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Surf Shacks 034 – Grant Ellis & Julie Rais

Grant Ellis has every surfer’s dream job – or at least the one second to being a pro on tour; he is the photo editor at “the bible of the sport,” Surfer Magazine. Like any job though, it’s probably not as easy as one thinks, but to us it seems to involve a lot of pouring over endless streams of surf porn flowing in from the best photographers in the biz. Plus the occasional on-location shoot, which no doubt involves a fair dose of scoring epic waves while not behind the lens shooting them. Ah, the good life. Even if that all is not actually quite the wet dream it appears to be, Grant still has it pretty darn good at home. His wife, Julie, daughter Kaia and son Ethan are awesome and their surf shack by the beach in Cardiff ain’t too shabby either.

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in South Africa and was a surf stoked kid. I got my first surfboard at 8 years old, got seriously addicted when I was around 11 and I am still hooked at 42. Growing up, we would get one copy of Surfer on the local newsstand every month and it wasn’t cheap. I made sure I got it every month and read it cover to cover, so I feel like this magazine has been part of my life for a very long time. I studied commercial photography for 4 years and was reluctant to get into surf photography as I was too into going surfing. I did work in the industry shooting fashion and lifestyle stuff for Gotcha and a few other brands in the mid-nineties in South Africa. It wasn’t until a trip to Hawaii in 1997 that I realized surf photography would keep me on the beach for the rest of my life that I fully committed. I jumped right in and three years later I was hired as the photo editor at Surfer. Part of me would like to go back and see how it would have gone as a surf photographer if I never got hired at Surfer. However, I had to take the opportunity that was presented and I might not have the amazing wife and family I have now if I hadn’t taken that path. I have a beautiful 18 month old Daughter and a 4 month old son. Both will hopefully be joining me in the water soon.

How long have you been Photo Editor at Surfer Magazine?

13 years.

What are some of the biggest differences between living in Southern California and South Africa?

I come from the South Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal and Amanzimtoti is a small town. There are a lot less people and less traffic than Southern California. You don’t see cows crossing the highway in Southern California for one thing, and when you drive a few minutes south you get empty warm water point breaks, big sharks and sugarcane fields. South Africa has its troubles with crime and it would have been tough when I was trying to start my career as a surf photographer to have made a good living in South Africa. I was really fortunate and I am extremely thankful for the opportunities I got. When I grew up everyone from my generation tried to get out of the country to make a living, most people went to London to start their careers. I couldn’t go that route. I need to have access to the ocean, so there were some stressful years in the beginning. Southern California has endless opportunity for photographers and it is a beautiful place to live.

What are your favorite parts about the area in which you live now?

My favorite part about where I live now in Cardiff is the easy access to the ocean. I live about the same distance from the beach as I did growing  up, that feels comfortable to me. The town is really mellow and has everything we need.

Tell us more about your job. What has been your favorite issue you’ve worked on in the 13 years since you’ve been at Surfer?

As photo editor I am managing a team of staff photographers and looking for the best images I can find out in the world of the freelance photographer. We work on a lot of stories that require me to dig up archival images or images on specific subjects, which is always fun to do. As far as favorite issues to work on, that is tough. Being there for 13 years, I have worked on around 160 issues so to pick a favorite would be a challenge. One that stands out to me is a guest editor issue with Jack Johnson and Chris Malloy. I got to experience some awesome stuff with those guys. I went with Jack to the Jay Leno show and met the White Stripes with Chris. Chris really put so much creative energy into that issue and it turned out great. Also all the big issues are fun probably because there is so much content and so much to get done that it is really rewarding to see the end result.

Any favorite trip / shoot in particular?

There is no better place than Jeffreys Bay South Africa for me and there are also a few point breaks where I grew up that are some of my favorite places in the world. One of the best trips for Surfer I ever did was a boat trip with some of my favorite surfers of all time. I went to the Mentawais with Andy Irons, Mark Occhilupo, Luke Egan, and Dave Rastovich. As far as adventure trips go, myself, Kimball Taylor, Dane Gaduaskas, Kepa Acero, and Alex Laurel went to Gabon Africa and camped for 2 weeks. It was a tough trip, but so much fun.

As photo editor, what do you look for in surf photography these days?

As Photo Editor, I am always looking for single images that tell stories. The future of surf photography is going to be interesting and exciting as the next generation of young photographers grow up in this visual age they are going to be learning a lot very quickly, and the equipment keeps getting better, smaller and easier to use. Cameras are going to be able to be placed in angles and capture angles we have never seen before. All that being said, nothing beats a good simple lineup shot when it comes to surf photography.

You have so many great boards in your quiver and cool old cameras. If your house were burning down and you could only carry 5 things out (besides your family of course), what would you take?

Tough question. I think the Green and Yellow Wedge singlefin would be top of the list, My Linhof rangefinders would be next, then my Leica and hasselblad after that I would have to grab my favorite shortboard.

And which one would that be?

My favorite shortboard is probably my Rocket Nine Channel Islands right now, but that changes every three or four months. It’s a 5’9 swallow tail you can do twin fin with a trailer fin or thruster, it’s awesome.

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, sage advice for aspiring surf photogs out there?

Young photographers should work really hard on creating their own style and feel. The most successful surf photographers over the past few years have come along with a fresh take on surfing and the surf lifestyle. And with the constant bombardment of imagery these days, something new always stands out and is going to get attention.

/ Photography and Interview by Ron Thompson

For more of Grant’s work, check out the bible of the sport here:

Surfer Magazine

Also, check out Julie’s handmade bags here:

RAIS CASE

See more Surf Shacks here.

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