Vernon Deck Interview | Travel & Snowboard Photographer Talks Learning by Doing
Mpora interviews the celebrated snapper about sailing, being self-taught and growing up in a crazy cult
You could say photographer Vernon Deck lives a charmed existence. As Volcom’s official snow team snapper he’s spent the last ten winters criss crossing the globe with the world’s best snowboarders - riding and shooting the likes of Pat Moore, Gigi Rüf or Iouri ‘iPod’ Podlatchikov wherever the snow is best, from Japan to Jackson Hole. He’s produced globally distributed movies (notably 2013’s Chamäloen) and his photos have appeared in just about every snowboard magazine on the planet.
In summer he spends his time travelling and working in sunnier climes. Last year he bought himself a 36-foot sailing boat, Nautilus II, and spent four months cruising up the East Coast of Australia, anchoring in remote lagoons, exploring empty islands and snorkelling whenever he felt like it. Yes in many ways, Vernon Deck is a very lucky man. Except that luck doesn’t really come into it.
“His photos have appeared in just about every snowboard magazine on the planet."
Deck doesn’t just lead a full life, he leads a busy one. “If I sit still too long I get bored," he explains when we catch up with him at his winter base, the Volcom Team House in the Arlberg, Austria, on a rare down day. Having missed our first interview slot (he was out on the road shooting in Laax, Switzerland) he’s apologetic, but keen to talk about the latest project that’s been filling his time. It’s a Youtube series called Learning by Doing that’s part travelogue, part photography tutorial and wholly unique. As the name suggests, it’s all about encouraging people to get out there and give stuff a go.
It started he explains, when “I was just trying to get a free GoPro," he chuckles at the memory. “I had a contact at Extreme Video who do the distribution for GoPro in Europe and I thought I’d just send them some clips or something." When he met with them though, they suggested thinking bigger.
“The sales manager said, ‘You should start thinking about doing a video blog because it's interesting, your life and stuff.’" Vernon, a sarcastic Kiwi and never one to blow his own trumpet, wasn’t so sure. “I guessed maybe they hadn’t done a background check on me because I didn't do video, I'm a photographer. So I was like: ‘OK cool’ and was nice to her but just walked away. But actually that sort of flicked a bit of a switch. I was like, ‘well if they think it can work then why should it not?’"
That conversation planted a seed which has now blossomed into a fully-fledged series, now 16 episodes deep. A typical video (like Nanshan Open one - see below) sees Vernon visiting an exotic location, hooking up with some pro snowboarders and talking the viewer through his impressions of the place as well as the photography techniques he’s using.
It’s a simple formula, but the combination of top riders and interesting places makes it compelling watching (the woman from Extreme video was certainly right about Deck’s life being interesting) and far more exciting than your average Youtube tutorial. It’d be hard to think of a better guide to the art of action sports photography, and with both snowboard magazines and photography websites sharing it, the series is starting to develop a following.
“When I first put it out I was like ‘no-one's going to want to watch this,’" says Vernon chuckling. “But there’s loads of people that comment on every single video [and] there’s about five or six kids now that regularly email me with questions and stuff." Although he’s not being mobbed by tweenage fans yet, the videos are definitely having an impact.
“I was in Kitzsteinhorn with [Volcom pro] Markus Kleveland a few days ago and some random kid in the hotel came up to me and was like ‘ah I love your videos’. That was funny." The series has led to several offers of work too, including from camera makers Canon. In a few weeks time he’s “getting flown up to a place in Norway to do two workshops and judge a photo competition".
All of this has come as something of a surprise to Vernon. He considers himself an unlikely presenter (“I didn't really want to be in front of the camera at all," he says, “and I still do it wrong") and as he readily admits, he knew next to nothing about filming or editing when he started out. “It's vastly different from taking photos," he explains.
Most people would be put off by their lack of knowledge. But for Deck, the opposite was true. The chance to try something completely new was what made it appealing in the first place. “I [don't just] get bored if I sit still for too long, I also get lazy. Every now and again I need to forcibly push myself outside my comfort zone. Like anything, you get a sense of satisfaction out of giving yourself a bit of a mission and then step-by-step working your way to that goal."
In fact that’s a big part of why the series is called Learning by Doing - it’s got a double meaning, referring as much to Deck’s own learning curve as to the tutorial aspect of the videos. But it’s more than that - “learning by doing" is actually a pretty good description of Vernon’s whole life. “I've always asked questions and I've always had problems getting answers so I've basically gone through life trying to figure it out by myself. That was taking photos, that was travelling, that was everything."
“We had no TV, no music, church every single day and you couldn't marry outside the group. At the age of eight I knew the two potential girls I could marry."
This approach stems to a large extent from Vernon’s upbringing, which was unconventional to say the least. “I grew up in New Zealand in a small little town," he says, “but I was part of a religious group called the Exclusive Brethren. You have to be born into them so our family was and I didn't really have a choice, that was how I grew up."
The rules were ridiculously strict. “There was no TV, no outside media actually, no music apart from what we could make ourselves and things like that. We went to church every single day, three times on Sunday and you couldn't marry outside the group. There were two girls in New Zealand my age that I wasn't related to, so already at the age of eight I knew the two potential girls I could marry."
When he was 13, all of that changed. “My older brother got kicked out. He had a girlfriend at school and she ended up getting pregnant." This left Deck’s parents with an awful choice: “Never talking to him again, shutting him out completely, or taking out whole family out. But [that would mean] never having contact with their parents or their friends again."
His parents opted for the latter and Vernon suddenly found himself catapulted into the 20th Century. “I had to catch up because I'd never listened to Michael Jackson or watched TV, we'd never been to a restaurant in our lives, or a film. The first time we went to a restaurant my mum cleaned up the table and took the dishes into the kitchen cos she didn't know what waitresses were. I was just a kid so I guess you sort of adapt pretty quick but that was learning by doing back then for sure."
That early experience taught him the value of figuring stuff out for himself and Vernon continued to do so throughout his teenage years and early 20s. “I quit school the day I was allowed to and a couple of years after that I went travelling in Australia. I bought a one way ticket and sort of just went for it."
He’s entirely self-taught as a photographer too (“I ended up getting a camera off this Swedish girl I was sort of seeing at the time in Australia and just started shooting basically") which partly accounts for his enthusiasm for trying new and groundbreaking techniques - like the one in the picture below.
It was last summer though that he embarked on potentially his most ambitious attempt to learn ‘on the job’ yet. “I'd never sailed or even been on a sailboat," he said. “But I thought ‘shit, I've travelled around for 15 years now around all parts of the globe snowboarding but the landmass is actually a small part of our world. There's so much I haven't seen."
Also, he says: “The idea of having a mobile home really appealed to me". So after researching a fair bit online and taking advice from the father of pro snowboarder Curtis Ciszek, who is a keen sailor, he thought: “‘OK, I’m just going to drop in.’ I’d saved up and I pretty much just blew it all on the boat."
Sailing off into the Pacific Ocean with minimal experience would be enough to terrify most people, but not Vernon. “I’d worked on a few islands on the Great Barrier Reef, so I knew that would be a good place to start. It’s pretty safe, there are lots of little lagoons and rivers you can duck into if the weather’s bad."
He took things slowly too. “I’m a complete rookie and my girlfriend was with me for three or four months but she’d never even slept on a boat. So we were both complete rookies. I just thought we’ll play it real conservative, we’ll go at her speed and it worked out good."
“I hit a coral reef one night. That was pretty scary cos you couldn’t see anything, you could just hear this horrible scraping noise. I woke up and thought ‘shit are we going to sink?’"
There were scary moments though. “I hit a coral reef one night. That was pretty scary cos you couldn’t see anything, you could just hear this horrible scraping noise. I just got woken up by it and thought ‘shit are we going to sink?’
“Then we got stuck in a storm at one stage just getting tossed from one side to another. The whole kitchen exploded but you couldn’t go downstairs to clean it up, cos you’d just get thrown around so much. That was pretty scary."
“But we learned afterwards that it could have been avoided cos we just went about it wrong. After we figured that out [we were] in a similar situation about a month later it was like ‘ah, this is mellow.’"
If that sounds like the ultimate learning experience, it’s because it was. “It was really scary at the time but when we’d got more experience we realised it wasn’t that sketchy at all." In fact the first time Vernon used the name ‘Learning by Doing’ was for the blog he and his girlfriend Ylva wrote about the experience. “I really liked the name," he explains, “so I took that over into this new video project."
It makes sense. The way Deck sees it: “Sailing or video editing, it’s the same as everything, once you start doing it, you learn. If you look at anything from the outside it’s always like, ‘woah, it’s so overwhelming’ But you just have to go in and work your way into it and then it all becomes normal."
It’s this do it yourself attitude, as much as the specific technical lessons, that Vernon is keen to pass on to the fans who follow his videos. “On my Youtube Channel people ask me the most rudimentary questions. Or they’ll be so involved in what f/stop you use. I’m always saying: ‘Just go and shoot, it doesn’t matter.’"
“The concept of learning by doing has been my life basically," he says at one stage. “It's what I do, it's what I've always done," and it’s worked for him. It’s hard not to be impressed by what he’s achieved as a photographer, traveller, sailor or with the Youtube channel just by doing it himself. It’s also hard not to be inspired to get up, “off your lazy butt arse" as he puts it, “and go and do stuff." After all as Vernon says, “what have [you] got to lose?"
Subscribe to Vernon's Youtube Channel to keep up with all the episodes of Learning by Doing. You can also read Vernon and Ylva's blog about their sailing experiences here, and see more of Vernon's work on his website.