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The Hesitant Professional

From government-identification costuming to on-the-reef Pipeline swimming, John Hook keeps the viewfinder level.

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John Hook stood in line at the Wahiawa Satellite City Hall for his fourth driver’s license in a decade. His palms began to sweat, as it was almost his turn, and the big reveal was fast approaching. Disguised with a baseball cap and Charlie Chaplin mustache, he was finally motioned to his position in front of the blue screen. If all else failed, he’d certainly had a hell of a run so far, getting away with three absurd-looking DMV keepsakes. Of course, the problem with art is topping your last creation…

The first gag was a black mullet paired with a filthy 1970s ’stache, replete with a vicious unibrow crafted from his own hair clippings literally glued to his face. 

“We cut my hair,” says Hook, “just messing around. I saw myself in the mirror and was like, ‘I look soooo messed up…I’ve got to immortalize this.’ Then it was like, ‘Ding! DMV. Driver’s license. I’ll have this picture forever.’ After I did that one, it was like, ‘I have to do another one.’”

For the second, a couple years later (a new license in Hawaii is only five bucks),  he grew out his hair wildly. Unable to grow a full beard, he bought a fake one from Party City, clipped it down a little, and instantly transformed into a desert-island castaway.

For the third, a few years hence, he donned a Morning of the Earth–era island shag paired with a handlebar mustache that appeared—because it was—drawn on with a Sharpie. 

His driver’s licenses quickly became a hit at local bars, including making the sternest doormen crack up. Even TSA agents, while Hook passed through security, would recognize his ridiculous visages and lose their shit. 

Finding himself center stage for the fourth time, Hook removed his cap, the crown of his head Bic’d to the skin, surrounded by a wild hedge of raven hair. A psychotic Bozo the Clown ’do, the top of Hook’s pale skull clashed wildly with his bronzed olive complexion. Without a blink or pause, the employee clicked the button—their best work yet. 

I shot this scene from a Waikiki hotel room. Just beyond that pool is Pop’s, Three’s, a whole bunch of other spots, and the big, beautiful ocean. But people in the pool are like, “Nah, we’re good here. We’re already getting tubed.”
At sunset, Town lineups get a bright reflection from the two towers of the Hawaii Prince Hotel. It’s like having an extra sun to use as a light source. When people complain about Town waves being crowded, I’m like, “Yeah, but it could be worse. And worse is really close.” There’s about half a million people crammed into that city. I’m glad most of them don’t surf. 

“She was having trouble with the camera,” says Hook. “I don’t know what happened, but she had to take my picture, like, three times. She seemed kind of stressed and was apologizing. I could feel everybody in line like, ‘What is up with this guy? What is taking so long?’ There was a guy helping her who really was bald—he kind of had my same hairstyle—so I think that’s how I passed.”

The lesson here being that on the rare occasion that Hook is on the other side of the lens, he’s still going to make it count. 

Before I actually got to know Hook, someone had passed me a collage of these driver’s license photos, which had been immortalized by Town & Country Surf Shop on the bottom of a skateboard deck. I could gather, instantly, that this man was silly. And bold. Two things I have only ever striven to be in my own life. So, knowing about the driver’s licenses, and having seen his byline around town here on Oahu, I wanted to see him at work.

We meet at the Waimea Bay parking lot on a brisk North Shore winter’s morning. The Bay isn’t 20 feet Hawaiian or anything, but it’s not Pinballs either. Hook is never not smiling, and today is no exception. Humming a tune to himself, he organizes his water housing, bodyboard, fins, and other gear in the bed of his pickup truck, seemingly a reflection of his own personality: an ice-blue 1987 Jeep Comanche.  

Just before heading out, I watch him transfer a pack of brown-sugar Pop-Tarts from the passenger seat to the dashboard. He catches me noticing a grown man arranging Pop-Tarts and explains, “That way, they’ll be nice and warm when we get in.” 

While there’s a few mid-size sets, the Bay is pretty lully. The day prior, though, Hook was shooting Pipe. He’s there a lot—even though, if you ask him, he’s shy to admit he’s a surf photographer.

“It’s weird, because I really only like shooting Pipeline,” Hook says. “There, or shooting my friends anywhere else. The location doesn’t matter. But if Pipeline’s on, I’ll go no matter who’s out. I just want to see it. It’s like, you have to see that shit. There’s something weird about that place. You just want to be out there looking at it. It’s so strange. When it comes down to it, though, surf photography is, like, zero percent of my income. But it’s 100 percent of what I love doing.”

Around Oahu, I normally spot Hook’s work on magazine covers and in editorial from Hawaii’s local publishing powerhouse, Nella Media Group. As a retained senior staff photographer there, Hook has shot countless covers and articles for FLUX Hawaii magazine, Lei, and others—gorgeous portraits of interesting local people and culture. 

He grew up in central Oahu—Waipio and Salt Lake—and got into photography toward the end of high school. These were pre-digital days. Hook would fuck around with his friends with a Nikkormat EL, skating across the Safeway parking lot, documenting the havoc. 

Josh Redman, Jaws, 2013. Seeing that wave from the water changed my whole perspective. It’s like staring at Niagara Falls.

These were the days before everyone had a cell phone, let alone a camera on one. The days when you could see a photo only once it was printed, when, a month or two later, you’d remember that your shots were probably ready at Costco, and you’d go get them and hastily flip through the batch in the photo center or over a chicken bake in the food court. The days when you’d have to wait for a friend to see them yourself, smudges and fingerprints and all, that evening in the Safeway parking lot, properly preserved in time. And any good photographer knows that doing absolutely nothing makes for the most beautiful moments.

Hook briefly attended Leeward Community College, but dropped out and started working at a PacSun in the mall, where he met his wife, Sam. “Everything was cool. I liked working in the A/C all day,” he recalls. “It was like, ‘I could do this.’ I looked at my boss and he was a district manager with a house in Mililani. I thought that was a pretty good life.”

But by 2009, the surf industry—like the economy—had taken a massive tumble, and PacSun was suddenly a sad place to be spending 40 hours a week. Regardless, people around town knew Hook had a camera and loved to shoot. Local businesses would ask him for commercial work for their websites, real estate listings, portrait photography, weddings. Hook was completely self-taught, though clarifies that he and his wife—who has become their business’ photo editor—attended the University of YouTube. 

The Aston Waikiki Circle is my favorite hotel in Town. It has bad fish-themed wallpaper and the best view of Queens you’ll ever see.
Cliff Kapono, Kaiser’s, 2019. I typically don’t like shooting shortboards and airs, but I do like hanging out with Cliff, so I swam out while he was testing a new twin-fin.

In short, Hook got into surf photography simply because he liked being in the ocean. 

“I’ve surfed since I was in high school,” he says, “but never, ever in my life thought I’d be a surf photographer. I didn’t even know that was a job. I didn’t really pay attention to surf magazines. I mean, I knew they were out there, but I was pretty oblivious to the industry. I just wanted to take pictures of my friends in the water. Let’s go skate in the water. That’s what I wanted to do. I still don’t think I could say I’m a surf photographer. Even when I met those guys, I was like, ‘Wait, this is your job?’ I didn’t realize that was a job, like, to be hired by Quiksilver and just take photos of Quik guys.

“But I was definitely inspired by the guys my age: Zak Noyle, Brent Bielmann. Zak brought me out to Pipeline for the first time. From that first day, it just changed my world. It changed the way I was looking at waves, even. But maybe it’s just that wave. Still, to this day, all I want to do is take pictures of my friends surfing, whether that’s 1-foot Waikiki or giant wherever.

Why would I go to Rocky Point to take pictures of guys I don’t really know punting airs? Basically, anything that involves getting to know somebody, I believe, is my favorite. It’s more about the person in it for me. Sure, I like photos without people, but with people makes them better for me.”

Perhaps little has changed for him about the process since he was shooting his friends in the Safeway parking lot.

“When I got into photography,” he says, “it was a simpler time. Not much influence, less distractions. Now I think people are composing stuff differently. They’re already thinking about the end result. Like, ‘Oh, I’m shooting it this way for Instagram,’ or ‘I’m shooting it this way for an IG story.’ I never thought about it like that. I always thought, ‘When you print it, will the photograph look cool?’ That’s what I was concerned about.”

Hook’s gotten awards for his work, including multiple Society of Professional Journalists wins and accolades. But, when asked about them, it appears he takes them about as seriously as a driver’s license.   

Strider Wasilewski, Pipeline, 2021. When Strider rolled in, bottom turned, and swooped into this thing, the whole lineup was screaming. You know when you doodle a wave and you put that little reflection in the middle of the face? This wave has that naturally. And “Rasberry” gets extra points for his pink board and neon-green trunks.

“The first time I won one,” he says, “I used it to eat spaghetti off of.” 

To his credit, an SPJ plaque does make for a gorgeous koa dinner plate.

“I dunno, an award was never the goal,” he continues. “It’s nice, of course, but…”

Making our way back to the parking lot, I prod him on this. Why the resistance to a title, let alone reward for his work? What’s the beef? He’s making himself, his wife, and his teenage daughter a fair living doing what he loves to do, be it in the surf or on land or at a wedding venue. Hotels, fashion brands, and ad agencies hit him up regularly for his talent.

“I feel like when people give you awards, it’s suddenly, ‘Oh, this fucker is taking it seriously.’ But I don’t want to be the guy who’s taking it too seriously,” he says. “I want to enjoy this.”

We get back to the parking lot. The sun is high enough now to have properly warmed the brown-sugar Pop-Tarts on the dash. He rips open the pack and hands me one. It’s toasty. And delicious.

The subject. Courtesy of John Hook.