Creative Wonders

Surfing Photographer Captures Breathtaking Beauty and Power of Giant Waves That Can Kill You

BY Michael Wing TIMEMarch 8, 2023 PRINT

A tropical swell is no joke. Heeding warnings of 50-foot waves, your average beachgoer would probably give the boogie-boarding a rest and hunker down shoreside for a while. But not if you’re Fred Pompermayer. He’s stowing his camera aboard his jet ski and launching off right into the danger zone.

His aim? To capture world-class surfers challenging ginormous walls of water—the thrill of man against Mother Nature on the ocean frontier.

Yes, humans can die out there. Humans do die out there, Pompermayer assures us.

Yet the risks he takes on are calculated ones. “You have to understand what the hazards are to avoid accidents,” he tells The Epoch Times, adding that it boils down to “risk management, taking in all the what-ifs.” The key thing is making the right decision in the moment, he says, being in the right place at the right time.

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A surfer barrels down a wave tunnel. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)

Following that advice of being in the right place, Pompermayer’s moving to Southern California decades earlier was what led to his subsequent success in the surfing photography milieu.

Although he was born in Piracicaba, Brazil, where he studied to be an architect, after graduating from university and working for one year in his chosen field, he decided that wasn’t enough. Pompermayer had always loved surfing and, having taken a photography course during his school years, he became enamored by a new prospect and opted to pursue a dream. He left everything behind—his friends, family, career, and definitely his comfort zone. But it was all worth it, he says.

“I went to pursue my passions of surfing and photography, moving to California to be closer to the best surfing,” he said.

He settled in Los Angeles, where the waves are bountiful.

“I’ve been a professional photographer for over two decades now,” he said. “In the beginning, I shot as much as I could in the water so I could improve my skills to get good quality photos to compete with the best photographers in the world.”

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A surfer catches a mega-sized wave. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)

He learned the ropes: how to not get flipped over on his jet ski amid the monster-sized waves or get lost in the fog in unforgivingly dangerous conditions. Once comfortable handling a camera in the forever moving, sometimes ferocious ocean, Pompermayer uncovered some of the tricks of the trade—how to get the best shots of surfers as they barrelled down the pike.

“It’s all about anticipation for the shot,” he said. “First I have the vision and then I go hunting to turn it into reality. You have to understand your equipment for the specific photos.”

His work soon earned him a full spread in a famous Brazilian surfing magazine and would eventually be featured in publications the world over, including on over 50 magazine covers.

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A recent photo of Pierre Drollet surfing a giant wave at Jaws, Maui. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)

Packing his camera for travel, Pompermayer has ventured to beaches as far abroad as Hawaii and Tahiti to snap some of the world’s top surfers, yielding exhilarating experiences and deeper insights into his craft.

Just weeks ago, he photographed famous surfer Pierre Drollet at Jaws, Maui, showcasing the “scale of the waves and the power of the ocean” that is seldom seen shoreside.

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Nathan Florence’s training focuses on how to survive these kinds of situations. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)

Capturing another notable surfer, Nathan Florence, on a practice run in his preferred training area, Pompermayer managed a shot he didn’t think would yield much, but it showed him just how fruitful chance opportunities can be.

Portraying Koa Rothman surfing at Teahupoo, Tahiti, Pompermayer discovered his allegorical man versus nature shot.

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A photo of Koa Rothman at Teahupoo, Tahiti, displays an allegory of man versus nature. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A photo of Grant Twiggy Baker tackling a big wave. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)

His photograph of Grant Twiggy Baker, Pompermayer says, reveals “how [amazingly far] humans have come to push the limit” in their endeavors to thrive amongst the waves.

Pompermayer’s shot of Kohl Christensen at Mavericks, California, taught him a key surfing photography concept: “Perspective is everything.” It was Pompermayer’s gaining an angle alone that allowed him to showcase the power of those waves, he said.

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Kohl Christensen masters a mighty wave at Mavericks, California. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)

Decades on, photographing countless surfers neck-deep in their element, he’s arrived at a conclusion, that “it takes years of experience to understand how the ocean works.” Perhaps it is his mastery in one arena that has now led him to explore new territory, for Pompermayer has lately expanded his niche, setting one foot on dry land—err, rock.

He has taken up rock climbing photography, recently summitting El Cap in Yosemite National Park. But Pompermayer has also found that photographing waves alone—minus the surfer—can be quite rewarding in its own right.

H2O becomes the solo star of the show.

“Just capturing a giant wave crashing close to the shore after traveling thousands of miles, sometimes days, to get to that amazing point is amazing,” he said, adding one caveat to carry him home, that “capturing a human being challenging himself in these extreme conditions, showing skill and epic strength transcends the photo to something really special.”

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A surfer takes a tumble inside a wave tunnel. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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Photo of Fred Pompermayer enjoying a ride along the beach. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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Fred Pompermayer taking a photo on his jet ski. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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An aerial shot of swirling water movement. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A still shot of a wave building up steam. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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Surfers paddle before a large, folding wave. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A surfer sails down this powerful building wave. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A massive, powerful wave folds over in this still shot. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A crystal-like wave appears frozen in time in this photo. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A photograph captures a perfect, curling wave. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A surfer rockets down a huge collapsing wave. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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Surfers paddle over and ride down a massive, building wave. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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Surfers paddle over and sail under the tunnel of a wave, generating spray and plenty of action. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A surfer glides down a big wave. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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A photo shows a climber scaling El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. (Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)
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(Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer)

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Michael Wing
Editor and Writer
Michael Wing is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Canada, where he was born and educated in the arts. He writes mainly on culture, human interest, and trending news.
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