At this stage Mick was still smiling and waving to everyone, I don’t think it had quite sunk in yet.
As they entered the surfer’s area Ashley gave Julian the biggest hug. There was so much relief and lots of tears. It was a beautiful and heart-wrenching moment. Both surfers wanted some privacy and they needed to discuss with the officials if they would re-run the final or not.
Mick and Julian, along with the commissioners and some of their closest friends disappeared into Renatos office for about 45 minutes. No cameras were allowed in so I waited outside the door. It was tough because I didn’t feel I’d captured the story. It was such a monumental moment in professional surfing history but the splash on the top of the water, and Mick walking through the crowd looking happy didn’t exactly depict the enormity of what had happened.
After about 40 minutes Kieran came back and I asked him to see Mick, if he minded that I came into took some pictures. Mick said it was fine and I took my place at the door of the room. They were all still talking and Mick had his head in his hands, Jules was visibly still shaken.
At the end of the meeting, when it was decided that there wouldn’t be a re-surf and they would share equal second place for points and recognition. Mick turned towards Jules and gave him a hug. I believe it was the first time the two had hugged after the incident and it summed up the relief and the emotion that they were both still alive uninjured. There were hugs all around the room after that, moments before the two exited the room to meet the media and the crowd once again.
CW: Your image of Mick and Julian is so moving and raw. Does it still affect you?
KS: I’m very proud of that image. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to shoot that photo.
As photographers, we strive to tell the story and to evoke emotion through an image. It was very difficult to summarise what happened that day in July, in a single image. I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time to be able to capture that moment.
It was emotional on so many levels. I think Mick is one of the most remarkable human beings and my heart broke seeing what he went through and how he broke down afterwards. I was so glad he was ok. Julian is a hero, too. I feel blessed to know both of them. I honestly think your true colours shine in a situation like that. To see Jules paddle towards Mick to try and save him was something I don’t think anyone will ever forget.
CW: Hawaii this year was all time with epic swell and high emotions. It was another massive event for Mick and you did an amazing job capturing the heartache and triumph of the second last day. What was Hawaii like for you as a whole?
KS: Hawaii was crazy. There were so many scenarios, which made the experience completely different from previous years. There wasn’t as much build up around any one surfer, except maybe Mick. I spent a lot of time running up and down the beach each time one of the six surfers had a critical heat or was coming out of the water from a critical heat.
I really thought Mick would win it but I was super stoked to see Adriano win his first world championship title. He has worked so hard and put so much into his career, it was great story and it was inspiring to be a part of.
CW: Certainly of the most incredible years in modern surf competition, for everyone. Did you breath out as De Souza held his trophy above his head?
KS: It’s always such a relief by the time prize giving comes at any of the events. At Pipe, the security was gnarly and the crowd was intense. I nearly got trampled to death on the beach and then flattened by security. It was one of the heaviest carry ups I’ve experienced. I was definitely breathing a sigh of relief during prize giving.
CW: Your picks for the men’s and women’s events this year?
KS: It’s a tough one. I think Mick will bounce back because he is a gladiator and I’m going to call Carissa for the Women’s again.
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