Living in Ventura, Stevens keeps his eyes on the prize at all cost—to take the best surf photos he can
By Chris Van Leuven
FLIPPING THROUGH A SURF MAGAZINE, it’s easy to imagine the glorious world where everyone looks sexy—sun-tanned bodies in the glistening sand —that there’s plenty of money, and that life is easy. After all, these stories take place in paradise, like Oahu, Hawaii, an area that is known equally for its modern galleries and gourmet restaurants as it is for its powerful surf.
For twenty-five-year-old Trent Stevens, who’s been chasing that dream since he was 13, ekeing out an exisitence as a photographer is rough. His images tell a different story: one photo is of a lone seagull on a black and white speckled rock; in the background a surfer is bombing down a wave on a big-wave gun. Another is a shot straight down a wave’s tube capturing the lively expression of the rider kneeling down on his banana-colored short board. A final one is of a bearded surfer in a shining black wetsuit, both his feet on the front third of his board as he leans back hard for balance. The image is framed in white: the top half is the sky, the center is the lime green ocean curling over the man, and below is sea fizz mixed with lens flare.
Trent says he’s been living off discount mac ‘n’ cheese and packaged tuna for so long that on a recent night, after three bites, he spit it out because he was over it. Sitting in his hammock on the back porch he described his place over the phone—five dudes living in a three-bedroom house, including one guy in the garage and another on the couch. Broken-down gear fills his yard: a boat that won’t start, a motorcycle that won’t turn over and a damaged golf cart. They’re all too tight on funds to put money into fix-it projects so the stuff just sits there rotting. The inside of the house is filled with surfboard blanks, dishes and hanging wetsuits. Partially torn posters hang from the walls.
STEVENS STRUGGLES to pay rent much less pony up the coin it takes to get on a boat—between $50 and $200 for a day—and head out into the heavy surf where he takes photographs that end up in Surfer, Surfline, World Surf League, and Patagonia. He’s lived in his truck before to save money, his late father’s F-150. He’s considering going back to living in his truck again, at the beaches and near his job. Outside of working a retail position at Patagonia, “my world is about telling stories of the underdogs of the surf community,” he says. “And I do what it takes to deliver the best product—three weeks ago I was in the water for five hours shooting video in Saladita, Mexico, doing daily recap videos for Mexi Log Fest.”
Before his current place he lived nearby with Vince Felix, whom he found through a Craigslist ad. Felix, tattooed up to his neck, is a long board surfer just like Stevens and was happy to help him get connected with the international surf community and take him under his wing. Eventually, it was time for Stevens to move on, so at present, he’s trapped somewhere between making it as a pro photographer and folding shirts at Patagonia for a steady buck. “I hold myself to my highest standard because I’m so critical of my work,” he says. “I want to take the best photos I can. Otherwise, why bother?”
The son of Mike and Susan, Stevens was raised in the coastal beach town of La Jolla. His older sister surfed too, but didn’t take to the water like he did. To support the family, his father ran one of the country’s first one-hour digital photo processing centers. At age eight, already submerged in photography so deeply that disposable cameras were his toys, Stevens began surfing. By 13, he was running a surf photography website. After school, his mother would drop him off at the beach and he’d later call from a pay phone to be picked up. There he’d be, cold, in a dripping wetsuit, with an expensive underwater housing setup in one hand, and the receiver in the other.
ALL HE KNEW UP TO his twenties was photography. When his dad died of cancer, when Stevens was just 20, he scrambled to find meaning in his own existence. “I knew I could get the wife, the job, the dog, and not be spiritually fulfilled.” He had watched the documentary 180° South about surfer Jeff Johnson who retraced the 1968 journey by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, and the late Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face, who traveled from North America to the southern tip of Argentina to climb mountains. So inspired by the film, Stevens decided to embark on a mission like that of his own.
He dropped out from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and joined NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), where he mountaineered and experienced life in Chile for three months.
His next move was to Ventura, where he attended Brooks Institute, which he described as a sinking ship, and studied visual journalism. To make it work he lived in his truck and cooked meals on the beach. The school shut down during his third year, “so I worked odd jobs and sold prints out of my truck; whatever it took to survive.” One day he stepped into a donut shop with Patagonia clothing on and went to fill his reusable coffee mug. There a stranger asked if he worked for Patagonia and he replied no, other than various photo contracts. But the seed was planted and Stevens walked down the street and applied for an entry-level position. “Once I got the gig, I got as immersed into the company as possible,” he says.
AS WE TALKED, more than once he made sure I didn’t think he was crazy. Stevens says that when people do, he gets anxious and can unravel. He explained that his mind doesn’t work like others and describes his personality as passionate, perhaps unordinary. “I use my work to try to slow down life and be able to communicate better with people. I’m at 1,000 words a minute; you should have called me last night, I couldn’t shut up,” he says. Responding, I described how an artist’s mind can work, how they see things differently than other people, often more intensely. That resonated with him.
Some people do get him, especially when he’s totally focused on a shoot, but on dry land—at times—it can be a different story. All he can think about is getting back out into the water with his camera.
Last year he had two surf videos go viral. The first one was of Jacob Ells of Jive Surfboards sharing a wave with his baby daughter, and the other was of Andrew Dorn capsizing in giant surf at Mavericks. Looking back to the events that drew him to Mavericks and the viral video of Dorn, for weeks before his “vacation,” he’d been crossing firelines in Ventura and getting dangerously close to the Thomas Fire. He’d seen his town in flames, and captured it all. He described the scene as apocalyptic. In the aftermath of the fire and the mudslides that followed, he decided to take a month off and head north.
It was his 25th birthday and he was alone in the back of his truck in Half Moon Bay harbor. It was raining and 50-foot swells were building in the ocean nearby—“possibly the Mavericks swell of the decade,” he says. He got a call that there was room for one more person on the next boat heading out. “Though terrified because of the storm and huge seas, I knew if I didn’t make it out there that day that I would regret it for a lifetime.” During his haste to gather his photo gear to head to Mavericks he’d locked his keys in his car and had to call roadside assistance. He barely made it on the boat.
Conditions were severe that day, with waves breaking everywhere, including in the channel. It was also cold and winds were whipping. Before heading out into the choppy seas, fellow crewmember Kyle Thiermann said something about how it was life or death, but our lives are not even that significant in the grand scheme of time. Many clung to their lifejackets and compressed air vests. But Stevens didn’t get one. For protection from the pounding sea spray, he was wearing outerwear designed for mountains. He took stock of his camera gear; the captain revved the engine and powered the crew out to sea. Moments later, still in the channel, they paralleled a whaler and Stevens pointed his lens toward an incoming fifty plus-foot wave like a bulldozer clearing its path.
Then another larger wave built up behind it and broke wider than before. Witnessing it from his viewfinder, he watched the wave break dangerously towards them. At this point everyone on board was either grabbing the rail or getting ready to jump ship, half expecting their vessel to capsize but Stevens focused on getting the job done. Then the seas overcame the whaler, flipping it, tossing the captain and scattering his belongings into the water. Stevens’ crew rescued the man, and after that it was all about survival. When the chaos of the morning ended, with the wave chasing the crew back into the harbor, all that Stevens could think about was getting back on dry land to backup up his footage. “I was worried about losing my memory card to the dark seas,” he says. That night Stevens drove back to Ventura, released the footage, and by the next day it had gone viral on news sources and surf blogs alike.
Reflecting back on his crazy year, he notes that the stakes have been raised. “Really, it’s fear of death that drives me,” he says. “But not death in the sense of drowning or fire, but fear of the constant marching of time that’s coming for us all.”
To see more of Steven’s work, go to TrentCamera.com, or visit him on Instagram @seawolfcollective, and hit up his monthly art show on the third Thursday of each month at Topa Topa Brewing Company in Ventura. The art show is open to the public and attendees are encouraged to bring their own work.