For his new book, Into the Wild, photographer Matthew Brookes spent time with a loose community of surfers based around California’s famed Venice Beach. Attracted at first by what he describes as the “mythic” unknowns of the surf community, Brookes became equally fascinated by the vans that many of the surfers lived out of. The book became as much a van book as a surf book, the photographer’s portraits, surf shots, vignettes and interviews capturing the seemingly idyllic lives of people who cruise the California coastline in search of the next wave.
VICE: How did you first meet the surfers in the book?
Matthew Brooks: I moved to Venice Beach at the beginning of 2021 and started taking portraits of the locals. One day I was introduced to a surfer and I noticed he lived in a crazy van, full of surfboards and skateboards, and a bed... I asked him if he travelled out in his van and he said, “I live out of it!” I was immediately fascinated. We went on to take pictures of him in his van and I asked him if he had friends that would be interesting to photograph. He said, “Sure. I’ll introduce you!” That was the start.
Do you have a background in surfing?
I didn’t surf when I was young, but I grew up in Durban – a surf town in South Africa where many of the young pros originate from. So I was surrounded by surfers. I was a tennis kid – my dream was to be a pro so my time was spent on a tennis court playing for hours a day. When I came to Venice and connected with the surfers it reminded me of my youth. I was very surprised by how open they were to being photographed – I guess I was introduced to them in the right way: by other surfers. They especially loved being photographed in their vans. I guess they were happy to have their lives in their vans validated and documented?
Are the people in the book one group of friends?
They are all very independent of each other, but at the same time all friendly or know each other as they hang out in the same surf spots and parking lots. There’s a real sense of community in the beach parking lots – it’s almost as if the lots and areas around their cars and vans are more of a hang out spot than the beaches themselves.
What was it about the surfers as subjects that attracted you?
I guess there’s a kind of mythical fascination with surfers, they stick to themselves so if you are not a surfer it’s hard to get to know their world. I loved their dedication to the ocean – they live for it! What really intrigued me was not as much the surfing part, but the van life part of surfing… it was as though the vans were an extension of the surfer’s sense of freedom – living for the waves and travelling up and down the coast with the currents and swells.
I was surprised by how differently each van was decorated – some were very simple inside – some covered in surfing and music posters, things the owners had collected along the road. They are really an extension of the surfers’ personalities. You never know what you will see when they open their doors. Some surfers even had names for their vans, so they were kind of travel companions.
What was it that made you want to include interviews in the book?
Without the interviews the viewer would only see surfers and vans and not necessarily understand the connection. When you read how interesting the lives of these surfers are in the interviews one can understand how a photographer would become captivated by them.
These kids are not homeless – they all have part time jobs, mostly in surfing: working in surf shops, shaping boards etc. Living out of their vans and being constantly on the move is a life choice, not a necessity. I think this book is as much a story book as it is a photography book.
There is a sort of timelessness in the book...
I loved the fact that when you looked at this particular subgroup of surfers it was impossible to tell what era they were from – they were all into vintage clothing and their haircuts often had a kind of 70s feel – plus a lot of them drove vans from the 60s and 70s, so looking at them was like a trip back in time.
The book contains portraits, action shots, images that have been drawn on or illustrated in ways – there’s a lot going on.
I wanted to capture the spirit of surfing and Venice Beach, which has a whacky grittiness to it. It’s a colourful place full of graffiti, everything has a splash of paint on it. For the book I worked with an illustrator friend of mine, Juan Bertoni. I thought his work could reflect that playful Venice vibe that I wanted. I wanted the book to be uplifting and have a playful vibe – almost like a surf comic book. I didn’t want it to feel like a precious coffee table book.
Do you think surfers and surf life have been reduced to cliches or misunderstood?
I think everyone has their own opinion about surfers – and I think a lot of the cliches come from people not actually having any connection to them, judging as an outsider. After working with these particular surfers I have to say I was very welcomed into their world, they were respectful of the fact that I was shooting something creative and had a genuine interest in them and what their world was about. I was fascinated by their commitment to the waves and the ocean - they have a connection to it that is impossible to understand unless you are a surfer. My mission was to reflect the happiness and freedom that I was witnessing.