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Nikki Brooks

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JettyGirl Online Surf Magazine's Interview with Nikki Brooks
Photos courtesy of Nikki Brooks,
JettyGirl Art, Photography & Culture

Nikki Brooks
Nikki Brooks - © Brooks / Mayer
I have to admit that I was a bit nervous meeting Nikki Brooks for the first time. Surf photographers can be an interesting bunch're just as likely to be greeted with a hug as you are to be welcomed with a swift "Beat it Kook!" Making the short trip from Santa Cruz to her family's place in Capitola, my fears quickly vanished with our first "hello." After a quick lesson from her kids about of the joys of rice pudding, we stepped inside her family's beautiful home for an interview. The walls of the Brooks' home are adorned with gorgeous prints of Nikki's work, equally divided between surfing and other subjects dear to her heart. I had the best time talking with Nikki...she's a thoughtful, caring individual and of course a fantastic photographer. The surfing community is blessed to have an artist like Nikki documenting both the ocean's waves and the surfers who ride them. --Chris Grant

JettyGirl: How'd you get involved in photography?
Nikki Brooks: I was at school at UC San Diego and I needed a creative outlet and I took a photo class with my boyfriend at the time (who's now my husband) and I just loved it and didn't stop. I just wanted to keep shooting and learning about it. I was surfing a lot so it was natural to just take pictures of surfing. That's all, it just kept progressing from there.

JG: Did you get your college degree in photography?
NB: I have a BS in biology and I did a minor in photography. I wanted to slow my pace down...and I don't think I could have made it through school without doing something creative like photography.

JG: Do you shoot both male and female surfers and which do you prefer?
NB: It's pretty natural to do both. I think I gravitate toward my friends naturally and those whose style or surfing I really like. I like shooting both short- and longboarding. I've definitely shot girls more and that's what I focus on definitely seems most natural to shoot with them and and come away with unique results.

JG: Do you have any favorite subjects?
NB: Yes, definitely! I like to shoot with Kim Mayer because she's so funny and always fun to be with. Lots of people from around here ...Mikala is really fun, she's such a good surfer, always running to the nose. It's cool because everyone's personality fits the way they surf so sometimes it depends on what kind of mood I feel like shooting or what kind of conditions I have in mind that determines which surfers I call. It's always cool to meet up with someone you haven't shot with in a while like longboard friends Steve Thomas and Tanner. Darshan's always up for stuff. People who are passing through town's fun when I get a call from them. I love catching up with Jamstar once or twice a year because she's such a personality and such amazing things are going on in her life. I think I'm more into the documenting part, not just the surfing part, their lifestyle, their style of surfing, their whole picture.

JG: Have you shot any huge Mavericks sessions?
NB: I shot the Mavericks contest a couple of years ago from the boat and that's the only time I've been out in the water shooting Mav's. It was a really cool experience. It was a beautiful day so I think it was a less common swell and really good conditions. There were some good waves but the whole lineup is regulated and you can only go so close to the wave. I'll shoot from the cliff a couple times a year.

JG: Is shooting from the boat a challenge?
NB: It was a challenge. I had a 300mm lens so I think it was the right one to shoot with. But yes, the boat is always moving. I was trying to do things differently out there. Even though it was a beautiful day, I did shoot some black and white because there were so many people shooting the exact same thing at the same moment. I try to go for something different when I'm in the mix with everybody.

JG: Do you ever get any vibe from male photographers?
NB: No, I think I always take things kind of slowly and have tried not to push anybody's buttons or act like a hot shot. I've just done a really slow progression, just plugged away. People are more likely to approach me. I'll go up to someone and say "hello" but I don't pry and ask lots of questions. But occasionally I have questions and people are willing to help. When I first wanted to do surf photography, I went down south to all the surf magazines and knocked on everyone's doors. All of the guys were so open and looked at my portfolio of all the stuff I'd been shooting in college with old manual Minolta cameras. If it wasn't for me pursuing that and asking for the help and them giving me the foundation, I could have done it on my own but it probably would have cost me a lot of money. Instead, I've done slow investments and kind of worked my way up it seems.

JG: Are there certain spots around here you absolutely cannot shoot?
NB: Yes, there are some places that you definitely don't want to name. Or if you shoot you have to be careful of the time of day or where you are on a certain beach. I've had people who may not know I'm from here walk by saying, "Put that camera away, der der der der!" I think it helps being from here and having that local knowledge of what 's appropriate and what's not. So far it's been ok.

JG: Do you usually stay local or do you travel a bit?
NB: Mostly local because I have a young family and the money part of everything. There are so many good surfers in town, and waves and opportunities and just doing a couple day road trip here and there helps get the travel bug off my shoulder. Maybe once or twice a year go to Hawaii or something like that ...I'd like to do that more. I'm waiting for that big corporate trip or whatever ...that hasn't really happened yet.

JG: Ashley Lloyd mentioned to me that you had a fun experience shooting while your daughters are with you. Is that a challenge?
NB: Yea, definitely. Over the last 4 or 5 years I've either been pregnant, or having a baby, or now having a two year old and a four year old so they've definitely been part of the whole movement. It's been pretty cool because it's allowed me the opportunity to be like, "This is what I'm pursuing and giving my all to, but at the same time I'm a full time mom." If the waves are good or I have an opportunity, I drop everything else and fortunately I have family help husband's really supportive, my parents are in town, and I have friends that help out so I get to fulfill that photo opportunity. But otherwise, I'll go to the beach early and shoot for a while and my husband will drop the kids off at the beach and I can wear one on my back while the other one is playing or I'll call up a friend who has a kid, "Oh you want to come to the beach right now don't you?" (at 8:30 in the morning) We're at the beach!" But I'm actually taking photos. But it works, it's fun!

JG: I know they're pretty young, but have either of your daughters picked up your camera and tooled around?
NB: Oh yea, all the time. For one of my daughter's birthday wishes she said, "I want a camera! I want a camera with a mermaid on it!" So, that's what we got her, a little camera.

JG: Describe your perfect day.
NB: Getting up really early on a day with clear skies and really good waves and running out and shooting with a couple people in an uncrowded lineup. Shooting from the water because that's the most rewarding and gets me so stoked. Coming in and shooting another roll. Then, I'm coming home and having crepes with the family, then going to the beach all together and surfing with my husband, trading off in the middle of the day when the lighting's not so good, then coming home, having a smoothie and going shooting again in the evening. That would be fun.

JG: What have the opportunities been like for the women you're shooting with now compared to five years ago?
NB: I think it's tough. I wish there were more media outlets for us all. There's no print media outlets for women's surfing. You get the occasional shot in the mainstream guy's mags and that's cool, they cover the women's contest in Honolua and have a great surf shot of somebody winning the world title but I wish there were magazines we could submit to on a regular basis. Just girls surfing, longboarding and shortboarding, surf trips and surf tips ...just all kinds of things that would be inspiring for younger girls. I feel like I'm in this generation of surfers that we've going through the motions and we're used to the ups and downs and we've already been there ...but there are so many younger girls who I think could benefit from seeing coverage of women's surfing.

The money part of it is really hard too. There are so many good surfers out there that if you're really not in the top 10 or top 20 and even if you're getting coverage, you're not getting paid or getting the right sponsors. I have a friend who we finally got some good shots published and some of her friends were like, "Wow, you're really doing great!" Yes, she's getting recognition but how is she getting along financially when she's chasing waves around the world and trying to do contests, yet she's living day to day. Other people who are pioneers in big wave surfing, like JamStar, I don't think she's ever come up front and approached a sponsor saying, "This is what I want. This is what I can offer you." She just kinda takes it as it comes and that's the beautiful thing about the surfing lifestyle but to make ends meet these days I wish more people were supported for sure.

JG: I know one of the ways photographers survive is by selling ad shots. Even though there aren't that many girl companies, half of them are still split between modeling shots and surfers that actually surf? Even in the same company? What are your thoughts?
NB: That's one of the most frustrating parts for sure. That's something that really used to bother me when I was younger in college. For example, there used to be these big stickers that guys would plaster on their boards of a hot chick with big you know what. It would make me so upset because my friends would be riding these boards with this sexist image and I'd be like "Aaaawww!!!" Then, you'd look at the surf magazines and see that and as a surfer I'm thinking, "Where is the real surfer?" That's the image that the companies are taking from...

(Interrupted by landscapers outside, microphone goes flying...)

Yea, I think it's really frustrating to look at the magazines and see half modeling and half, if that, surfing shots because those companies are taking from the surfing lifestyle yet they're not even portraying a real surfer. Where are the women who really pursue this as a career or passion? That really used to frustrate me even when I was younger looking at guys with big art stickers on their board...with a hot chick on the their surfboard. And I'd say to them, "Why are you doing that? You're just showing groms that's the only reason you look at a girl in a bathing suit but I'm in a bathing suit and I'm surfing and I don't want to be looked at that way!" It's just this a company, they should be showcasing the positive part of surfing and healthy living back to the surfers whose lifestyle they're selling.

JG: The surfers that are getting coverage now seem to be doing the surf and modeling you think that's fair?
NB: I think it's fair if it's the diverse modeling of different surfers, there are surfers of every body type just like there are women of every type ...but models are usually of just one body type. I like the idea of lifestyle ...I guess that's different than modeling. There have been some surfers whose modeling advertisements I did not approve of...and I don't have to say who, it was a few years ago ...I was disappointed in some choices that some surfers have made. I'm super pro-girl-in their-bathing-suits and surfers being able to do that but I think there's a way that you hold yourself or what you're doing in that bathing suit that can promote it in a more sexual way.

JG: A lot of parents have approached me and told me they're considering pulling their daughters out of school to concentrate on making the tour someday. Knowing what you know about how the industry works, what advice would you give them?
NB: Yes, I'd have to say, "No, go to school!" I admire the surfers I know who have a solid education then picked up their surfing more professionally later on. Kim (Mayer) and Kyla (Langen) come to mind. I think that's the right way to do it because if the surfing thing doesn't work out, you still have the education.

JG: If you could have a photo session anywhere in the world with any five surfers, where would it be and who would you choose?
NB: I've been to Hawaii, Mexico and Eastern Europe so I'd have to say New Zealand. I like places that are scenic. I'd be on a boat part of the time and have some adventures on land as well. The surfers would be Gerry Lopez, Tom Curren, Lisa Anderson, Kim Mayer and Coco Ho ...I like her name and think she's a good surfer.

JG: That would be a good crew to get together. You seem to choose everyone with good style that something that's important?
NB: I think that's something I really appreciate ..really good style. Hand placement and where they are in the wave in that moment. I think my photography's more like capturing that really cool moment where other surfers know and recognize it but you don't always see it. Shooting with any of those surfers you'd get the opportunity to capture their style. It would be super fun.

JG: We hear that you shoot both digital and film. Do you have a preference?
NB: Yes, film. I like film. Digital is cool and it has its benefits. But something about saturation of the slide, and the colors and not knowing what I'm going to get back is a rewarding experience in itself. It's like this precious little treasure I put on my shelf and get to go drop off, then pick it up and and look at my little light table, then write on the little box. It's just such a process though ...because you digitize it anyway. I have to scan it and figure out what I'm going to do with it. It's similar to digital but I like the way the film looks better.

JG: Is it a harder process to get things published ...going from film to digital since many are using digital?
NB: I feel I have a good idea of what's expected. I try to give them whatever it was, slide or digital, in a more raw or natural format. I think a good shot is a good shot either way so you don't want to manipulate it. I'll scan it and if I put together a submission and they're interested, they don't even ask me if it's film or if it's digital?

JG: Do you find it artistically offensive that images are altered so much in colors, etc?
NB: Yes, well I think it's because they can take a crappy shot that someone from their company shot with their big fancy $10,000 stack of equipment and then take it to the art department and mess around with it and tweak it and make it look kinda groovy and do some cool graphics and there they go. I can appreciate that that is a style and form of art and everything but I think it's harder for the photographer who's trying to get that shot and sell it definitely makes it more challenging because the company already has a B-roll shot that they can use and make work for their needs for a lot less. It's rather frustrating.

JG: If a young girl, say a high school student, comes up and wants to pursue a career in surf photography, what advice would you give her?
NB: Go surfing lots ...but then when you want to do photography, you have to give up surfing lots. Shoot a lot. Read some books and take some classes because you'll learn a really good foundation of all the technical stuff. Whether you're taking a landscape or a portrait at a wedding, there's these fundamentals that apply to photography and that you can apply to surfing. Also, shoot many things besides surfing because you get better doing that.

JG: When you shoot water, do you feel closer to surfing or do you wish you were on a board?
NB; Over the last couple years, either when pregnant or just at home with the girls, just getting in the water for me is so rewarding I don't even care if I'm just shooting because for me it's really exciting. There are times like, "The waves are so good!" A week or two ago I was shooting with Ratboy and Tasia from Morro Bay and I was doing surf-ats, then Ratboy said, let me take pictures of you so I gladly went surfing.

JG: As a surfer yourself and as a water photographer, have environmental issues like water pollution touched your life in any way?
NB: I don't go out if it just rained. Where we live, there's a creek that runs right into Capitola and that is the same creek that I grew up on. So for me, it's all totally related. That's the creek I take my girls to play in during the summer and to think that if it's dirty, it's just all part of the watershed. In the wintertime, I won't go out for a couple of days's just not worth being sick, I can't risk it, there's too much going on. But ...sometimes if it's really good you make an exception (laughs) that case I just try to not to get worked too much.

JG: Any parting thoughts?
NB: I think it's really cool that you're documenting girls. I think it's awesome and I'm thinking someday we'll have an outlet for all this fun stuff. I think it's really important that people on both the girls side and the guys side of the surf industry talk about where it's going. How images are used of guys and girls and how the surfers can benefit, and how the photographers can benefit and how the companies can benefit. I think it's important for everyone to talk about it together.

JG: Thank you Nikki!
NB: Thank you so much.

*For more information or to contact Nikki, please visit

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Caption Index - Photos by Nikki Brooks /

1. Jamilah Star seeks big waves, is a mom and good friend who has taught me a lot. A Wunderwoman with a view of this world like no other.
2. JamStar case in point. Mavericks, New Year's Eve 2007.
3. Santa Cruz winter time glory days.
4. Lil' miss sunshine Kim Mayer. Such the fun surfer/skater/adventure chica the world is so blessed to have!
5. Sean Peterson on a memorable wave during a memorable session.
6. Santa Cruz's Lexi Wilson. She is a favorite grommet turned mature surfer with plans to attend UCSD soon, watch out Blacks!!!
7. Layne Beachley and Carissa Moore after Carissa wins the Reef Hawaiian Pro. Two powerful surfers, shaking the women's surf movement.
8. Jenni Flanigan sunset surfer with nice riding style in the water and on paper.
9. Bud Freitas at the O'Neill Cold Water Classic. Here's his annual 10-point ride at the Lane.
10. Kim Mayer, Jessica Oswald, Kyla Langen, and Anna. Way up north and fully prepared for foul weather (pre-Surfline days of old!)
11. Kyla Langen hackin' it in Maui. A joyful soul surfer.
12. Jason Collins is a stylish, smooth, innovative surfer who likes to fish.
13. Tanner Beckett, all around water dude extraordinaire.
14. Ashley Lloyd is one crafty, beautiful person.
15. The road less traveled.

Oakley - Uniquely Oakley - Visit

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