Decisive Moments

Documentary photography and surf interstices in the Outer Banks

Light / Dark

Daniel Pullen is not a surf photographer. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, he’s shot surf imagery pretty consistently over the last 20 years, but the last trip he took—a family vacation to Puerto Rico—coincided with the best swell of the winter and he took only one photo, from the highway. (Surfline published it. He’s that good.) 

But a surf photographer—that label would be too confining when you consider his laundry list of awards and accolades, including applause from Time magazine and the New York Times, his thriving portrait and wedding photography business, and his two hauntingly beautiful books, Mommicked and Homesick. Plus there’s his status as “Hatteras Island’s greatest documentarian and one of the most impactful surf photographers of all time,” according to Eastern Surf magazine cofounder Dick Meseroll. 

Raised in Buxton within Frisbee distance of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Pullen’s initial plunge into photography was typical of the times: buying disposable cameras to take party pics and shitty POVs from his bodyboard, stepping it up to a point-and-shoot and mailing off the film, and getting encouragement and advice from local legends Mickey McCarthy and Russell Blackwood until he finally learned how to take a photograph. 

South Beach, Hatteras Village. North swells will wrap around the point and produce these double-ups. It gets heavy and drifty. Nearly every wave’s a closeout, but you can find a rare corner if you’re willing to put in the work. Surfers will drive for three hours for only a half-hour window to take a crack at it. I snapped this frame from the back of a ski. People say, “Oh, it looks perfect.” Having swum many days like this one, it looks more like a nightmare to me.

“Russell gave me his old Nikonos V, and I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t know what I was doing,” Pullen remembers. “Everything on that camera was manual, it was hard to crank the shutter, and none of my pictures were in focus. Then, in 2000, I finally got an SLR, bought four rolls of film, and that’s when [Surfer magazine staff photographer] John Bilderback told me, ‘Everything’s switching to digital now. Why’d you dump a bunch of money into something that’ll be obsolete?’ I was so defeated.” 

In 2003, a friend suggested wedding photography to pay the bills. Pullen was firmly against it until his wife, Kate, promised to handle all the brides, clients, and paperwork. All he’d have to do was shoot. Business boomed immediately, enabling him to buy a digital camera, but his learning curve as a surf shooter was still mired by embarrassing plateaus. ESM’s newly hired 18-year-old photo editor, Jimmy Wilson, ultimately set him straight. 

“I was still shooting everything in JPEG,” Pullen recalls. “And I was shy about asking for help from photo editors, like, ‘This kid’s gonna think I’m some Podunk idiot for not knowing how to use a digital camera.’ But I sent Jimmy an email regardless, and he told me straight away that I needed to be shooting in RAW. That turned the tide, for a minute.” 

This was during the conveyor belt of storms that followed Sandy in 2012. Sneaking into these hurricane-damaged beach rentals isn’t that sketchy. We have strict building codes here. The windows are busted out and the doors are ripped off, but the house isn’t going to collapse. I’m more worried about getting into a confrontation with someone who might be inside. I yell loudly when entering to make sure nobody’s home. When these houses were built in the ’80s, there was a double dune line and 200 yards of sand between them and the high-tide line. Now there’s nothing.

Pullen’s first published surf photo was a full-page ad in a regional mag of local sensation Brett Barley. It paid a thousand bucks, which he used to buy a housing. “I thought, Wow, if I just get one ad a month I can make a living as a surf photographer!” Pullen says. “I was still clueless.” 

“For years, I was sending straight garbage to Jimmy,” he continues, “and he’d reply, ‘This is heinous! Why’d you shoot it like this?’ Lighthouse would be pumping, perfect for water shots, and I couldn’t keep water off the port. I’d seen people licking and spitting on theirs, but they were shooting fisheye. This was a flat port, so, while Brett was progressing as a pro surfer, I wasn’t progressing as a photographer. We took a trip to the Canary Islands and I didn’t even know how to use  my camera. Then, on the big day, I didn’t swim out. 

“After Jimmy transitioned to Surfing magazine, I was always five steps behind Matt Lusk,” Pullen admits. “He’s the best Outer Banks water photographer ever, a bulldog who could turn that switch and swim out in the craziest stuff. I was so jealous of him, but Matt wasn’t even worried about me. He saw DJ Struntz as the alpha and was coming after him, battling for the best water shots. Whatever self-preservation switch those guys were able to turn off, I just didn’t have that switch. I already had two kids before I had one published photo. I’d swim in heavy surf, but not blindly. There had to be guaranteed reciprocation.” 

Pullen had been shooting hurricanes, nor’easters, and other nameless, newsless catastrophes since 1991, and as he looked for an angle for his career, he saw a future in documentary photography. But none of it truly clicked for him until 2016, when he attended the Foundation Workshop, a photo program in Texas, which masked itself as a tutorial for wedding photographers but was really more like a bootcamp for photojournalists. 

“They broke us down into teams and gave us this assignment,” Pullen remembers. “They said, ‘A blind, autistic young man with Tourette’s makes salsa. Be at his house at 8 a.m. and shoot for 15 hours. No deleting. Expose for highlights. Show his routine, his relationship with his family, how he navigates life and contributes to society despite his condition.’ The next day, they sat us down and just murdered our work. It was this pressure cooker of completely breaking you down, then slowly building you back up, so I was able to purge all these bad habits that I had. That changed everything. I came back from Texas a different photographer.” 

Later that year, after legendary Outer Banks photographer Mickey “2M” McCarthy passed away, Surfline contacted Pullen for images to pair with a eulogy piece. He raided his hard drives and was disturbed by what he found—or, more accurately, what he didn’t find. 

“I only had 12 photos of Mickey,” Pullen says. “How many times did I see him in the parking lot, on the beach, on the pier? How many hours did I talk to him about Civil War stuff? And I only had 12 shots? That’s when I started focusing on the moments that truly matter. Because you show someone a surf shot and they’re like, ‘Cool, ripping.’ But if you show the same person a group shot from the ’90s where everyone’s all baby-faced, they’ll stare at that picture and all these stories start pouring out.” 

In 2020, Pullen posted 10 of his documentary photos on Instagram, and the seventh one caught the attention of several esteemed photojournalists, including the photo editor of Time magazine, who requested to run it in a climate-change story. Months later, Pullen received an email saying the shot was going to run in Time’s “Top 100 Photos of 2020” feature instead. In 2021, the North Carolina Press Association christened him the Hugh Morton Photographer of the Year, the most prestigious photography award in the state. In 2022, the New York Times also ran his work, with one of his images appearing on the front page. He downplays the distinctions. 

“I’m just documenting what’s happening in my community,” he says. “And since I have access to the people here, there’s a trust there. I don’t have to seek it out. I’m also still working on new ideas. Instead of just shooting the aftermath of a bad storm, I’d like to hunker down with a family and document that survival in real time. Maybe that means having to swim out of the house and cling onto a tree with the snakes.” 

First Jetty Lighthouse is a heavy spot that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The paddle out is not easy. That explosion is three stories high, and the water’s 1 foot deep. The current is ripping sideways and becomes a whirlpool by the jetty that spins you around and pulls you under. One surfer got his leash caught on a piling and drowned. On this day, a rare snowstorm brought stiff offshore wind, the water temp sank into the low 40s, and few waves seemed makeable. Of course, Barley and visiting Floridian Oliver Kurtz wanted a piece of it.

“Being so remote, the Outer Banks’ entire image was built on photographs,” says Matt Walker, a former Surfing editor who now runs his own local publication, Milepost magazine. “It goes back to the ’50s with Aycock Brown sending out pictures across the wire service, trying to get people to come here. Daniel’s commitment to preserving those moments, independent of surfing, reflects exactly why people fell in love with this beach in the first place. He feels a real angst over missing stuff, and between that relentless drive to shoot daily and his wide skill set, he’s created an honest, organic portrayal of what life’s like on Hatteras Island, and an amazing catalog of work.” 

That catalog has not been lost on the remaining surf-media outlets. Of 36 East Coast swell stories published between 2022 and 2023 on Surfline, Pullen contributed to more than half of them. And the photos weren’t just his signature candids—they also included tack-sharp imagery of pro surfers hacking and punting, speed blurs of preteen devils, water shots of cross-stepping angels, pullbacks of kite jocks, and stand-up barrel shots from a pier perch, with a rainbow to boot. Cape Hatteras never looked so good. 

“I could address Daniel’s photojournalistic talent,” Meseroll adds, “his well-defined body of work that showcases his artistic side, or his mastery of the monochrome medium, but I’d rather speak to his character. After Hurricane Sandy, the ESM team filled two 22-foot rental trucks with donations to haul up to New Jersey. Carrying his own shit-ton of supplies, Daniel drove a long, exhausting, circuitous, ferry-laden route to rendezvous with us on I-95. He didn’t have a camera. All he said was, ‘This is from the Buxton crew.’ They also got smashed pretty hard by that historical storm, and that’s all I ever needed to know about the kind of human Daniel is.” 

They rebuilt the Frisco Pier after it was destroyed during Hurricane Isabel. Shortly after that, it got damaged again by another storm. The replacement pilings they used to rebuild it the second time weren’t treated properly and started falling apart. There’s no money to keep repairing it, so it’s been decaying ever since. We call these conditions the “Frisco Disco.” It looks like a world-class beachbreak, but it’s an illusion. There’s a reason no one’s out. They either know it’s too good to be true or were “disco’ed” by the rip way down the beach before even getting close to making it outside.

On a sweltering August morning, Pullen changes a diaper on his baby boy, Cedar Steel, barely 2 weeks old. His other children, Jackson and Makenzey, are pretty much grown, but that doesn’t relieve much financial or professional pressure. Kate reminds him that he has a wedding to shoot later, another tomorrow, and another over the weekend. After that, his schedule is hazy. 

“I’ve started switching back to focusing on surf again,” he says. “Between work and family, I usually only have an hour window, but that’s enough time because the Lighthouse is two minutes from my house. It’s just about being present and pushing a button. I’m not traveling the world, but I can swim out, shoot a surf photo the way I want to, and leave happy. There’s always a way to incorporate both action and peripherals and show what it’s really like to be a surfer here—all huddled behind the sand dune in February when the northwest wind’s cutting right through you and you’re getting ready for the next session.” 

The Subject. Photo by Makenzey Pullen.

[Feature Image Caption: Cash Barris, post-surf just north of Buxton, North Carolina. Barris is one of the best backside barrel riders on the East Coast. He’s the naturalfoot version of Brett Barley, his inseparable sparring partner growing up. I can’t remember if this was a named storm, but this is the surf we typically get in the Outer Banks during fall swells. After this session, he and I rapped out on the dunes as we watched this lone soldier get slotted in that autumn light.]