Richard Kotch - Surf Photographer
The success of the talented photographer and humble human, Richard Kotch all boils down to a number of enviable elements coming together. A well-travelled, passionate surfer, experienced waterman, with a grateful attitude, a beautiful wife and child, and a life lived well outside of the ordinary. All you have to do is scroll through his hugely popular Instagram to see all of these elements in play in technicolor boxes of perfectly arranged pixels. Currently existing in a slice of paradise in the Maldives, Richard has honed his craft, shooting in the crystal clear water of this eye watering, tropical location, with beautiful waves, and his mermaid of a wife, surfer Amy Kotch, as his constant muse. Read below to get an insight into the life of man who has it all, and his journey to achieving it.
Firstly, where are you from?
Devon, SW England.
Where do you call home now? And how did you end up there?
Home? I guess Lohis in the Maldives – it’s where we spend nine months of the year and it all feels so familiar. The way we ended up here is a long story, the short version is that I once received a random phone call from a friend-of-a-friends, friend, who needed a contact in NZ. He asked if he could stay with me (in Raglan), I said yes (when it would have been very easy to say no). Turns out that we got along like best mates and spent a month cruising around NZ looking for waves. A couple years later he invited me out to the Maldives where he had been working as a surf guide. A year or two after that he needed a change so he hooked me up with the job guiding at Lohis. I was into it but only planned to do one season (as I’d have preferred to be in Indo). In the meantime, Amy had been on her own journey – she had been invited to Nihiwatu by a good friend (the mum of some kids that she had taught to surf) and whilst she was at Nihi she was offered the job of managing the resort whilst the long-term managers were away for a year. Naturally she jumped at the opportunity! Fast forward a couple months while she was in Sumba she met Ross from Tropic Surf who offered her a job at the Four Seasons in the Maldives! Amy had visited the Maldives back in 2005 (she stayed here at Lohis) and had commented that it would be her dream to work in the Maldives. The job at Nihiwatu was only short term so once she finished she moved to the Maldives. I met her in the surf at Jails (scratched her phone number into my wax) and two months later told her I was going to marry her in 5 months or 5 years!! That November we were married on our front porch in NZ and went off for a honeymoon hiking up mountains and living in the back of my old van!
How did the journey to what appears to be a pretty incredible life begin?
For both of us I believe it was saying yes to an opportunity that came up. And then just being happy to have ‘a foot in the door’ and seeing where the road took us.
What inspired you to take up photography, particularly surf photography?
I’ve always been into photography. I used to be fascinated with war photography, even as a vegetarian, yogi, pacifist, I would prefer to go to an exhibition of hard hitting, super graphic photo journalism from a conflict zone than look at pretty sunset shots.
Who inspires you in the surf photography world?
Geeeez there are just so many surf photographers and so many are super dedicated, swimming all day and using good gear. There are so many good shots out there that it’s a bit overwhelming sometimes. I know some really good surf photographers who have given up and turned to other avenues to earn a living with their cameras, but personally I find it inspiring, the whole Instagram thing. There are guys you’ve never heard of who are posting shots they shot a couple hours ago, shots that would have been covers ten years ago, but now they have a moment on Insta before being absorbed into the soup. So to get back to your question, I think the guys I admire are the guys who are still making a living going to the beach with their cameras, guys who realize that we are the lucky ones. I recently spent a week with Ted (Grambeau), he’s been right there (as one of the world’s best surf photographers) for so long, but he’s still so amped to shoot. He will always be ready an hour before the pro’s and is still super stoked on shooting, plus he is really encouraging to others who are shooting. Then of course Zac Noyle, Brent Bielmann, Russel Ord, Domenic Mosqueira, Diogo d’Orey, Leroy Bellet – guys from the impact zone in whom I see parallels between the war photographers shooting in the conflict zones. I also really like the work of Al Mackinnon – he’s not such a mental case as these other guys but his work is always so precise. He has the knack of choosing the correct lens for any situation and is a master of so many different styles of photography.
How did you take your craft to the next level and make a living working in places like P-Pass and Lohis?
Honestly I’m not sure if I have yet? Part of me wishes I could say it was my ambition, something I’d aspired to forever, but the truth is that it was a direct result of too many injuries that prevented me from surfing! If you are an injured surfer who likes photography and are told to not surf for 8 months, but you can swim, it was a no brainer to start swimming and shooting. I feel that I progressed quite quickly because I already knew the basics of what to do with a camera, and I had been surfing for a long time so could read what a wave was going to do. I was here in the Maldives with beautiful light and crystal clear water and I had a cute surfer girl wife to shoot. Other photographers hate it when I say this but I really don’t think surf photography is very difficult, especially if you are a surfer and can read what a wave is going to do. You just need to have your settings right and be able to hit the target with your focus. Even composition isn’t as important as it used to be, cameras shoot such hi res files that you can crop down 1/10th of a file and still have a file big enough to print or use online. This takes me back to the question about who I admire – it would be the early guys shooting slide film, guys who would have pressed the shutter with absolute awareness because they only had a roll of 36. Nowadays it’s almost embarrassing to admit we often burn through that many shots on one wave! I remember being 21, down in Morocco with two rolls of Kodachrome, 4 rolls of Velvia and 4 rolls of Black and White to last me two months. I thought so much more about every shot so I valued each shot, so I really admire the guys who made their own housings and swam out.
You have lived and photographed some pretty incredible places and waves. Tell us about a few of your favourites?
Lohis is my favorite place to live, especially now with baby. The Mentawais is my favorite place for a boat trip with friends, PPass is my favorite place to be when the charts show 8ft at 18sec and you know it’s going to be mental and someone like Mikey is going to show up. New Zealand is my favorite place to live, without being too worried about surfing – just a really nice quality of life.
In the same way we all remember a magic wave or session, is there an image that you’ve captured that sticks out in your memory that you think … “That’s the best photo I’ve ever taken”?
No not really …I find that I go through stages of being really into a certain style or technique, so I have favorites of different styles…
Water photography ... you make it look easy! Tell us about the challenges of shooting epic waves from the water. Have you had any scary moments?
The scariest thing here in the Maldives is the beginners – guys who shouldn’t be out there. I have been in the zone for a hook-up with someone in a nice barrel and a beginner will try to drop in and just get sucked over on top of me. I find stray boards are way more dangerous than the guy riding the wave.
What’s the best thing about what you do, and what is the most challenging?
Living on a beautiful, tiny island with good waves, miles from anywhere, with the love of my life and our son is the best. The worst is living on a tiny island, miles from anywhere.
Water, land, drone photography … do you have a favourite?
What advice would you give photographers looking to take their creative field to the next level, towards a professional career?
Always do something different – it amazes me how often pro photogs shoot the same angles/same set ups with virtually the same settings. Photography is a super creative outlet… where anything goes and anything can be considered to be art or garbage depending on taste. For me personally, I struggle with doing a job that can put you into a fairly conservative mindset, ie you have to get a nice sharp shot of the guest on the best wave of their trip, so you can’t be experimenting too much, but I always tell Ali (my assistant) that once he has a few keepers of a guest to then do something different – climb a tree, get down under the deck, swim with anything other than fisheye!
And for the intrepid crew out there looking to live a life outside the norm, next to some of the world’s best waves, what advice would you give them?
Just say yes.
What are you known for?
Geeeez, who knows?! Maybe drinking too much coffee? Swimming all day when its firing…becoming a ‘baby evangelical’ now that I have a son!!
What are you most proud of?
Growing a loving relationship with my wife Amy whilst living in a tiny room on a tiny island without friends or family. So many people have told us that they didn’t think we could do it and now we have our baby and our relationship is just getting better.
Who or what is your greatest inspiration?
Surf wise it has to be Kelly – what he has achieved competitively is amazing, and to still be so fit and healthy now approaching his late 40’s is remarkable. He has inspired multiple generations of surfers. Surf photography wise Zac Noyle for sure. Away from the surf scene I’m inspired by so many people. People who work hard and succeed in their careers, people who devote themselves to environmental causes, to helping others, nurses on the night shift… The photographers who travel to the worlds darkest corners to show the world what is happening from both a humanitarian and environmental perspective. Look it’s really it’s hard to answer this in a couple sentences but there are times that yes I feel inspired but I also feel inadequate – like “dude you just shoot photos of people having fun” when the reality is that the camera is a tool of communication that can be used in a far more serious or worthwhile capacity. It always makes me laugh/cry when some surf photographers take it so seriously - as if they are feeding the starving or highlighting the plight of the persecuted or something genuinely heroic with their camera.
Learning to ride the tube… Nias in the 90’s had a ‘time standing still’ moment that I can still remember vividly. That was the point when I realized what it was all about.
Coffee, dark chocolate, red wine… though I don’t really feel guilty… just the pleasure!
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
The joy of having a baby.
Of all the places you have travelled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
I remember my first trip to Australia with my friend Bruce, I was nineteen and my eyes were just opening, it was a great trip with so many amazing times but the most powerful memory I have is of an early morning walk through a random east coast town, and seeing Aborigines’ sleeping on the side of the road in a puddle of piss. I just remember feeling such a deep sadness for them as a people. Not what you (the interviewer is looking for I know) but it’s still a very powerful image. Surf wise, Hawaii is somewhere I was glad I went to, just to ride along the bike track and see all the great waves, to be able to sit on the beach and watch Pipe. I surfed Velzeyland in the dark early one morning, beautiful 4-5ft and the next person who paddled out was Tom Curren (followed by Lee-Ann)… he was wearing a hat that was more like a balaclava. He paddled out and sat quite close to me… like 2 meters away but didn’t say a word, then a wave came, a sick one, and I looked at him as if to say are you going? But he kinda nodded me into it and as I paddled he gave a hoot that sounded more like a barn owl, like a soft musical note! By the time I paddled back out it was getting busier so I was relegated to the scraps but that ten mins with Curren has always stood out.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
What are you most grateful for?
My wife and baby
When/where/who/how did your passion for surfing start?
I saw Tom Curren surfing in Lacanu in 1986 . I knew instantly that my life was never going to be the same again.
What does surfing mean to you, and how has it changed your life?
During different stages of my life it has meant more than others. When you are younger it is all you ever think about, like the wildest most passionate affair imaginable… then gradually the intensity of the relationship cools but it also strengthens. Now, with a baby, the drive is still there but it just doesn’t happen so often. Prior to meeting Amy I used to say that surfing had been my one true love.
Honestly I can’t pick one…I used to spend a lot of time on the far north coast of NSW, that was my favorite surf zone for years, but more of a lifestyle surf zone – really good variety of waves, good fishing, good people. There’s a couple beachies in NZ that I really enjoy, but again it’s the lifestyle more than the waves. Lohis has given us so much and as a wave it can be everything – when it’s big it’s a fun barrel and when it’s small it’s really rippable, so Lohis is definitely one of those special places for me. Eight years ago I would have said Cokes for sure but nowadays it’s a bit of a circus up there, though there’s still magic moments.
Most memorable session?
The first time I rode across a wave I guess – Harlyn bay in Cornwall, England. Late October 1986
Biggest surf mission/most hardcore surf spot you've visited?
I spent three months in El Salvador maybe 16 years ago. I was living in La Libertad and there were gang murders most weeks. That felt pretty sketchy (though very easy to travel to). The most hardcore travelling I ever did was the first time I went to Nias in 1990 – I went by bus from Sumbawa to Bali and then just kept going by bus all the way to Sibolga. The worst 5 days of my life.
Too many to pick one. My first Bing Dharma was special… Also our Bing Maui Foil single fin that was a wedding present from Matt and Margaret Calvani. I’ve got to mention a 6’9 from Albert Fox back in the 90’s that was my only board for 3 years. A 6’6 Tokoro that Mikala Jones gave me in Indo years ago, a 6’0 Channel bottom from Rod Dahlberg and a 5’9 Quad that he shaped me maybe 10 years ago. To date I’ve had 42 boards from Rod and I think 40 of them have been keepers.
Finish the sentence:
…my wife and baby and living this semi nomadic lifestyle around the ocean.
…having the time to read. Avocados, sushi, really good coffee and long-term friendships.
…that on good days I had two bodies so I could surf and shoot photos and never miss a shot or a wave.
…our son to grow up happy and healthy, in a world that is dedicated to preserving and protecting this remarkable planet.
Where can we find you online?
Posted by: Emma Gibbons, on May 28, 2018
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