In the surf photography world, there are few honors higher than scoring the cover of an international surf magazine. But even after New Jersey lensman Trevor Moran accomplished that with an epic shot of Julian Wilson that graced the August 2013 front page of Surfing Magazine, he then went one better by bringing home the coveted 2013 Follow The Light Foundation grant, given annually to the most promising young photographer in the surfing realm. With $5,000 to continue pursuing his dreams, Moran was "through the roof" to beat out one of the strongest fields in recent memory and join New York's Matt Clark as the only other East Coast FTL champion. But Trevor says meeting legends like Aaron Chang and Peter Taras while being chosen to honor the memory of legendary former Surfing Photo Editor Larry "Flame" Moore was an accomplishment in and of itself. Read below the slideshow for more about Moran's stacked year of success, his advice for aspiring photographers, and what comes next.
ESM: Congratulations Trevor.
Trevor Moran: Thanks. I’m psyched. The whole thing was pretty damn nerve-wracking and hectic, though. So when I found out I won, I was so excited. Through the roof basically.
ESM: Was this the first year you had entered the Follow The Light Foundation contest?
TM: No, I entered it a few years back — maybe four or five years ago. But in all reality, I hadn’t put everything into surf photography for the last couple of years. I was going to college and couldn’t focus on it all that much. Last year, however, was the first year that I put together a real slideshow, and I made the top ten, which got me pretty psyched. So I tweaked my portfolio, added to it, and thought this year I’d have a decent chance. And really, I was just stoked to make the top five. I was mentally prepared to not win. I figured, “I’ll go out to California, meet Aaron Chang and a few other people who I know by name but not by face, and I’ll be happy.”
ESM: What do you think set your 2013 slideshow apart from the other competitors — and from your own past submissions?
TM: In the past year, I was able to break out of New Jersey a little bit more. Obviously I’ve become known for the Jersey thing and traveling with mostly the same crew, so this year I mixed it up a little bit. Instead of submitting 100 photos of five or six different dudes, I traveled with the Hobgoods, met up with Julian Wilson a couple of times, and shot other high-caliber East Coast guys like Brian Toth and Gabe Kling. That helped me add a lot more variety to my images.
ESM: How much did you travel in 2012 and 2013?
TM: I went to Bali last October, came home for two weeks, went to Hawaii for a month, came home for three weeks, went to Australia for a month, and also went to Barbados on a couple of quick little trips in between. The ability to go on longer trips gave me a more diverse view of what I was doing. I could wait for a good day, instead of just scrambling around. Putting in that time with the surfers themselves — solidifying those bonds — made for much better photos, too. Since Australia, I’ve basically been home working on completely non-surf stuff, but I’m planning on doing a trip to France and Portugal in the fall.
ESM: Fellow New Jersey photographer Ryan Miller has helped you a lot recently, right?
TM: That’s been a huge part of my success. He’s taken me under his wing 100%. He and I both shoot Nikon equipment, which is kind of rare, and he needed to rent a lens before going to South Africa last year. I said, “I’ll give it to you for free in exchange for a sit-down about the surf photography business.” He and I had a conversation about Follow The Light after I made the top 10 last year, and he told me it’d be a huge stepping stone to win one day. But I wanted to start working on winning sooner. So he offered to fly me to Hawaii last winter and pay for me to stay in exchange for him acting as my agent and selling my images. He introduced me to a lot of people: international magazines like Stab, Julian Wilson, the Hobgoods… Basically he showed me the ropes on how to make it in the business. And since I went to college, I have the sort of drive that he does, where the goal every single day is to get a publishable photo. To him, it’s, “Even if it’s only $40, that will feed my family. Yeah, I’m on a surf trip in a tropical paradise, but it’s work and you have to get it done.”
ESM: Wait — you're telling us traveling to shoot surf photos isn’t all fun and games?
TM: Exactly. To afford a trip, you have to have a return on your investment. I focused on making it sustainable in a huge way this year, instead of just throwing money out and hoping and praying that it comes back. Miller taught me how to make plans ahead of time, how to budget and reduce costs, and how to sell as many photos to as many outlets as humanly possible. The whole reason I went to Australia is because I sold a couple of buyouts from Hawaii. So I took that money and spent it on a month in Oz, which was a big investment for me. But I figured I was playing with house money, so I took it and ran with it, and Australia was even more beneficial. That’s what I really want to keep doing, and that’s what I wrote about in my Follow The Light grant application. I want to make progress and keep it snowballing, and I give a lot of credit to Miller for that.
ESM: Did he help you land that recent Surfing Magazine cover of Julian Wilson?
TM: He did. He knew there were some really good photos in that batch that could get run in big spaces. And getting that was immensely huge to me. The cover of Surfing Magazine has been a goal for so long, and Miller surprised me with a printout of it on a T-shirt. Just having my name on that cover, even at the Follow The Light awards ceremony in California, led to so many people coming up and saying, “I know your name.”
ESM: In other words, it is possible for an aspiring surf photographer from New Jersey to make it in the international media world.
TM: It is. A lot of people complain, “Oh, there’s no money in surf photography.” But if you’re hustling 110%, replying to e-mails when they come in, doing something instead of sitting around on Sunday watching football, writing a photo caption, or pitching an idea to someone, who the hell knows what’s going to happen?
ESM: Aside from the $5,000 you won, how important was it for you to meet guys like Aaron Chang, Peter Taras, and other photographic movers and shakers?
TM: Personally, that to me was the most rewarding part of Follow The Light. Don’t get me wrong — I’m super grateful for the money. But getting to meet those guys face to face and showcase a little bit of my personality that might not transcend via e-mail… I mean, just knowing that those guys looked at my photos, had critical judgments of them, and then determined that they were the best of that group is the ultimate achievement for me. Past winners and finalists like Morgan Maassen, Zak Noyle, Corey Wilson, Billy Watts, and of course Jimmy Wilson all have a work ethic that’s impressive to see. Having people like that in high places vouch for you is huge. I mean, Aaron Chang? I’ve been looking at his photos since I was a little kid, so to be able to have that one-on-one conversation and time and respect from him goes well and beyond the financial aspect.
ESM: That said, how do you plan to spend the $5,000 award?
TM: I think I’m going to stick with travel. I considered equipment upgrades — I do have a lens that’s 15 years old — but do I really want to spend $5,000 on a lens? Nah. I can get so much more done by getting out there and experiencing things. Staying with guys like CJ and Damien Hobgood, and even just being around the whole ASP World Tour scene for freesurf sessions, is really what I’m looking forward to with France and Portugal this fall. I’ll probably go back to Hawaii this winter, but maybe for only three weeks. I’m kicking around the idea of Scotland and Ireland, and I’d really like to spend a decent amount of time in the Southern Hemisphere. I really like how much adventure there is out there, so I’m definitely looking forward to putting in more time on the road.
ESM: Is action photography your number-one priority right now?
TM: Surf shots are definitely the most rewarding, but at the same rate, my general goal in the next couple years is to transcend from straight action into portraiture and commercial realms, like Aaron Chang or Art Brewer have done. Hopefully my experience in the commercial and studio realm can be pitched to a company as a one-stop shop for action, still life, portraiture, and more. But that’s a huge, far-off aspiration.
ESM: Even with the success you’ve achieved, you’re still a humble guy. What piece of advice would you give to up-and-coming East Coast photographers who hope to succeed on a similar level?
TM: First and foremost, you have to have a positive, passionate attitude and be somebody that people — surfers, industry guys, photo editors — want to work with and be around. You have to always be polite and never be rude to anybody; you don’t want to burn a bridge with somebody who might want you to spend 10 days on a boat with them. More than anything you can do photographically, that’s important. You can be the best in the world, but if you’re a pain in the ass, that brings down a vibe and no one’s going to want to be around you.
ESM: How about other shooters wanting to enter Follow The Light?
TM: What I found most important was really familiarizing yourself with what your contemporaries are doing — understanding their processes and workflows — and then trying to separate yourself. It’s one thing to imitate somebody, but another to draw influence without copying and bring something new to table. That’s critical. For instance, one thing I’ve worked on extensively is my flash technique, both in the water and with strobes on the beach. Guys like Seth Stafford and Dave Nelson have made great strides, but I always saw space to push it even further by planning what I wanted to achieve and then giving it a different feel. My [June 2011] ESM cover of my brother Jamie, for instance, was a prime example of having a specific goal in mind while injecting it with a little breath of fresh air. Seeing what other people are doing and understanding how you can push boundaries is important in terms of getting your name made outside of New Jersey.
ESM: From a media perspective, New Jersey has more young, hungry shooters than any other East Coast state right now.
TM: We’re always going to be the redheaded stepchild, but at the same rate, there are great surfers and great photographic talents coming up. Look at what Ryan Miller, Seth Stafford, and all the guys from New York have accomplished. You can be from here and proud of that, but you can break out of it, too. We might be looked down upon, but that just makes us work that much harder to establish ourselves. And you’re right; there have been a couple of young guys who have asked for my guidance, and I’m more than willing to pay the support I’ve gotten both back and forward. All of us from Jersey will always have that underdog, blue-collar, Springsteen mindset where things aren’t given to us and we have to work really hard if surfing or surf photography is what we want. I worked in my dad’s warehouse enough summers slopping around shipping chemicals to know that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
ESM: Indeed. Any last words?
TM: I’m so stoked to have the support that I’ve gotten both before and after winning Follow The Light. I mentioned it that night and to everybody in California: it’s the people back here in the smaller surf communities on the East Coast, especially at ESM, that have helped me get where I am. From Mez to Jimmy to everyone at the magazine now — without you, I wouldn’t be here. Always having people ready to fight for you is really what fuels my fire, even when things are tough. It’s been so inspiring to finally achieve my dreams. But I’m going to keep on working hard. Winning Follow The Light is a huge accomplishment, but to me, it’s nothing to dwell on. I’ve got bigger and better things still to come.