JP Van Swae is a California surfer/photographer who is the assistant photo editor at Surfer Magazine. The grandson of legendary Whitey Harrison and former apprentice to master photographer Art Brewer, JP carries surfing’s legacy to the next generation. We spoke with JP to learn more.
What was your childhood like?
Holes in my shoes and bell bottom pants hand-me-downs from my brother, which came from my cousins prior to that. But for all that we didn’t have, there was an endless supply of fun and love for what was all around us. Lots of days at the beach, and a lot of great family and friends around. There was never a dull moment.
When did you get your first surfboard?
The first board that was actually all mine? I think I was around eight. It was a 6’8” Quad shortboard made by Max Surfboards that my dad had bought me. It was a bit too thick and big for someone my size, but it rode well enough to ride and have fun.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
My first memories and experiences of surfing were not by choice and quite a bit of resistance was involved. My brother and sisters would play along the shore at San O, jumping over waves, just being kids having fun as mom, dad, grandfather and whichever other family members that were with us would be out surfing. And at any moment, either my dad or grandfather would just snatch you off the beach and take you into the surf. The waves were probably only waist high, but as a child they seemed enormous and scary. So, as they would take off, they would have to pry you fingers from the board and stand you up. But once you were there, you were hooked!
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
It all ways seemed to be family. My grandfather was great at anything to do with the sea. Surfing, paddle boarding, fishing, diving, sailing and more. And my mom and dad were into all kind of things as well as surfing. As far as surfing talent, I always admired Mark Richards’ awkward style.
What inspired you to begin shooting images?
My dad had shot for Surfer mag when I was young, so I decided to take a class in high school. It didn’t work out to well and I ended up despising photography. I returned to it after running into Art Brewer, a good family friend, and found myself loving everything I could find out about it.
What do you look for in a photograph?
Composition and the forethought that you had intentions of creating a perfect image—not that it just happened to be in front of your lens. Take time and visualize what you want and go get it. And be proud of it.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
Any third world country away from the city always stands out. You see so many people getting along with so little and are so happy. It’s humbling.
Who or what inspires you?
Seeing someone with STOKE. Those who do instead of talk and people who look at things a little differently.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
Keep doing what you love to do. Look both ways before crossing the street. A good bottom turn makes your surfing that much better. Keep your other eye open when shooting and without friends and family, it’s hard to get by.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Yeah. I shouldn’t have eaten all of those hot dogs in Tijuana.
What are you most proud of?
Being a dad, enjoying life to the fullest and being able to involve others in your fun.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
I don’t know anything different; I have always lived close to the ocean and have been surrounded by surf culture. So, it hasn’t changed my life at all. It is my life. Without surfing and the ocean lifestyle, I couldn’t imagine who and where I would be.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
My beautiful three year old daughter, Abby Lynn Van Swae.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
It’s a pretty broad path these days, so we’re all involved somehow, but you can’t ignore the up-and-coming youth like the Kalohe Andinos and the revival of style within longboarding like the Alex Knosts. The backyard shapers and inventors are really what drives us forward.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surfspot?
My 6’8” Patterson before I broke it at Blacks. Favorite spot is Lower Trestles.
What’s your favorite meal?
Abalone hamburgers and a good bowl of poki.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
Hank Williams III, The Clash, White Buffalo, and The Arctic Monkeys.
What are you most grateful for?
After all of the stupid things I’ve done, probably just being alive.
What’s next for JP Van Swae?
I was wondering the same thing. If you find out, tell me or just keep me in the loop. Maybe Mex.