Renowned Australian surf photographer and editor Neil Armstrong, talks about combining his passions into a jet-setting job.
Neil Armstrong (aka Moonwalker) is a surf photographer and the consulting editor at Pacific Longboarder. He also contributes to other surf magazines from across the globe, including England, France, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Canada and Japan. He has photographed famous surfers like Joel Tudor, Alex Knost and Bob McTavish just to name a few. His work allows him to travel to pristine beaches annually, something we all dream of doing.
Neil is currently living in south of Taiwan, in a remote town by the coastal beaches. It’s a low key choice considering he could live anywhere in the world. However, when you visit Kenting, you will soon fall in love with the unique food, friendly locals and the stretches of vacant beaches.
I meet with Neil on his stopover in Taipei as he prepares to fly out to Australia for his next project. I initially notice him kneeling on the floor, frantically trying to reorganize the contents in one of his hard shell camera cases.
“I had these all perfectly fit into the bag before,” laments Neil as he tries to find room for the 10-22mm lens. It’s almost like watching him complete a tangram puzzle – instead of squares and triangles, he has camera bodies and lenses to shuffle around with.
I ask him what he has planned in Australia and he quickly responds that March and April are probably the busiest months for him. “I’m off to Queensland first to shoot the Malfunction Surf Festival at Kingscliff and the Noosa Festival of Surfing,” he says,
“I’d also be covering a surf camping trip and an article on the Australian stand up paddle scene for a US magazine. Then I’m off to Sydney for some more shooting.”
Neil was born in Australia and has also lived in New Zealand and the UK. He began his career as a cameraman for ABC news in Australia, learning about angles, lighting and composition. He soon grew bored with the role and wanted to have more creative freedom.
“You’re on a film set all day and you have lots of people, like directors and producers telling you what to shoot and how to shoot it. I wanted to be more independent,” he remarks. Soon after leaving his job, he decided to pick up photography and landed a role writing and editing for a surf magazine. He recalls, “I was lucky to be mentored by leading surf photographers in Australia and from around the world. I like to be able to tell the whole story with my work. Pictures are great, but sometimes you need words to give the full version of events and to convey the emotions at the time. I really enjoy reading and writing.” His interest in reading is evident when I catch a glimpse of a John Steinbeck novel tucked in his suitcase.
He was exposed to traveling at a young age as both of his parents worked in the airline industry. He remembers that during school holidays where most of his classmates would take a vacation to the countryside, he was lucky enough to be flying out to foreign countries. This jet-setting lifestyle hasn’t changed much judging by his heavily stamped passport. He has worked in secluded locations like Samoa, the Mentawai Islands, Baja California and some secret spots he steadfastly refuses to reveal.
I begin to envision that life as a surf photographer means traveling to exotic beaches, taking photos of girls in bikinis and sipping on fancy cocktails at the end of the day. “No, it’s not all fun and games,” he assures me, “It’s also about waking up before the sunrises, meeting the demands of professional surfers and spending most of your nights editing the photos, writing up articles and cleaning out all your equipment. When you do this for a few days in a row, it does become mentally and physically tiring.”
“I do spend a bulk of my time cleaning out all the equipment at the end if a shoot,” he states, “I think we (surf photographers) work in one of the harshest conditions. Factors like the sand, salt and water wear out camera equipment much quicker and easier.”
“Traveling with all the camera equipment isn’t easy either,” he says. This is quite obvious as I look around the room to see scattered luggage bags across the floor. I try to lift what looks like a lightweight carry-on but can barely raise it more than an inch off the ground. I soon find out that the bag includes a 600mm lens inside, which weighs over 5kg alone.
I ask him how he manages to get on board with excessive luggage without having to pay exuberant fees. “Oh, just a smile and maybe some sweet talk,” laughs Neil, “I was once threatened to be charged nearly 1,000 pounds sterling for overweight luggage at Heathrow airport. I had a chat to the duty manager and made up this elaborate story about how I knew the director of the airline carrier. Fortunately, it worked. It was complete bullshit, but it was good bullshit.”
“Then there are times when everything just goes horribly wrong – like getting all my camera equipment stolen in Mexico. We’re talking about lenses, camera bodies and some personal items. Pretty much everything.” He pauses before adding, “But it still turned out to be a great trip and Mexico is definitely one of my favorite locations. Having a great time is really what you make out of it. I enjoy going to places that aren’t yet top surf destinations. Sure Mentawai is great, but I like putting in the effort to get to places that are off the beaten path.”
Hearing Neil’s travel adventures certainly makes you want to pack your own bags and be on the next plane out. As he nicely puts it, “Life’s too short to be stuck with what you hate doing. If you pursue something you love, you’re going to be happier putting in the extra effort and working those extra hours. For me, it’s not about living wealthy, but living a fulfilling life with rich experiences.”
As we end the interview, I begin to see why Neil is one of the most highly-regarded photographers in the surf community. He’s very down to earth, witty and is very modest about his achievements. When he’s not shooting, surfing, editing or on a plane, he can be found reading novels or working on his upcoming photography book.