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The Wallflower’s Progress

The high-impact imagery and unassuming presence of Trevor Moran.

Light / Dark

Twenty-two-year-old Trevor Moran’s ankles were rubbed so raw from his swim fins that blood was dripping from his feet and pooling on the sand. The inside of his thighs were similarly flayed. He’d been running and swimming the Superbank—one mile from Snapper to Kirra, one mile from Kirra to Snapper—over and over again. It was 2008. 

Photography had been a hobby of his for a number of years. But this trip to Australia was his first pursuing it as a career. Raised in Ocean City, New Jersey with two brothers, he’d wanted to be a professional surfer as a kid until he grew six inches in the span of just a few months as a teenager, understandably changing things. So he picked up a camera and starting taking surf photos.

He was set to graduate from Drexel University in Philadephia. Thanks to his schooling, he’d become technically savvy, but that didn’t necessarily mean shit. Surf photography is a different game. It requires an inherent understanding of the ocean, which is not a teachable skill, as so many college graduates with photography degrees have found out the hard way. 

Moran, however, already had a vision. And despite not getting any spectacular photos on his trip to Australia, it was fairly clear all he needed was an opportunity and some A-plus talent in good waves—a chance that would come eventually. 

Five years later and I was an editor at Surfing magazine. An email arrived from photographer Ryan Miller with a batch of photos from Western Australia. In one frame, a water shot taken at a notoriously sharky slab of reef, Julian Wilson flew through the air, his neon-green wetsuit popping against West Oz’s dry and barren landscape. 

My first thought: Who the hell would swim out there? And my second thought: This is the next cover.

Our photo editor, Peter Taras, agreed and wrote Miller back, thanking him for the email and congratulating him in advance. 

“Not my photo,” he emailed immediately. “Trevor Moran took that one.” 

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Moran, now 33, remembers that his breaks came in bunches. First he won the Follow The Light grant in 2013, a foundation created in honor of Surfing’s late photo editor, Larry “Flame” Moore, which awards prize money to upstart lensman. Past winners include guys like Todd Glaser, Chris Burkard, and Morgan Maassen, to name a few.

“Up until that point I had mainly been shooting around New Jersey,” Moran says, “with the occasional trip with my local crew to some tropical destination. I was finished with college, had been doing commercial studio photography for a while, and I was really on the fence about taking the leap to pursue surf photography more seriously. So winning Follow The Light was about knowing that other people believed in the work I was creating, and that they put their trust in me that the grant wouldn’t go to waste. And that was the push I needed.”

Around the same time, he got a phone call from Ryan Miller inviting him to join him on the World Championship Tour. Miller, originally from Florida, was living in southern New Jersey not far from where Moran grew up. He’d also been traveling alongside the WCT, photographing events and sideline moments for every surf mag in the world. As he became too busy to handle the workload alone, the time came to hire another photographer to work with as a team. Moran was his first choice. 

“I could tell early on that Trevor had a high ceiling,” Miller says. “He just needed someone to help him develop those skills. He was a good learner. You never had to tell him twice. And once he figured something out he never made that same mistake again.” 

For Miller, having Moran on the road with him was a game changer. World Tour surfers can be an erratic bunch. When they’re not competing, they’re known to scatter. Particularly when it came time to chase waves up and down the coast or capture different perspectives around the event sites, it was pivotal to have two shooters who could divide and conquer. 

“Trevor is a grinder,” Miller continues. “Once you get him down to the beach it’s nearly impossible to get him to leave. Food, water, snacks, battery packs, rain gear, headphones, sunscreen—he brings it all and goes until dark. There were times I had to leave him on the beach and go home because he wouldn’t pack up.”

“He taught me more about surf photography than anyone,” Moran says when asked about those early years on the road with Miller. “He took a chance, inviting me to tag along and work with him. He was always happy to answer my questions, and went above and beyond with both business and life lessons. We honed my technical skills reasonably quick—I was in my late 20s at that point and had a firm grasp on photography’s technical aspects—but there was still so much for me to learn about being a working professional and making surf photography a sustainable career.”

While Moran has continued to study Miller’s talent and work ethic in the intervening years, the similarities pretty much end there. On the road, Miller can often be found in the middle of the social action—cheetah-print speedos on the beach, the center of the dance floor after a few drinks. Moran is usually behind it. Despite clocking in 6’5″, he can be easy to miss in a social setting. He’s just not the center-of-attention type. 

Like most introverts, however, it’s clear that given time to interact one-on-one, he has depth. “There’re a lot of great things I can say about Trevor,” says CJ Hobgood, who bunked with Miller and Moran during this period. “At first I couldn’t get a great read on him. But it only took a couple of days and a few good laughs for a true friendship to form. It’s hard to find people like him in life—much less in a travel partner.” 

For Hobgood, his time with Moran couldn’t have come at a better juncture in his career: during Hobgood’s final few years on tour. It’s tough to transition away from competition, and most surfers struggle with that reality in the twilight of their careers, Hobgood included. 

“It was important for me to have a good friend on the road,” he says, “and Trevor was definitely that. Him and Miller. We’d sit up late at night together, drinking wine and playing cards, and I’d be asking every question about their business and how they make it work. It felt like every photographer around them was dying off, but not only were they making it happen, they were thriving.”

As Hobgood learned, Moran is something of a philosopher. Ask him a question and you’ll get a thoughtful answer, even if the query is low-hanging fruit, like: What do you love the most about your job?

“On one hand,” Moran says, “I constantly ask myself, ‘Do I want to be a photographer, what makes me a photographer, and can I be more than just a photographer?’ I think what it comes down to is that I’ve always been around surfing, and I’ve always loved the travel and adventure that comes along with it. During my mid teens—specifically when I physically grew a lot around 14 or 15—I knew going the pro surfer route wasn’t going to happen. But I remember wanting to continue going on trips, surfing and seeing the world, and realized my best chance of doing that was picking up a camera and telling the story of those trips. That would be my role and purpose.”  

Technical application, relationship building, and the ability to smile in the rain are all tenets of the successful modern surf shooter. Trevor Moran, 2016. Photograph by Mats Grimsæth.

In some ways, Moran’s point of view transcends his medium. In a 2016 photo issue of Surfing, for example, when he was asked along with 30 other surf photographers about the future of the profession, his answer was telling. “My dream is that we stop checking Instagram at red lights, that people are held accountable for their online actions, we celebrate a person’s character over their follower count, and that jealousy is replaced by inspiration.” 

His approach to his career is similar by extension. “To this day,” he says, “I still view my surf photography as a means to an end, to a certain extent. It’s a way for me to continue to travel, see new places, meet new people, and share my experiences.” 

Shooting photos is just what happens along the way.