Kenji Croman is not your typical 37 year old. He doesn’t go to work in a button down and dress shoes. He’s usually in a wetsuit, armed with a state of the art camera and housing. He puts his life on the line on to get the best wave shots he can. All for our enjoyment, and his.
Braving life and death in big waves just for the perfect shot
might sound dramatic, but not if you look at some of the waves Kenji has photographed over the years. He is a regular shooting out at Hawaii’s Pipeline, a wave that kills one surfer a year on average.
I sat down with Kenji to find out what makes him tick and how he got started shooting some of Hawaii’s most beautiful (and dangerous) waves.
“I knew this wasn’t just going to be a hobby for me. Deep down I was convinced that I found my calling.”
How’d you get started in photography?
I know this sounds cliché, but I feel I’ve always been a photographer. I used to use my step dad’s digital Fuji camera when I was younger all the time. I also took a big interest in film photography in high school.
When I finally owned my own DSLR camera was 2007. It’s funny, I was already telling people I was a photographer the first day I had it, even though I wasn’t yet, but I just knew deep down I WAS a photographer.
When did you know this wasn’t just a passion, but something you wanted to pursue professionally?
Almost immediately after I got my first DSLR camera in 2007, I knew this wasn’t just going to be a hobby for me. Deep down I was convinced that I found my calling, so much so that a few months after getting my camera, I quit my full time job and took a trip to Thailand for photography.
The trip was supposed to be only for a couple of weeks but I was gambling it was going to be longer. The experience was so enlightening for me that I decided to move to Thailand while I was there. I was there for nearly a year and traveled to many nearby countries, always with my camera in my hand.
I wasn’t very good but that didn’t matter to me because I just enjoyed the experience so much.
Wave and surf photography are pretty competitive out in Hawaii. How did you break into the scene?
Right around the time I got my first camera I bought my first used SPL housing and was shooting around at Sandys a lot. When I was in Thailand I missed the ocean the most, so when I finally got back to the islands, I started shooting in the water more often, this was in 2008.
I didn’t get any good shots for several months and it was so frustrating. I stuck with it though because I enjoyed the water and photography so much. Finally, I got my first good shot of a barrel; I still remember the photo too. After that shot, I knew if I kept at it, I would get better.
I know you’ve shot some pretty heavy spots like Pipeline, what’s it like out there when the waves are huge?
Ah man, it’s so awesome! A lot of surfers have been out in big waves but when it’s REALLY BIG like double or triple overhead at Pipe, it’s a completely different feeling.
When you see those mountains of waves start heading your way, your heart is racing with so much adrenaline, but you’re excited too.
When they pass by you it’s like a freight train, the sound, the wind, the energy—it’s really humbling.
I wish everyone could experience this at least once in their life.
Have you ever had any close calls out there or gotten hurt while shooting?
Yes, too many! Who would have ever thought photography could be so dangerous?!
I broke my nose, I broke three fingers, dislocated my elbow, a giant wave landed in front of me and my (camera’s) heavy water housing hit me in the face, nearly knocking me out. I’ve also been held under water for longer than I can remember, seeing stars because I nearly blacked out.
I was hospitalized for five days because a wave hit me so hard the doctors thought I literally broke my neck. I had spinal fluid leaking from my ears and couldn’t take four steps without feeling extreme vertigo. If I sat here and think about it longer, I could probably remember a lot of other major injuries too. But yes, it’s very dangerous, I’ve been to the hospital so many times.
“I’ve also been held under water for longer than I can remember, seeing stars because I nearly blacked out.”
What’s your favorite spot to shoot?
A secret spot on the Westside is my favorite.
What advice would you have for aspiring ocean photographers?
When I first started shooting, there were only a handful of surf photographers shooting empty barrels. I approached two of them who were talking to each other in a parking lot, I was very excited because I was going to join the ranks of other surf photographers and I would be able to mingle and talk story with them.
Well I had a rude awakening when I approached those two guys. I said, “Hey guys, I just got my water housing, can you give me any tips?” One of them said to me, “I don’t know man, you gotta figure it out yourself, sorry.”
I was pretty shocked and disappointed someone would be so cold to a newbie. I was determined to learn it on my own and if I ever got to become good enough, I would always help others whenever I could.
I’m proud to say I teach photography workshops now at the University of Hawaii and I do a lot of private lessons as well.
My point is, don’t let anyone discourage you when you first start out, find photographers that inspire you and go out as much as you can and practice.
I’ve learned most people are friendly and will help you when you ask, I just had a bad experience—but it led me to become a better photographer as a result. So don’t give up and keep practicing.
Kenji can be found on Instagram @go_kenji
Or on his website at GoKenji.com