In a 2016 interview, Sean Doherty asked Taj Burrow if, 18 years after he qualified for the World Tour, that Yallingup grommet still kicks around inside of him. “We’re pretty similar, I reckon,” Taj answered. “No one ever really grows up that much, do they?”
Photographer John Respondek’s new photo essay, titled “Taj. By Respondek,” tracks the career of one of surfing’s most beloved characters. Taj’s identity has stayed true to its roots nearly two decades after he burst onto the scene. “Not much has changed with his surfing style,” Respondek told us when he visited the SURFER office last week, dropping off the beautiful powder-blue print books for the staff. “I supposed most of what's changed are the outfits he's worn and the haircuts he’d had. They were pretty weird back in the day. So were mine [Laughs]. I think his surfing stayed pretty on point the whole time, though. He hasn't altered it much to suit anyone. He’s just ripped as hard has he could.”
The book is now available for purchase on Respondek’s website. It’s Part II of a series of photo essays from Respondek’s archive (the first book, on Dion Agius, was released in March), with 120 pages of Taj imagery from the pair’s travels, including shots from Fiji, Panama, Indo, and Mexico. The collaboration between Respondek and Taj, two longtime mates, is a photographic invitation into their 15-year friendship, and into a storied surf career that took off, and never grew up.
We sat down with Respondek and asked him more about the project, his career, his close bond with Taj, and more.
What brought about the idea for the series?
I shoot with a pretty select crew most of the time. People come and go, and I'll do shoots with other people, but there are surfers like Taj, Dion, Craig [Anderson], Ozzie [Wright] — they're the ones I work with over and over again because we're such good mates and we like traveling together. It's led me to have such a big archive of these guys. But it feels like the photos disappear into thin air sometimes, when they appear in a mag. Six months later, it's forgotten. I wanted to catalog and record it all into one tangible collection for these guys, so I brainstormed a print project with Dion at first. It steamrolled from there, and Dion and I enjoyed the process more and more as we got into it.
When Dion’s book came out, he was quoted as saying that flipping through it was like a 'moment piece' for him, looking back at specific memories from your time together. Do you feel the same way about Taj’s book?
Yeah, 100 percent. Trips upon trips upon trips. The good times come back to you, and all the funny nights out. Plus, the creation of it all brought distinct memories. I always appreciate getting run in editorial, in all the mags. But sometimes, as a photographer with your art, you're not completely satisfied with how it was presented - what photos got picked, how they cropped them, how they came out of Photoshop. It felt good to take that control.
You've talked about how freelancing is your way to control the process and ensure that your vision stays intact. In a lot of ways, this is like your own magazine. It's a book, but you shaped everything about it. How has that felt to have every single preference appear on the page?
It feels insane to control every step, from the photo selection onward. There are tens of thousands of photos of Taj I've taken —
How many photos are in the book?
F--k. There'd have to be 300 or so in there, including the sequences. Out of the thousands [Laughs].
How long did that take to sift through all of them?
It took forever. I was treating it as a full-time job at one point, working from 9 to 5 in my home office. It took maybe five or six weeks to go through all the photos. My photo files aren't the most organized [Laughs]. I also had to go through the film. My film photos are an absolute shit show. There's stuff everywhere. I couldn't find heaps of ones, and who knows where those are. But it was over a month of good, proper photo editing, and that was before I even got into the design of the book.
What was it like asking for Taj’s input with his mini essays?
First of all, I thought it was awesome that he handwrote them, to give it a personal touch. I think Taj is such a loved icon, and I thought the readers would appreciate that personal quality. Working with Taj was rad. I was happy with how into it he was, and how good he wanted to make it. When I did the Dion book, I knew how I wanted it to turn out, but no one else did. But when I showed Taj the Dion book, I could see how excited he was to make it rad. He had some voice in the photo selection, too. He picked out a couple of his favorites through the years and would email them to me.
It's neat you included a one-on-one interview with Mick about Taj.
In the Dion book, I had Ozzie Wright and Creed McTaggart contribute with their artwork. I wanted to talk with Mick because they've become such great pals over the last few years, and they have a rich history with their competitiveness. I was at Taj's last event in Fiji, where Mick was kind of running the show. It was perfect to team up and interview him.
Is there a photo in here that makes you stop and pause longer than the others?
It's funny you say that. That Fiji one back there [Flips the pages back] wasn’t originally going to be in the book. Yeah, this one here [Turns to image featured below]. Taj sent it through to me and told me, 'I love this one so much.' Now, every time I see it, I stop on it and think to myself, 'That's pretty nuts, isn't it?'
Do you fly a drone?
No. I hate them.
Because I have to ask about the chopper shots.
I hate drones so much.
What about them?
I hate everything about them [Laughs]. One, because, way before drones, I always loved shooting from the choppers. I still do. It's so special to get that perspective. The first time I did it felt like so long ago, in 2002 in Indonesia. But it's my favorite, I love it so much. Drones took away the specialness of the chopper for me. I mean, you can't blame them. They do their thing. But I still hate them [Laughs]. You still can't beat proper stills from a photographer up there, compared to the stills from a drone, in my opinion.
When you think of Taj, are there individual words that come to mind?
[Pauses] Obviously, 'Fun' is one. It's a word that keeps coming up when anyone talks about Taj. You can see that in his surfing and in his personality. There's always been a lot of flair in his surfing, so 'flair' is another.
You're continuing the series. When can we expect the next book to drop?
This one with Taj just came out, and I'm still trying to get it some play. It's hard to get the word out, especially in America. Craig's already reached out to me and said that he wants to do the next one. There are a lot of things that will affect when it could happen, but it’ll hopefully be relased by early next year.
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