Film director's Devon premier of 'inside the barrel' documentary

North Devon Gazette

A telescopic lens can only capture one single perspective of surfing from the beach. But when a photographer gets inside the barrel, they can capture intimate moments of one of the most exhilarating water sports around. Â

In the 1970’s, when Surfing Magazine staff photographer Dan Merkel was the first to swim out to the right-hander known as Backdoor on the North Shore of O’ahu, he was able to capture unseen and unique perspectives of surfing, including from inside the curve of a wave. This kind of high-impact imagery has completely changed the game for surf photography. Â

Surf photography and videography is an artform that has evolved alongside the sport itself. Non-surfing enthusiasts often can’t comprehend how thrilling yet dangerous it can be to capture photos from inside the barrel. Â

That’s why Californian film director Johnny Gonzales produced In The Water Behind The Lens, to peel back the curtain on the reality of water photography, and the dangers and challenges that water photographers face to get front-page-worthy images for global surf media. It features some of the first pioneers of surf photography, like Dan Merkel, Jeff Divine and Brian Bielmann, as well as present-day surf photographers from surf breaks across the world.Â

“It’s so much harder to shoot in the water,” explains Gonzales, who grew up close to Seal Beach, in California. “There are so many elements that you have to contend with, but the reward comes from getting that awesome shot because you were in the right place at the right moment. Why be boring, and shoot from the sand when you can get up close in the water? That’s where the magic happens.”Â

“I wanted to tell the story of water photographers so that people could have a better understanding of what goes into this as an art form,” adds Gonzales, who dedicated three years of his life to writing, filming, editing and producing the documentary - all self-funded. Â

His hard work, passion and dedication paid off. In 2021, the film won awards at international independent film festivals, including the Lift-Off Global Network Awards, Paris Independent, San Francisco Frozen, Sarasota, Catalina, and Newport Beach film festivals. Last week, Gonzales even visited Devon to premiere his documentary at the Maritime Inn in Plymouth, where local surfing enthusiasts were able to enjoy his celebration of the world of surf photography. Â

“I have a friend from Devon that I’ve known for over twenty years,” said Gonzales. “He encouraged me to come over and interview cold water surf photographers, so we could get a different perspective in the documentary.” Â

Because of his friend’s influence, the documentary includes two water photographers from the South West: Mike Lacey of Porthleven, and Devon-based Spike Chambers who shared their insights on the craft. Â

But while filming these water photographers in action, Gonzales learned just how dangerous it is to place yourself in the right position to photograph big waves. Â

“I was filming in Porthleven, and I nearly drowned,” explained Gonzales. “A guy had to pull me out of the water and save my life. I never got the chance to thank him properly.” Â

So naturally, once the film was complete, Gonzales ventured back to the South West to share the finished product with his long-time Devonshire friend, and other local surfing enthusiasts, in the hope that he might pay it forward in helping someone else learn about the potential dangers of surf photography, which could ultimately save their life.Â

In The Water Behind The Lens is scheduled to be shown on PBS in June 2022. Gonzales hopes that this documentary will help to launch his career in filmmaking. “I love shooting in the water, but I want to keep making more films,” he said. “I feel like I’ve found my calling.” More information on Johnny Gonzales and his film, In The Water Behind The Lens can be found at