Interview by Brendan Richards
This story first appeared in The Kiteboarder Magazine’s Spring 2016 Issue: Volume 13, No. 1
In this digital age, the state of action sports photography is under attack. The technology convergence seen first through the affordable DSLR camera combined with the iPhone and GoPro and then bombarded by the widespread acceptance of the selfie as documentation rather than self-indulgence has made the visual space a giant compilation of mediocrity. Throw in social media and Instagram and the lines get blurrier; the subject becomes the photographer and the photographer transforms into both subject and celebrity. We aspire to be both the acclaimed athlete as well as the photo credit byline for the awe-inspiring eye candy. Despite this brave, new, yet often disappointing pictorial world, there remains but a few talented old guards, quietly and silently documenting the extraordinary images and print-worthy photographs that inspire and transform our perspectives. Behind the scenes, through the lens and always humbly and contently taking credit in the margin’s fine print is kiteboarding’s most prodigious photographer, Toby Bromwich.
If you haven’t heard that name, I wouldn’t be surprised; but for those who have, here’s the unrivaled rendition of kiteboarding’s mild mannered yet devilishly charming Englishman from Her Majesty’s Isle of Wight. In the last 16 years, Toby has labored and left his mark on every inch of the kiteboarding industry’s turf. From kite instructor to board builder, to contest judge and magazine and event production, Toby is one of the unknown scions of the kite world. With a vast understanding of the inner workings of the industry, he now keeps a dominant hand on the camera, rapidly raising the level of the image-making métier.
Those who know Toby well are quick to celebrate his ample achievements. As professional kiteboarder Craig Cunningham puts it, “Toby is arguably the best and most published photographer in the game. He never misses the shot.” And on the personal front, Craig lays it out, “Toby is also one of the most positive and kind people in the industry.” According to photographer Lance Koudele, “Toby is one of the most technically correct photographers out there. He works super hard to set up a shot and coach the riders precisely where to be in position with regards to the composition he wants. The rest is up to Toby’s impeccable timing and intimate knowledge of the tricks themselves.”
Toby has earned the unique distinction of the few photographers who have been able to make a living off of kiteboarding without the interference of weddings and mainstream commercial work. This difference is testament to his dedication, work ethic, creative skills and ability to deliver only the highest quality results. While many of the creatives surrounding the kite industry have one foot in at best, Toby is firmly planted in the photographic institution of kiteboarding, bringing precision skills to the table for the ultimate outcome.
You began fairly early in kiteboarding. How did you get your start?
I grew up on a small island — the Isle of Wight, off of the southern coast of England. My parents got me my first mountain bike when I was 10 and that was my first passion. I started racing; first it was cross-country and then when I was 15, downhill started coming in. We didn’t have suspension and the courses were just grass fields with some tape, but by the time I was 16, I was working as a bike mechanic in our local bike shop. Wight was kind of a small place; the bike store was also a windsurfing shop and it was a fun scene and a cool place to work when I wasn’t in school. When kitesurfing came in, none of the guys wanted to try it because they were hardcore windsurfers. The shop stocked land kites and I learned landboarding with my friend Chris Burke. The shop wanted us to learn the water-side so they could sell it, but we weren’t sure we wanted to pump up kites and go in the water; it’s pretty cold there. Chris, who eventually made it pro, had gotten too many concussions from trying backrolls on his landboard — back then that was mental — he was the one pushing for us to go on the water. I learned in the water pretty quick and then I got my instructor’s certificate and planned a trip to Cabarete, Dominican Republic. I went there without a job and I landed in Ali’s Kite Camp; it was a big camp where everybody first went when they came into town. From there I landed a job, got a moped and a girlfriend, and that became my scene for a couple of years.
Given your gentile English and patient laid-back personality, you seem like you would be a lifelong instructor. How did you make the transition into photography?
Well, it actually started with board building. Back in the day, shapers were building kiteboards like surfboards; you’d do one big jump and you’d snap your board. I came from snowboarding where you’re landing off of kickers every day and they just take it. My dad was an industrial designer and we had a workshop at home. I started looking into building boards the way snowboards were built. I started with a Formica foam core like Divinycell and used a hot glue gun on the rails — my first ones were pretty ghetto. I wanted to make them better so I started using a wood core and I bought a huge sheet of PBT to do sublimated graphics. I had a photo that I took in New York’s Times Square of a mustard yellow taxicab. It was pretty distinctive so I used that. I built boards for my friend Alex Soto and some of the other Dominican boys. At the time, everyone thought that the designs were weird, but I think Alex Soto never broke one, at least I don’t think he did; it’s probably still floating around somewhere.
I bought a cheap camera to take photos of Alex on my board to build a website. I remember some French photographer in Cabarete named Raul or Ralph or something. He was impressed with the shots and even more so when I told him I did it on a cheap Pentax. I spent that next summer in Hood River and took some shots of Jon Malmberg and Brian Wheeler and then my friend Dan Anderson invited me out to Perth, Australia. In Perth I took a photo of Dan; he was the grom for North Kiteboarding back then, and I submitted it to KitesurfUK hoping to get into the reader’s gallery. The editor at the time was Rou Chater and he ran it as a double page. Later that month I got a check through the mail and it was a total surprise. A month after that, Rou had passed my name onto a US magazine editor for SBC [Editor’s Note: RIP] who bought some images. That summer I was back in the Dominican. The Naish guys had had bad wind in Maui and were looking for shots. Rou forwarded them to me; it was Ben Meyer and Kevin Langeree on the team back then. They hired me for three days and we did quite a lot. They got three covers and a lot of exposure out of those shoots, so I guess I kind of worked for a brand for the first year and that’s how it started.
Did you have any formal education in photography?
I didn’t study photography; I found what I love doing by accident. I did my A-levels; basically you finish high school when you’re 18 and then you go to university. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do so I chose computer animation, which is cool, but at the end of the day, you’re still kind of sitting in front of a computer. After three years of computer animation, I got an offer to work for a company that made games for PlayStation, but it was located in the middle of England. I just wasn’t sure, so I took a year off to think about it and that was that.
So you got your first commercial gigs but then ended up as the lead photographer for the PKRA. How did that happen?
The first year I watched the tour and the second year I began to take photos; but it was a little more complicated than that. Back in Cabarete, one of my first roommates was Julien Kidd. At the time, he was one of the judges and asked the tour organizer, Mauricio, if they needed a photographer. It turned out they already had someone but they did need a judge at the Coche stop in Venezuela. I got booked for one event as a judge; I guess I did pretty well because I got signed on for most of the events that year. Straight off the bat I was trying to judge and take photos at the same time. I would judge a heat and then run down to the beach and try to shoot photos.
As a judge — you have an opinion on things, things you like and don’t like. Back then it wasn’t a point system. Instead, judges would have three minutes to write down tricks and make a decision why they gave it to a rider. As the years have gone on, there’s less leeway for interpretation, but back then, sometimes it would get personal; the score you gave a competitor could be the difference between making it to the next event or not. I would just score someone’s heat and then I would turn around and ask if they wanted to shoot and they’d be like, “f*** you, you just eliminated me.” It was never personal but it was a bit tricky. At one stage, I was shooting with all the riders and most of their coverage was coming from me while I was still judging. I pushed to change it up and eventually they switched me from a judge to a photographer. The workload increased a lot, but I was more stoked. From there on out, my relationship with the riders improved significantly to say the least.
How does tour photography compare to commercial and magazine shoots?
I enjoyed judging; it was great, but photography is my love. I guess the thing is that competition photography is so different from a photo shoot. The tour goes to places where you barely have enough wind to finish a heat and back then, the competition box was much bigger, making it really hard to get all the shots. I probably put myself under pressure. I’m really competitive and I’m never content to just ride on my name. I want the shots I’m doing to be the best shots I’ve done. In competition it’s hard to get stuff that’s really good — you’re shooting in not great spots that are gusty and choppy and the riders aren’t jumping for you. You can try to set up some shots after a heat but now the tour has become so much more professional and the riders are much more focused on winning. I like shooting the raw intensity and capturing the emotions on the beach, but event photography was not doing my portfolio justice; you’re not shooting the light you want, the conditions are far from ideal and you have to shoot everyone. I had to have a photo of every rider everyday, but that conflicts with the fact that I want to be proud of putting my name on whatever shot goes out. I like the challenge and enjoy working with riders, but the commercial work for brands allows me to be more creative and choose when and where I shoot.
What are some of the skills you’ve learned in order to consistently deliver such high-quality work?
With kiting, you can never put anything off. Even if it is a slight chance, you need to have the skills to talk a rider into rigging up. Actually, some of the best shots I’ve taken have happened in the flukiest conditions — crap conditions that you would normally say “let’s just pack this up.” The guys I work with now seem to know that’s the case and they trust me. The first time I worked with Aaron Hadlow he was super skeptical; but it takes time to build up a relationship. Pro riders always have guys coming up promising to take a sick shot, but when you think about it, they only have so much energy for riding and you can’t ask them to do 20 front blind mobes in a row. As a professional photographer, I know what the brands need in terms of the product. I have the experience of knowing what the best angle for the shot might be and what the rider should do. When you’re on the same page as the rider it flows well. So with the riders that you work with more often, you don’t need to talk through it as much, you just know.
Somewhere along the way you found the time to start a magazine. Why would you ever do that?
Back then, the editors of magazines didn’t travel that much. Maybe that’s changed, but at the time, I was working a lot with Kiteworld and doing a lot of writing for SBC Kiteboard. I was on the tour with Julien and we’d watch Hadlow come up with new tricks all of the time. It seemed like the magazines didn’t want anything more than a front roll sequence. We were watching the hardcore stuff unfold right in front of us, yet we’d be lucky enough to occasionally get a gallery shot. A lot of good photos weren’t being seen.
Julien was good with websites, so we started the online side of Core Magazine and eventually went on to print. The concept behind Core was that we wanted to be more about the riders and the lifestyle and we didn’t want to do the equipment testing and all the other stuff. The main companies were keen on the idea, but when you got to the smaller brands, they would want the product stuff in return. We only did a couple of issues. It was building, but at the same time, my partner Julien was over the kiting scene. I kept pushing on and I was doing most aspects of the work even while I was on the tour. I was literally editing the magazine at people’s houses between tour stops. I remember staying with Ian Alldredge, shooting every day, doing videos and then editing the mag at his house at night. I was literally home in England maybe five weeks for a couple of years. I was traveling and really got to know more of the riders, like hanging out with Marc Jacobs in New Zealand or staying in Texas with Rocky Chatwell.
Core Magazine allowed me to be fully creative. But when we started the mag it was too extreme; maybe it needed to be toned down a bit to be more appealing to all the brands. It’s always a balance. On one hand it would be nice if you could do what you wanted, like a Thrasher or Stab style magazine — controversial and funny — but at the same time you need the brands and the average kiting audience to pay your bills. In the end, the thing that mattered the most was that I could pick up the magazine, have a read and be stoked.
What aspects of this sport are most interesting to you?
I enjoy all the aspects of it. I’m shooting a foilboarding event next month. I hope Bryan Lake goes; he’s great fun to be around. Otherwise course racing tends to be serious — you know, protesting and hiding their boards from each other. I’d love to shoot more with Ian Alldredge and probably do some special slider projects. Back in 2008 when I was living in Australia, I built some rails with Tom Court and Chris Burke, but when we put them in the water, the fishermen vandalized them and it turned out that it was really illegal. I tried to get the permits and it turns out you need to be approved by three government departments: the fisheries, conservation and the town council. It wasn’t easy but they eventually realized I wasn’t going to stop, and after some persistence, they gave us a one-day permit. We posted the day of our permit in the Seabreeze forum and before we knew it Clinton Bolton was flying in from South Africa and Tom Hebert from New Caledonia. All of sudden it was an event. I had put the Core Magazine logo on the rails and we took a ton of photos that went into the magazine; that set things in motion. The following year we ended up renting a rundown house in a nice subdivision. Some friends from Adelaide came down and we started welding rails in the front yard, like a huge 24 meter long rooftop, an up-flat-down flat, a kicker and C-rail.
Based off of the pictures we took that first year, everyone who wasn’t there thought it was this massive event that it really wasn’t. So the second year, everyone showed up: Sam Light, Dre, Susi Mai, Jesse Richman, Greg Norman, all the Triple-S guys, even Aaron Hadlow. I remember Alex Lewis-Hughes showed up for that second event. I don’t read forums but I knew he had pissed a lot of people off online. The first time I met Alex was with Ruben Lenten on the Gold Coast. Alex had been slating Ruben on the Internet so hard, but when we finally met the guy in person, he was super nice. Anyways, Alex came up for the second slider jam. I still had this thing about who is this guy and what is he all about. He invited himself to stay at our house and I wasn’t super amped on it at first, but it turns out once you get to know him, he’s a really sound guy.
The third year we did the Core Slider Jam it was me, Alex and Cam Press welding for five weeks to make even bigger rails. We made another massive rooftop, an incline rail and a wallride to bank section — these things weighed so much: full metal frames, wood and HDPE. I learned that it was tough running an event and it’s always easy for people to criticize, but what people don’t realize is that we weren’t making anything on it. All five weeks on the sliders was unpaid work and I under-budgeted the cost of the rails, so I ended up putting more of my own money into it than planned. We hired James Boulding to do a video. From the photography it looked like a big event, but in reality, it was massively grassroots. I ended up giving the shots to all the magazines, so it got good exposure, but I was surprised they were running shots from another magazine, my magazine.
Of all the shots that came out of that event, I remember that Dre did a 360 that was so much bigger than anything else — the trajectory and angle, it looked like a snowboard jump, like dropping a cliff, with the kite in every frame — it was full on. We got a lot of amazing still shots and everyone was talking about them. To this day, I still hear people talking about the event and I think it would be cool to do it again. I guess stuff that pushes the sport in the right direction is what I get excited about.
Social media and imaging technology is undergoing incredible change right now. How does that affect a professional photographer like yourself?
Social media, like Facebook, is a great platform for getting the message out. I don’t have a website or a photography page and I probably have 500 pending friend requests because Facebook is only really for people that I know. I’m just posting my mountain biking photos and people probably don’t want to see pictures of me riding my bike [nod to Toby’s humble nature]. In many respects, I am a private person. I’m taking photos of pro riders that have fans and people frothing out to it, but I’m never myself in that scene. I’m quite self-critical of my work too. There are shots I’m stoked with over the years, but I don’t like to think I’m awesome and that sort of thing. For me, a lot of the stuff you see on Facebook is people claiming this and that. I’d rather let my work speak for itself; but maybe this approach can be a bad thing. For instance, when I worked on the mag, I figured people would come to us, but the lesson we learned is that you have to chase the advertising dollars. I guess it’s a different thing, but I quite enjoy that most people don’t know who I am. I don’t post selfies, I don’t want to be famous or well-known, but I do want to be proud of having my name on my work, even if it’s only just photographers that pay attention to the photo credit. I don’t want to say my best work was five years ago; I’m always trying to move forward in that respect. You can always grow, learn and improve. Anyway, I’ve been pretty lucky; I’m one of the top guys in the industry, but resting back is not what I’m about. At the end of the day I want to be proud of whatever I put my name on. At this point, it would be very possible to cruise, and even if others wouldn’t know, I would, and that’s what gives me the drive to keep going.