Getting Up and Catching Spots

How Floridian Brandon Campbell, also known as Laserwolf, was reborn and named anew on the North Shore of Oahu.

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Nickname origin stories are typically boring. Most often earned during adolescence, they’re usually granted by close friends or are the product of inside jokes—which, by their very nature, are not broadly entertaining or interesting to outsiders.

As far as nicknames go, though, Brandon Campbell’s is nearly unique enough to warrant inquiry into its genesis. But it’s Campbell’s photos of Pipeline—often low POV or subaqueous, sometimes roving high above or sneakily under the lip, always up close and personal—not his strange pseudonym that have brought the Florida-born lensman notoriety. As bizarre or memorable as the byline “Laserwolf” may be, it had little to do with his success. 

Koa Rothman, Pipeline. Pipe can be a nightmare to shoot in the afternoon, because you’re looking straight into the sun for two or three hours before the golden light hits. I had just gotten cleaned up and pushed out of position, but it ended up working out as this one came through right after.

And when it comes to Campbell’s story, there’s plenty besides the nickname deserving of investigation. For instance, how was it that Campbell, with no prior photography experience, was able to lend new perspectives to one of the most photographed waves on the planet? And how was this East Coast kid, a stranger in a strange land, able to find his place in the world’s most competitive lineup? 

Also, where the hell did he go? Transients certainly loom large in the annals of North Shore history. But how many photographers climb to the top of the pecking order, create imagery that transcends surf media, and then disappear? Nine years, then poof! Laserwolf was gone. 

I’m hoping to lay some of these questions to rest when I meet up with Campbell and we take a drive south atop a skinny sliver of Florida’s State Road A1A, a stretch of two-lane highway flanked by the famously biodiverse Indian River Lagoon and a storied, wave-rich stretch of Atlantic Coast. We pass dozens of lifted 4×4 pickup trucks, about half of which are towing center-console fishing vessels, and Campbell tells me about being raised in this region, where most kids “can swim before they can walk.” He grew up fishing, diving, and making this drive—chasing waves and mischief—from his native Melbourne Beach, a tropical, tourist-economy-dependent, truly surf-obsessed town located dead center in the shank of the fishhook the coastline draws from Vero Beach north to Cape Canaveral.

As in many of the sparsely populated beach towns that dot the state’s eastern coast, there’s a thin line between a blue-collar existence and ingenious hustle. When beach boys reach adulthood, many teach surf lessons, man fishing charters, valet cars, work odd construction and landscaping jobs, or hock illicit substances—anything to avoid a traditional nine-to-five. 

Campbell wants to show me the last place he lived before disembarking for Hawaii roughly a dozen years ago. We drive through a crooked rod-iron gate that leads to the original Spanish House, a historic and crumbling terracotta home tucked in behind the dunes that front an iconic Brevard County surf spot of the same name. The elderly owners, absentee snowbirds, had made a young Campbell the sprawling property’s caretaker—surely too much responsibility and temptation for a twentysomething.

“I was just surfing, partying, chasing girls,” Campbell says of his wayward early adulthood.

To be clear, in those years Campbell was faithfully disinterested in surf photography. He’d have to have been, considering his surroundings and those in his orbit. His running mates in those days—including Tommy O’Brien, Phillip Watters, and Justin and Blake Jones—made up an all-star cast of photogenic products of Sebastian Inlet’s First Peak. Plus, Campbell roomed with former Eastern Surf Magazine editor Matt Pruett, as well as crack East Coast shooter Chris Wilson.

“I’d watch Chris shoot all day and ask, ‘You don’t even get to surf? Man, that looks so horrible,’” he says as we walk a path cut through the dunes to the beach, passing a stray dog drinking out of an artesian well. The mutt, Campbell tells me, looks nearly identical to the one he adopted here more than a decade ago and then had to leave behind with a friend when he moved to Hawaii. Campbell, bending over to beckon the stray, finds this one to be much more skittish, and the dog scurries away. 

Though not quite an inflection point, this house—this piece of property—did play an important role in Campbell’s personal development. He didn’t discover a passion here, or court a lifelong companion. He didn’t even pick up a camera. It was, however, where Campbell, from the ages of 22 to 24, indulged in just what he felt like he wanted out of life at the time to feel satiated. Which, it turns out, wasn’t all that much.

“I was getting pretty wild,” he says of his last couple years in Brevard County. “Just a lot of partying and doing what I could to fund that lifestyle and the next surf trip.”

I ask him what he would have been doing now if he’d never moved to Hawaii. 

“I probably would have kept making poor choices and ended up in jail,” he says.

On a whim, Campbell moved from Spanish House to the North Shore of Oahu. He bought a camera off of Craigslist. He cribbed a water housing from a friend back home. And, as aimlessly as he became a tenant on that highly sought-after piece of Atlantic Coast property, he started wading out into the waters off Ehukai Beach Park.

Mikey Wright, Backdoor. This photo haunts me a bit. When you’re swimming at Pipeline, you want to try and hang in there as long as you can. But when a lip is coming down on you, the flight response can quickly take over. I still wish I would’ve channeled my inner Scott Aichner here and hung in there a little bit longer until I was right under Mikey’s rail.

And that’s where Brevard County hustle—part blue-collar work ethic, part streetwise ingenuity—met creative drive. 

“I was hawking photo CDs to average Joes for $100 or more,” he remembers. He made waterproof business cards. He sold photos to surfers on holiday. He swam and shot every single day, for hours on end. He eventually earned some paydays and used the extra coin to buy a Canon 8-15mm fisheye lens. That’s when things started to click.

“I was just excited about every new thing I captured. I was looking straight in. I was looking straight out. Down from the lip, straight up, behind the wave.”

He worked those angles and mostly stayed out of frame from the heavies who had years on him: Daniel Russo, Brent Bielmann, Zak Noyle, Tony Heff.

Immersing himself, he quickly mastered the many viewpoints of Pipeline, favoring below-rail perspectives reminiscent of the work of Scott Aichner, while adding his own distinctive vision. His lens found Mason Ho early and often.

“He has the ability to make certain situations look better than they actually are,” says Ho. “I’d go out for a surf and say, ‘I didn’t get one good photo.’ Then, when he’d send me the shots, I’d be like, ‘Whoa, I got five good photos!’” 

Over the course of nearly a decade of North Shore winters and dozens of trips, the duo linked up for three magazine covers and countless more memorable images. The Laserwolf moniker was attached to it all—from brand-funded lookbook shoots to strike missions for magazine features, even interviews with nonendemic media. Campbell did his part to play up the subterfuge, throwing absurd smoke bombs in an interview with the Huffington Post and telling the interviewer that the Laserwolf origin story depends on his mood.

Campbell’s old Florida crew was flabbergasted by his meteoric rise. 

“When I found out that the same scattered kid had somehow ascended the most notorious pecking order on Earth to become an apex water photographer at Pipe, I was dumbfounded,” says Pruett. “I was proud of him for casting aside the bullshit that had been marooning him at home and then reinventing himself in a lonely, hostile place a continent away. I can say with complete confidence that the moment Brandon Campbell picked up a camera, his whole life came into focus.”

Back in Melbourne Beach, we pull in next to a dumpster in front of a concrete-block home with a faded turquoise patina and shattered jalousie windows. Though Campbell’s taking on freelance gigs—Salina Cruz last spring, back in Hawaii for an early season swell last fall—this is his focus now, the renovation of an old Florida home. He’s doing the demo himself while juggling his own boutique creative agency—snapping product photos, managing social-media accounts, using the multiplex skillset he honed in the world of surf media—and navigating how to provide his two young kids with a little more direction than he found while growing up here.

Derek Ho, Pipeline. Aloha is a word that gets thrown around quite often, but there are certain people that absolutely live it, breathe it, bleed it, and spread it. Uncle D was one of those people. His kindness and generosity were inspiring and contagious. Pipeline and the North Shore will not be the same without him around.

“It’s hard to know which obstacles to remove and what ones you just have to let them trip over,” he says of the complexities of child-rearing.

So, with his memorable moniker—and the reputation that precedes it—intact, Campbell says he felt confident enough to start a third act in the place where his first one ended. 

“I think I was carrying around a lot of self doubt when I left Florida. But to move to Hawaii, set my sights on something brand new, and have success at it—that really changed my worldview. I know it’s just photography, [but] making a living off of it makes me feel like I can do anything.”

Oh, and about that nickname: He granted it to himself, actually, years after moving to Hawaii, when his photos were to be exhibited in a group show next to the work of a handful of graffiti artists, who—as wall writers who hope to go “all-city” are prone to do—had also given themselves unique or absurdist nicknames. As with taggers, the origin of a nickname doesn’t matter so much as its ubiquity.

The subject. Photographed by A. Campbell.