Photo: Glasson
Photo: Glasson

Staring Down Fear

18-year-old photographer Shannon Glasson is unflappable in the world's heaviest waves

What does it mean to be fearless? 18-year-old Australian photographer Shannon Glasson could tell you: Glasson was born with Congenital Talipes Equinovarus (CTEV) and Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), two rare genetic conditions that haven’t stopped her from thriving in the field of big-wave surf photography.

Congenital Talipes Equinovarus, also known as Club Foot, essentially meant that Glasson was born with her legs facing backwards, which, according to the orthopedics branch of Nationwide Children's Hospital, occurs in about 1 of every 1,000 births. "The doctors told my parents I might never be able to walk," Shannon explained last week as we sat across from the Vans US Open of Surfing.

Glasson was taught to swim at just 3 months of age, well before she was ever walking. She took to the water like a natural despite her difficulties on land. After several extensive surgeries and treatments, Glasson overcame the odds and learned to walk at around 4 years old. But it didn't come easily.

Shannon Glasson. Photo: Keelan

"Swimming for me was like walking for most people, and walking to me was like swimming to people who have never seen water," Glasson says. Fast-forward thirteen years, and Glasson was trotting along just like everyone else, though she held onto that innate swimming ability.

The Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia is what's made Glasson's dedication to big-wave surf photography, which she developed at the early age of 14, particularly interesting. This genetic condition affects the adrenal glands, and inhibits her body from producing enzymes that enable her to feel fear. It's significantly rarer than Congenital Talipes Equinovarus, occurring in about 1 of every 15,000 births, according to the National Organization for Rare Diseases.

This condition has essentially rendered her fearless, and it's why she willingly enters into some pretty hairy situations at spots like Cape Fear, Shark Island, and other heavy slabs down under. "If I didn't have my condition, I don't think I'd be doing it," Glasson laughs. “My thought process is just, 'Let's go.'"

That mentality has Glasson swimming out on heavy days in pitch-black darkness, before the sun has risen. "If the waves are pumping, the waves are pumping. I'm going out," Glasson explains. "For me, it's all about having an image that shows the emotion in the water. It's about what I'm going to come in with."

“Illumination.” Photo: Glasson

Even though Glasson can't feel fear, it doesn't stop the people around from sizing up her situations and getting nervous for her. "Oh, it horrifies Mom," Shannon laughs. "But Dad's pretty cool with it."

Glasson's courage even inspired World Tour surfer Sally Fitzgibbons to paddle out on an especially heavy tow-in day at Cape Fear, where the two first met.

"My dad and I were checking out where the surfers were jumping in, and we were envisaging where I'd get out if the jet ski couldn't get to me," Fitzgibbons recalls. "I noticed a female photographer stepping down toward the jump-off spot, and thought to myself, 'If she's game, I'm game.'"

Glasson remembers meeting Sally that morning and not even considering that they'd be out together. Glasson could tell that Fitzgibbons was shocked to see another girl in the water.

The surprise was mutual. Glasson doesn't usually shoot with other women, mostly because it's hard to find female surfers who are up to the challenge of charging waves of consequence, both as photographers and surfers. "I just want to shoot big waves," Glasson explains, "Women have to compete with the boys to get noticed."

For being the first female surfer whom Glasson photographed, Fitzgibbons delivered, catching three of the biggest waves that day. And Glasson also left quite the impression on her. "I so admire Shannon for her bravery in shooting at spots like Cape Fear. Not only is this a heavy spot to surf, but the photographers who are not on jet skis take real risks getting in and out of the water," Fitzgibbons says.

Sally Fitzgibbons. Photo: Glasson

Shooting waves of consequence has become Shannon's creative motif. "I look at this, at Huntington, and my drive to get in the water is light and landscape," Shannon said as we sat at Duke's, overlooking the event. For the Aussie photographer who shoots sunrises, getting the chance to shoot sunsets has been an exciting new opportunity during her time in California.

Glasson is currently spending six weeks in the United States, presenting her art in the Huntington Beach Art Exhibit, "Women of Surfing: Art & History." It's her first international exhibit, and her longest trip away from home, but Glasson's not homesick just yet. Her mother has sent over a few care packages with some Aussie essentials -Chicken Salt, Vegemite, Tim Tam, and Milo- to help her cope with her Northern Hemisphere travels. "I just want to give a huge thanks to Phil [Roberts] for having me over, and to my American family, the Poissons, for making my stay possible," Shannon says. "It's been incredible to be here and have my work next to Sachi [Cunningham] and Courtney [Conlogue]."

After avoiding the crowds at the Vans US Open of Surfing, Glasson is rounding out her stay in California by attending a few Angels baseball games, and, true to form, shooting The Wedge.

“Polar Express.” Photo: Glasson