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Photos: Derek Dunfee’s Heavy-Water Perspectives

A look at the San Diego charger's work on the other side of the lens

Posting up on a surfboard just wide of impact zone at Mavericks to take a photo may seem crazy, but when you’re used to throwing yourself over the Mavericks ledge on macking winter swells, “crazy” becomes a relative term. Derek Dunfee is known as being one of the hardest-charging big-wave riders to come from San Diego, but in the aftermath of his career as a sponsored surfer, Dunfee has split his focus between capturing monstrous waves and rushing those same waves himself. Regardless of which side of the lens he finds himself, Dunfee says the danger, the thrill and the satisfaction of having everything come together in a critical moment is much the same.

Have you always shot photos or did that only start recently?

Ever since I was a kid, I would bring disposable cameras with me wherever I went, and over time, I got better equipment. My brother went to photography school, I was able to ask him questions to help me figure it all out. Photography takes a long time to learn. For a long time, I was focusing on shooting different types of film and not really sharing it with many people. Recently, I upgraded to a high-level Canon camera and got a water housing. So I've definitely started taking it more seriously lately.

What made you decide to start putting your work out there and making these Dekka zines?

Part of it was that I got a real bad concussion from surfing big Cloudbreak in 2012 and I was worried that I was losing my mind—I felt like I couldn't remember things as clearly. Since I'd already been shooting photos for a long time, I figured it would help me remember these trips and experiences to put something together. The name "Dekka" came from this Aussie big-wave surfer named Gary Hughes who just started calling me that. But yeah, just keeping those memories was the big motivator for me to start going through all the film and hard drives and picking the best moments. Dekka Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were about a decade's worth of big-wave photography, and I just finished Vol. 3, which is more recent stuff shot on my new equipment.

Do you think that your experience surfing big waves affects your approach to shooting them?

Yeah, definitely. There's a lot of different points of view I've had surfing that I now try to capture with my camera. I've tried this new approach of shooting big waves off my surfboard, which I did last winter. Up at Mavericks, I packed up my water housing in a backpack and paddled from the beach through the big surf and out to the lineup. It was pretty hectic and I almost didn't make it out. But once I was in the lineup, I felt way more in control having my board as opposed to just swimming, and you're not getting dragged around as much by currents. Sometimes on big sets I still get caught on the corner and have to dive off and swim through while holding onto my water housing. But the whole goal is to be right there on that corner to get the most critical photo. I feel like my big-wave surfing experience has helped me when swimming at Puerto Escondido, too. I just feel really familiar with the way the waves break and the currents and everything. I feel comfortable.

Is there a similar sense of danger and reward in those situations compared to actually surfing?

Yeah, that's the thing I love about being out in heavy conditions. It's always a personal challenge whether I'm surfing or shooting. Plus, big-wave spots are getting so crowded now, making it more difficult to catch waves. So when the crowd gets frustrating, I'll just grab my water housing, swim out and still feel really stoked just seeing my friends getting good waves and trying to document that. If I see someone get a really good wave and I'm in the spot to get a good shot, I get an adrenaline rush just like surfing those waves myself. But I like to go back and forth. I'll literally just stay out there all day and hand off my camera to someone in a boat or on a ski when I want to surf.

So where can people find Dekka Vol. 3, and what are you going to start working on next?

I have my first show September 23rd at T.F.R. gallery in Leucadia [in Encinitas, CA]. I'm really excited to share the work with everyone. And I'm already working on Dekka Vol. 4. I've learned so much from the last few zines that I've made, and I'm figuring out where I want to take my photography. I went down to Puerto Escondido for the Puerto Challenge with Kai Lenny, who ended up winning the event, so I'm going to start Vol. 4 with some imagery from that and then see where things go now through the end of winter. This winter, I have plans to go to Nazaré, where I want to try to shoot from the water. I'm also planning on going to Jaws and shooting from the water there. I just want to shoot, keep pushing my photography.