A.J Neste - Photographer

When and where did you start surfing?
I was a 9 year old, chubby little spoiled New Yorker when I first started floundering around in the ocean on a body board. But one day my neighbor was throwing out a Bunger surfboard and my life changed when I paddled out on that beater for the first time.

What is it that you love about surfing and the ocean, and why are they such intriguing subjects to photograph?
I know I should say something about the oceans beauty or how majestic the lure of the ocean is or some hippie crap like that. But I like the competition of it all. You get to see who is the most prepared and the most hungry for success, in both surfing and just basic survival in the ocean. 

Do you have a session that stands out as your most memorable? (Surfing and/or shooting)
Just like hunting or fishing, every session has a story. But I remember the day I realized I wasn’t a pro surfer. I spent hours watching guys get barreled out of their minds in Hawaii. And I was so fired up from shooting all morning that I said, “ I gotta get out there!”. Well I nearly had to be rescued. That is a lesson I have never learned from. I have basically been beaten up around the globe by the worlds best surf breaks. I’m glad there is not much footage of that. So more than a specific session I remember the hold-downs and the beatings. Which in some weird way I have always enjoyed. Maybe it’s my inner Mark Healey.

Being surrounded by the world of photography from a young age with your father being Tony Neste, was it something that you always wanted to pursue as a career?
Never, it was my dad’s thing and although meeting celebrities was cool, I saw how hard my Dad had to work. And it didn’t come easy for him. He was a very hard worker. And he has always been so technically sound. It all seemed so unreachable for me. But the funny thing is, I started taking pictures at 10 years old. Just of birds and squirrels in my backyard. And continued shooting all through my young teens and into high school. Then when we moved to Florida in my 9th grade year, I started shooting my friends surfing. I would go develop my film, print out some 8x10’s of them and sell the pictures for $10bucks. That was pretty much my first job. Which ended up leading to a career. So yeah, I got kinda taken by surprise when Surfing Magazine hired me to shoot for them. Being a professional photographer was something I thought I could never obtain. But like all forms of art there is room for difference. And although I might not be able to ever be as good as my father, I can still express myself through photography and maybe influence someone through my images. That is every artists dream, to provoke emotion in others through their artwork.

Do you remember your first camera?
Well, it technically wasn’t mine. I stole it from my dad’s camera cabinet. But it was an old Nikon. Actually I stole all my cameras from him, till he found sand on his good film cameras and made me buy my own gear. But the total truth be told, I still steal his gear when he’s not looking. Sorry pop. 

What kind of things inspire the work that you do?
I enjoy risk. If there is no risk I am not motivated. I have been blessed to work with my long time friend Matt Katsolis the past decade. Matt is an amazing Cinematographer that shares my love for documenting life. But with that love, we usually find ourselves is situations that always lead to hilarious stories when we are back home with our wives. We would never have those stories without our desire to go deeper into situations or push our limits in everything we do.

How did you go about making a name for yourself and differing from the competition in the flooded market of surf photography?
Sorry this isn’t a short answer. But possibly interesting for someone. Well, when I first got hired I was the only guy in the industry shooting digital. Sounds crazy, but its true. My father had to switch from film to digital because Sports Illustrated made all their photographers switch in 2002. So I went all digital as well because if S.I. was doing it, everybody else would follow soon after. But on my first job for Surfing Magazine I begged them to publish my digital images, but they wouldn’t because they were worried the quality of digital wasn’t good enough. So all my first jobs for them was for their website until their film guy missed “the shot” at a comp at Lowers. It was a shot that I happened to get. With no other choice but to run my shot I achieved my first published image. Which was also Surfing Magazines first digital image ever printed. I remember how excited Matt Walker and Evan Slater were. It felt like we all accomplished something. In the mean time I got scooped up by Suring America to document the USA Surf Team in 2003, where they took me to Tahiti to shoot the ISA World Games. USA got 2nd place, which was huge news. While all the other photogs had to develop their film, I already sent mine around the world to all media outlets. Surfing America’s Executive Director Mike Gerard saw the value in that and gave me a full time position on the spot. Which kept me busy for the next 7 years.

Do you have a favorite location or surfer to shoot?
Ok, I feel like a grom saying this, but my favorite surfer to shoot is Kelly Slater. I remember when I first shot Kelly when I was a young kid in Florida and I couldn’t believe the speed he would generate. It boggled me and challenged me as a photographer to keep up with him. His unpredictability on a wave and his magnetic aura for all surf enthusiasts makes him my favorite then and today. 

Have you tried your hand photographing other sports like your father?
It’s funny because just this weekend I got hired to shoot a college football game. And I was telling some people how I have a whole new respect for my father’s football images. If you want to be challenged as a photographer, go shoot a football game. And then ask yourself how you would feel if you had the pressure of delivering cover worthy images to Sports Illustrated. It gave me understanding on why my father would scream at me while assisting him if I forgot to load a camera with new film.

Other than surfing, what are some of your other favorite things to shoot?
Wildlife, mostly deer and wild hogs. Because they are delicious when well marinated and put on the barbeque. Or did you mean shoot as in photograph? Ah, never mind. I’ll stick with my first answer.

Are there any shots that you have taken that hold a particular sentimental value to you?
I once took a photo of an owl while holding my daughter Malakiyah in my arms when she was a little baby. I have always called the photo Malakiyah’s owl. I walked right up to it. And it wasn’t scared at all. And ended up closing its eyes and falling a sleep. So cool.

What is it that you love about your job?
Everything. I owe so much to photography. I thank God for my profession with the utmost sincerity. As cameramen we hold the responsibility of giving glory to whatever we focus on. And when done properly it is quite possible to change the worlds view. But if I had to narrow it down I would say I enjoy the challenge of being hired to deliver imagery that makes my clients excited about not only my photography but happy about their jobs as well. Producing imagery that ignites excitement is what drives me.

What can we expect to see from your photography over the next 12 months?
I can’t wait to show off my new website that will be out this year. I have shot so many new things since my last website update a few years ago. But ultimately it is hard for me to predict what is coming up for me. I never know if I will be in another state or country next week. But I do plan on killing it on instagram with lots of cell phone pictures of my son Jovanni fishing with me.

Do you have any must-hear advice for any budding/ aspiring surf photographers?
My best advice would be to not be intimidated by successful people. Everybody that has accomplished something in their career has a beginning and can relate to someone that is hungry to succeed. For me it was Surfing Magazine. I reached out to my hero who was Surfing Magazines photo editor Larry “Flame” Moore. It surprised me that the email address on the masthead was his actual email. He replied to me and gave me constant advice. 2 years later I was sitting next to him while he taught me how to read swell charts from the Navy. So go for it, reach out to your hero, be respectful and never forget who got you to where you are. We all have a God given talent, and it’s an awesome thing when you find it and believe. Like most things on our journey through life, it all starts with a choice. My little secret is to keep Christ number one in my life and he helps me choose the right path and how to get out of the bad ones. But I only share that with my closest friends. God Bless you all and thank you so much for this opportunity to tell my story.

Find A.J online

Web:  www.ajneste.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/A.J.NestePhotography
Instagram: instagram.com/ajneste
Twitter: twitter.com/ajneste

Posted by: Troy Roennfeldt, on February 17, 2015
Categories: Interviews