Clark Little: Diving Into the Digital Wave
What’s a niche adventure photographer to do when social media and technology create the perfect environment for copycats? In the case of North Shore wave photographer Clark Little, put down the coffee, assess the mayhem, and then dive right in.
To some photographers, the sudden explosion of image sharing on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram must have seemed as scary and messy as the giant, three-lipped, waves that rare up and smash Oahu’s North Shore in winter.
By 2010, a lot of shooters were already being asked to do more for less—video shorts, online galleries, and behind-the-scenes narratives. The new platforms meant more work, with no direct payoff. Some photographers understandably saw a threat.
Clark Little saw an opportunity. He had already made a career out of jumping into mutant waves and coming out with pretty pictures. He dove into the digital mess and came out with a clean strategy—sharing those things that he loved. He posted photos of his favorite waves, videos of himself at work, pictures near his home on the North Shore, and, eventually, he started offering compliments for others shooting shorebreak. Now he has 700,000 followers and counting on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Early on a fall morning, I sat down with Little in the shade of some ironwood trees on Oahu’s North Shore. Small three-foot rollers lapped the coast, a light wind blew, and a homeless person slept under a camouflage tarp fifteen feet away. Everything was calm, except for Little’s iPhone. Every time he pulled it out of his pocket to show me a picture, the phone registered dozens of likes, follows, and comments. I wanted to find out how the 44-year-old lensman’s social media strategy is evolving, and learn more about his newest professional project, a good, old-fashioned photo book, Shorebreak.
OUTSIDE: How have things changed since you started?
LITTLE: When I started seven years ago, there were always people shooting Pipeline and other waves, but as far as someone just shooting shorebreak? I was the only one doing it 110 percent every day. I didn’t know I was going to get into it as a career because I was still learning the camera. I was in these big barrels and I thought, “How fun and exciting; you’re getting exercise and are able to be in the moment.” Then I put my pictures up on the screen and I was able to look at the moments again. It was addicting. I can see how all of these people are right behind me doing the same thing and just loving it. I can see the passion in their eyes. I know where they’re coming from. I don’t blame anybody.
In the beginning I was kind of like, “Oh no, people are trying to follow what I am doing, ” Of course, I was trying to be protective. Now, I’m kind of like, “You know, there are just so many people. Let’s embrace it instead of trying to fight it.” I mean, if the waves are perfect and a guy goes in front of me and doesn’t know better, I’ll tell him, “I’m trying to shoot into the sun there.” And 99 percent of the time he’ll go, “Oh, thanks.” On a bigger day it will be less crowded. I don’t know what it will be like this year, but every year so far the number of people has doubled. So, we’ll see.
How many people would you estimate go out now?
It depends on the size of the waves, but on a smaller, clean, perfect day? Geez, I’ve seen probably 20 or 30 at some spots. Where as a few years before you would have just one or two guys starting out. Seven years ago, there would have been nobody.
How is your new book is different from your first book?
There are a lot more locations. We’ve got Japan, California, and the outer islands in there, meaning Maui, Kauai, the Big Island. It’s a mixture, but it’s still mostly the North Shore. It’s a smaller book—10×10 with fewer pages—but it’s got some gnarly stuff. Of course, a lot of its images have been on social media, and I can get a good gage from that. There are also some images that are very special to me that I put in there.
Did you use social media to test what images went in the book?
I definitely did. If they’re hot, they’re hot. If they’re not, they’re not. Everybody has their own eye. I have my own eye. And I share images with my wife, my son, my daughter, my dad—all of my family and my friends—to see what they think too. I like to get other people’s opinions. And I want people to enjoy the book, so I want the photos in there that have had mad reviews on Facebook or Instagram
So do you look at the likes or the comments? I see some photos get 30,000 or 40,000 likes.
No so much the likes, because there are a lot and they fluctuate. I often go more by the comments. I sometimes get between 200 and 2,000. I try to respond sometimes and tell people thank you and answer some questions. It just depends whether I’m at my son’s baseball game or my daughter’s soccer game or whether I have some time alone at home. Social media is so big now. If I want to keep up with it, it can almost be a conflict at home.
Do you feel pressure to be on social media?
Well, if I’m in the mood and it feels fun, then I’m on there and going back and forth. I’ll talk story for as much as I can with people. But if I’m not in the mood, maybe I’ll just post one photo. I have to ask myself, “OK what’s my mojo today?” If I’m feeling good and I want to strike, then I’ll be on it. That’s the key, because people can tell. It’s funny how feelings, how momentum, can come across on social media. You do want to be real.
So you don’t have to be snarky? You can be sincere and get a good reaction?
You definitely can be sincere. There’s no question. And you’re always going to get haters. That’s a big part of it too. And you have to try and put out the fires. If you don’t, you’re going to have a number of people talking smack.
What kind of smack will people talk with you?
You’ll just get guys that will just straight out say something to get your goat. They just want to fish. They say this sucks or screw this. They’ll even talk about your kid. They’ll say anything. A lot of it doesn’t really bother me. And I’m not one that’s going to start a fight because you can’t win. It would just keep going on. I just use the block tool if it gets to that point.
I choose to focus on myself, focus on my images, and focus on what I do. Every once in a while I get sucked into something, but in general, I try to stay positive and share the beauty with the world. A lot of people appreciate that. I’m stoked to see guys that say, “Yeah, you inspire me to shoot.” Sometimes I even get some guys that I’m fans of, like Shane Victorino, commenting. I don’t know the guy, but we’re going back and forth over social media. Kelly Slater, he’s my friend, but it’s the same thing, we go back and forth. It was funny. Back in the day, when I first started and had 5,000 followers, I said to Slater, “If you want you could give one of my waves a shot out?” He said, “No problem.” A week later he went out and said Clark Little has some of the best wave photos on Instagram, and boom, all of a sudden I had 10,000 to 20,000 new followers. He shared an image that’s in the new book.
And now you’re climbing so fast with followers, soon Kelly Slater will be asking you for promotion on social media?
Ha…. I doubt that, but I love the guy. He’s honestly my favorite surfer. I’ve known him ever since he was a kid and coming to the North Shore of Oahu. He’s always been supportive. I know it changes momentum if somebody huge like Kelly Slater gives you a shout. It was fun because he’s a legend.
Is there an image that you’ve been surprised at the number of likes and comments?
Oh, for sure. There was one with just a turtle coming up for air. The head was drawn back in the original picture and I zoomed in when I shared it. It just went berserk. It was something like 1500 comments in three hours. I didn’t expect it, but different people have their own creative eye. I didn’t even have a watermark on it. I just thought, this is kind of cool and put it up. You just don’t know.
Some videos recently I’ve put up of me shooting the shorebreak have gotten some huge responses. I was kind of happy to see that people appreciated me taking some hits from waves to get the shot. Like a seasoned surfer, shorebreak photographers might make a bystander think their craft is easy, but both take a lot of ocean knowledge and experience. You need to know what you are doing. You still get cracks and beat up sometimes to get the shot. Most of the time I enjoy getting tumbled.
Tell me about the physical aspect of your job.
Talk about being healthy. In the winter, when it is firing, I’ll go out anywhere from three to six hours in two sessions. I will lose up to 15 pounds during the season. I don’t have time for anything but being out there and running down on the shore or swimming in the shorebreak. It’s almost a sport. You have to be an athlete and a photographer. You have to be in shape and know the ocean, especially when it’s bigger and gnarly. To get that heavy, big, five-lip shot, you got to put yourself in some heavy situations.
How has your photography changed in the last three years?
I’m still doing my thing here, but I’ve gone on a few trips—to Tahiti for Apple computer and other odds and ends. I’ve also gone out here with tiger sharks, to swim freely with them without a cage. It’s up to you on how close you want to get, but it’s just rad. I love to get the great shot, but I don’t want to get grinded. You’re looking at the shark, and he’s looking at you. Sometimes they give you a good vibe and they just circle around, but I’ve had one tweak and look at me. Then I was like, “OK, I’m done.” I got out of the water.
How big were the sharks?
There were two, and the guy that took me said they haven’t seen them here the whole year. So I was lucky enough to shoot with them. One was ten to twelve feet. One was a smaller one, maybe eight feet.
I saw the black and white photo.
Yeah, it was a really cool experience. I respect them. I won’t be cocky at all when it comes to those creatures. It’s their home and I try to be as mellow as I can when I’m out there. Of course I was stressing while I was out there, and the guy who took me said, “Yeah, they can pick up your heart beating.” I was like, “Oh sheez, well then I really have to remember to take a breath.” I guess no matter what, if you put yourself out there with them with no cage, anything can happen. That is part of the excitement.
How close were you?
Probably at the closest five feet, which is at the point when they come up and then turn their head. They’ll get real close, but I’m not one to shove my camera into their teeth. You just kind of feel it out. That was a very cool experience that I won’t ever forget. I might go again if it’s a variable day and there are glassy conditions, because you get these reflections on the top of the water. I want to see if I can get a real tack sharp picture, because people have been coming into the gallery often and asking about the picture of the shark. [61,000 Likes, 1400 Comments]
Wait, so do you get orders right after you post to Instagram?
Yeah, I’ll put up an image quick on my phone, and people ask, “Can I purchase it?” The gallery starts getting calls. It’s amazing what Instagram can do. It’s a positive thing. I mean, these posts can go anywhere in the world. When we put photos up on Instagram and Facebook at the same time, the Website server kicks into overdrive to handle the traffic spike.
Has there been a photo that you thought would do really well that hasn’t?
There’s a handful of them. I can’t think of a single one. I’d have to look at my phone. Here, let’s see…
This shot to me is really nice. It’s a clean, big, kicking shore break and it didn’t even get 100 comments. So that’s one where I was shocked. Then again, you look back and say, I’ve taken tons of shots like that. So I understand.
This is a picture of my calabash niece, and people harassed her in the comments. It’s like, What? She’s 14 years old. She won the ISA Longboard Championships in Peru against men and junior champions. All some people could do is compare her to Miley Cyrus. So I had to put out the fires for three hours. That was a trippy thing.
I took this picture at “The Wedge,” in Newport Beach. If you’re talking about using Instagram as a tool, all I did was one thing. All of the groms had been asking me, “When are you coming to California?” I was in California because Hurley had donated some shirts for Waves for Water and we had one more day and I thought we could try something. The guy from Hurley said, “You know what, let’s just do it.” I said, “OK, I’m going to be here at 5 o’clock and let’s invite the groms. We’ll talk story and jump in the water.” It was the coolest thing. Hundreds of grommets showed up with their little GoPros and questions. That was one of the gnarliest moments of my career. It was chaos—almost too much.
Do you have a shot you really want?
The sharks are something new and different that I’ve never done. I want to get out there and get different things. The ocean is definitely my second home and it’s where I want to be, whether it’s shooting turtles, sharks, dolphins, big shorebreak, small shorebreak, clean little barrels, backs of the waves. There’s so much, but I do just want that perfect wave. I’m always going to strive for a better wave that has a better arc or the sun is in a better spot. I’m always pushing it in the ocean and having fun. I don’t feel like I have to go out and shoot. I feel like I can’t wait to go out and shoot. I want to keep that stoke. If I lose that drive, then I’ll relook at things. But right now, I still have it. I still am excited and happy, like a kid at a candy store, waiting for the perfect shorebreak wave to come up. When it gets to that size where it’s gnarly and you’re screaming “Go, Go, Go,” and there are 15-foot faces? That’s what I want. Then sharing that with people, whether it’s through social media or my gallery, because I want to allow people to go, “Oh that’s cool,” as if they’re with me in that moment.
Some of the negative comments say things like, “Clark Little only shoots one thing.” But it seems like you’ve been rewarded for shooting one thing?
Yeah, it’s so trippy. As I watch some other popular Instagram or Facebook sites, I see they gather their content from various artists and photographers. My Instagram and Facebook showcase photographs just from me. It’s original content. I’m proud of Hawaii as a beautiful place. I get to capture the beauty of the North Shore and these people here back me up because they love Hawaii too. This is a special place in the world.
Do you think there is something to be said for developing one skill in one place?
Yes. I’m overwhelmed at the positive feedback. I saw more of that negativity in the beginning. I haven’t heard that as much now. Some people, I don’t know, maybe they move on. It’s such a simple thing. Either you enjoy it or you don’t.
And even I see beautiful stuff out there where I go, “Wow, I like it. I’m impressed.” The kids have GoPros and are getting great shots. I’m like, “Wow, that is pretty cool.” It’s neat to give back and see the kids get all psyched after I write a comment.
I am happy to be a shorebreak photographer. That’s my love. That’s my core. That’s where I started. I’ve always loved sharing it with the world in a positive way. I’m just grateful that I get to do it, and that there’s so many people that just appreciate the power and beauty of it.