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Surf Shacks 035 – Zak Bush

Despite the whole notion of localism, I believe surfers are nomads by nature. We are not defined by the home in which we live, but rather our experiences out in the world, and maybe some physical mementos of those experiences that help us tell our stories. Zak Bush lives in a quiet and cozy, Lebowski-esque bungalow in the heart of Venice. What he stores in his low-key bohemian pad are precious artifacts that all have a story from his travels or his creative endeavors. Whether it is a crusty fin from the reef at Pipeline given to him by Mark Cunningham himself on his 60th birthday. Or handcrafted family heirlooms made from reindeer bones by his Swedish ancestors. Or a huge map of Eastern Canada with all the best surf spots drawn out. These are the things that we consider precious and dear to our hearts. A “surf shack” is not a specific type of architecture or interior design style, it is a reflection of a surfer’s lifestyle where they call home. Zak lives a creatively driven, nomadic lifestyle and his home is a true reflection of his character. We recently paid Zak a visit to talk story, pry some secret Nova Scotia surf locations outta him, and to hear more about what it’s like working for Kelly Slater’s Outerknown brand.

Who are you? Tell us a little about yourself.

There’s so much I could say but let’s keep it simple. I’m a photographer first, then a dyslexic writer and creative (but who isn’t these days?). My friends and family have made me who I am. They taught me how to take photos, they’ve taken me into their homes all over the world and lead me on some great journeys, they’ve shown me what great design looks like, and they’ve taught me how to tell a compelling story. I’m originally from Toronto, I moved to Halifax as a teenager, which was followed by a few nomadic years that eventually landed me in NYC.

What do you do for a living?

Right now my official title is the Senior Content Editor at Outerknown. There I basically work with a team to tell the story of the brand through different mediums. I also still do the odd freelance job, but these days it has to be something extra compelling. Outerknown is just a year old and is taking the majority of my bandwidth.

When and why did you move to Venice from NYC?

When I first moved to New York, I didn’t think I’d last more than a year living there. Naively, I didn’t understand what a great city it is. Growing up in Toronto (which is the biggest city in Canada), all I ever wanted to do was to get out of an urban environment and into nature. The move to Halifax in my teens was really just a way to run from Toronto. Years later, when I started getting some traction as a photographer, I didn’t see a career path in rural eastern Canada. I knew if I wanted to keep learning and getting better I had to make a move. That move ended up being three years working with Saturdays NYC. Being there was a great experience and I truly ended up loving living in the city.

But to get to your question, I moved to LA just over a year ago. It was partially for a lifestyle change but I was also really inspired by the sustainable brand that the team at Outerknown had set out to create. In college I majored in International Development and Environmental Science. I chose that path out of interest more than anything else… I just wanted to learn. After working in the fashion industry for a few years it became really clear that things like environmental impact and worker’s rights should really be a frontline issue. For a lot of the industry that’s not the case.

That’s a sweet gig you landed, we truly love everything you guys are doing at Outerknown. What’s it like working closely with Kelly Slater?

Look, I’m a guy from Canada who basically learned how to surf in the middle of the winter, completely separated from the endemic surf market. I never thought I’d have the chance to work with a guy like Kelly. He’s a super inspiring person. We all know how intelligently he speaks about the technical aspects of surfing, but the best part of working with him is when we get talking about everything else that he cares about: food, the environment, music even photography – whatever the topic, he’s got a wealth of knowledge. There is literally no one else like him.

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

Venice is pretty great. I’m a few blocks away from the beach. I go down and surf or run in the mornings. I love that it feels like a small neighborhood. I think the sprawl of LA seems daunting to a lot of people, but I end up riding my bike everywhere, there’s a ton of great food and coffee.

What do you miss about NYC and the east coast in general?

I miss humidity, when I go back east and I get off the plane the air just feels better. But more importantly, I have a lot of great friends back east, between T.O., Halifax and NYC, there’s a lot of “ride or dies” who I wish I could see everyday.

Wow, you are the first person I’ve ever met who actually misses humidity!

You’ve shot a lot of different stuff in your career as a photographer: surfing, travel, lifestyle, studio work with clothing / fashion brands. What type of work do you enjoy the most?

There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from working to make a great studio photo, but for me the best thing is to travel and to be on location shooting somewhere. When I was shooting mainly freelance surf photos, I’d go somewhere on a moments notice and stay as long as I could. These days location shoots rarely last for more than 4 days. I still love them, but it would be great to do a trip just to shoot without a call sheet or an agenda again.

You also do a lot of writing and creative content in addition to working as a photographer. Do you see this as a growing trend in the industry overall – the need to be more of a creative swiss army knife versus a specialist?

My friend Walter Iooss is in his 70’s. He’s an amazing photographer and has lived through the drastic changes in the photo industry over the past few decades. I can’t say that I know what that was like for guys like him, but the way people consume media and interact with photography these days is literally changing the medium. The value of a photo is not what it used to be. For that reason it’s pretty key to be versatile.

What’s the story behind the image in Surfer’s Journal of the guy trekking with his luggage and board in the snow?

That’s the opening spread of a portfolio feature the Journal did on me in 2012. That’s Mike, he’s a friend in Halifax who hitch hikes all winter to go surf. I’d always seen him in the water and wanted to experience what a day with him was like. I met up with him one morning and hitched to the beach with him. It was probably close to 0 degrees. I can safely say that Mike is more passionate about surfing than I am.

Any favorite trip or shoot in particular over the years?

That’s hard to say, there have been so many great ones. I lived in a van for a year with my friend Scotty in New Zealand, I had a few pretty epic extended stays in Sumbawa, Indonesia. Then there was the 6 weeks that I lived in a gutted RV in Baja. I was in Japan with Kelly last year… That was an experience to say the least. This year I went down to Uruguay for a week, then had a few days in Sydney, Australia with Kelly and John (Moore), and followed that up with a week in Botswana with a team from Conde Nast Traveler. I really need to get back to Uruguay. I didn’t get to see enough. And Africa is another world – I didn’t get to see nearly enough there either.

You have a lot of family heirlooms, old cameras and old prints here in your home. If your house were burning down and you could only carry 5 things out, what would you take?

Easy. The camera bag with my great aunt’s Leica M6 and my great uncle’s Rolleiflex would definitely be number one. Two and three would be the knife and the cufflinks that my Swedish grandfather made out of reindeer bone, pewter and birch. Four would be that wooden box on my dresser. That was my Dad’s. It has some of his things in it. He passed away last year. Five would be the red blanket on my bed that was made by Sami, they’re the indigenous nomadic people in northern Scandinavia where my Mom is from.

Any parting thoughts, words of wisdom, sage advice for photographers out there trying to make it these days?

Photography is in a really interesting place right now. I would just say make photos that you truly love, not ones that will get the most likes on Instagram.

/ Photography & Interview by Matt Titone

See more of Zak’s photography here:

Zak Bush

Check out more Surf Shacks here.

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