An Interview with Filmmaker Ryan Struck | Tofino is a Place

Tofino is a Place was selected for the 7th Annual NY Women's Surf Film Festival 2019, Directed and Produced by Filmmaker Ryan Struck. The women's surf community in Tofino is a unique as British Columbia is remote. The annual all female surf contest Queen of the Peak was started by women and is a testament to the grit and determination of the women who live there.

women's surf film festival Tofino is a Place

Where did you grow up and where do you call home now?

I grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey for half of my life. I most recently called Asbury Park home before leaving for New York about 5 years ago. I currently reside in Rockaway, and have been here for 3 years now.

How did you get started in photography and filmmaking?

Surf photography started as a curiosity to me. I first paddled out on a board in college with friends who ripped and I often found myself watching in awe, especially in the early mornings and late evenings when the lighting was most beautiful. I was pretty driven to surf for awhile until I got a camera in the water. Since then, photography has developed into a passion, career, and meditation. There’s something about the push and pull of the waves, being at the ocean’s mercy and immersed in the salt water that puts me at ease. Most of what I shoot in surfing I consider personal work these days, though I am commissioned to shoot surf lifestyle by brands and editorial outlets from time to time.

The skills I learned in the water are transferable to the larger body my work has grown into. I still seek beautiful light, I love meeting people, hearing their stories, and making meaningful photos. Since moving to New York I've pursued my newest inspiration: filmmaking. I've always filmed on surf trips, but I didn't "know what I was doing." Working as a PA I had the freedom to hustle really hard, and then mingle with the crew and ask questions to learn more. I thought I was a camera nerd until I met the heavies here in the City, man I have a lot more learn haha!

My career as a still photographer presents many opportunities to work with agencies and directly with clients, and my crash course in filmmaking has put me in the directer role more and more. It feels like a natural progression, and I enjoy being able to operate in both worlds.

What inspired you to make Tofino Is A Place?

I've always pursued personal work in still photography. The industry leaders are always talking about how personal projects are what get you hired. I see a lot of people forcing it. I have this drive to just shoot things that are interesting to me, weather its when I'm with my friends, simply walking down the street, or traveling. I just want to see something new and learn about it through the lens.

This feels silly to say, but I didn't know filmmakers also made personal work. It wasn't until I worked on a music video for a talented director named Nick Bentgen that I learned people also ponied up their own time, effort, and cash to bring to life ideas they had. On that production I lived the film school kid's dream, I just never went to film school. I pulled focus on a steady cam, filmed people underwater, drove, moved gear, etc. I got my hands dirty in all the best ways and then got to see it all come to life once it was released. I worked for free on that production, as did everyone else. This experience planted the seed for me to keep following your ideas in film. I think you'll see where I'm going here with this in the next few questions.

How did you come to meet the surfers in the film?

In 2016 my friend Reilly Stone was invited to the Vans Joel Tudor Duct Tape Invitational longboard contest in Tofino. I had just finished a short film with Reilly, and the Stone Family invited me up to go shoot. Reilly and I got into town and linked up with Jen Thorpe a business owner (Caravan Beach Shoppe & The Shoreline Tofino) who helped to guide us around town, introduced us to a bunch of local surfers, and really facilitated the trip's experience purely from the kindness of her heart.

All of the people we were introduced to were women. They were artists, entrepreneurs, surfers, and all united by their love of the region. Everything I had experienced in surfing prior to this was turned upside down. So much of surfing is/was male dominated. When I traveled, I went to destinations with impressive waves like Teahupo'o, or Pipeline with shortboarding men who sought heroic barrels. In Tofino where this film takes place, I met women who were well traveled, well versed, friendly... and ripped.

I traveled to Tofino later that fall and was fortunate enough to be there for the Queen of the Peak, an all female surf contest started by Krissy Montgomery (who narrates most of the film). Ok everything that I thought Tofino was, was real! I knew I had to come back and tell this story. Two visits is a small amount of time to meet people, learn, and become friends but I was very open to it all, and Tofino is just one of those places for me where everything happens as it should. I asked the women whom I came to know in town if I could tell their story through my point of view. Everyone pulled out all the stops for me. I'm still in shock to this day that I am so well received in a place far away from my home. It's a testament to the beautiful people that call it home.

women's surf film festival Tofino is a Place
women's surf film festival Tofino is a Place

You mentioned your degree in history taught you to "investigate and learn" about the cultures and people that you capture in your work, what have you noticed in regard to women's surfing?

Well the recent requirement from the WSL that men and women be paid equally for contest wins was a huge development. That's great, but equality in surfing still has far to go. There wasn't a women's division at Teahupo'o and there's plenty of women who we'd all love to see get their share of waves out there.

Paige Alms recently showed her newest short film at Patagonia Bowery this summer, and the amount of engaged viewers was awesome. Most of them women who looked at Paige with wonder, and asked insightful questions. It was probably one of the more engaged crowds I can remember.

Overall I find that I see a lot more women surfing than when I first started paying attention in my early 20's. There's more female surf photographers now than ever also. Since the whole visual aspect of surfing has been my main focus (photo, film), I'd say the sexualization of women and surfing has been toned down quite a bit. Though I do still see women in bikini's on beaches float by on large surfing media's pages. I recently saw an image from a wave pool of a woman's butt in the foreground, and a surfer riding the wave in the background. To be forthcoming, I've shot those images too in my career, and I've sent them to the outlets who I knew would run them. I've outgrown the need for my work to be seen and I've honed in more on the work I want to make. So I understand why people are shooting those images to a degree, and I'd be a hypocrite to condemn them, but I do think at a certain point the photographer or the magazine has to take the initiative and elevate themselves. The tough part is that the surf media is a young person's endeavor, or largely is. Maturation comes with time, experience, and age. I feel like having the conversation is what's most important.

Where are some of your favorite places to surf? And which destinations are on your bucket list.

Tough call. Nothing beats an epic day at "home" with your best friends, for me that's Monmouth County, New Jersey. I know this is a big claim, but a few days a year it's world class. I've seen the likes of Tahiti, Hawaii, and Mexico for giant surf. It's indescribable to witness the ocean's raw power, so in that vein I'd like to see some of the cold water big waves in Chile, the Pacific North West, or West Oz. I could throw a dart at a globe and be just as happy seeing something new.

What is the best travel advice you've received lately?

Don't drink the water.

What can't you live without when you travel?

The spirit of curiosity. If I didn't have that I'd sit at a resort drinking cocktails with umbrellas in them. Give me adventure, throw a wrench in the plans, and let me rough it. I'll still be squeezing my eye behind the lens.

What is next for Ryan Struck?

Who knows! Sometimes as a freelancer you'd like to see what's coming, but the most rewarding thing about this lifestyle is getting smacked upside the head with a burning desire to pursue an idea, or an amazing client that throws me into the thick of an incredible project. I'm gonna keep persisting. It's the struggle that keeps life worth living.

women's surf film festival Tofino is a Place

Join us for the 7th Annual NY Women’s Surf Film Festival in Rockaway Beach, August 9-11 at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club. We then head to Montauk, August 16-18 at The Montauk Beach House.