It's so dirty! And your throat will be cut! But such rewards, says New Jersey's Ryan Miller…
Where do you find success? And, what is success?
Is it bringing thunder to your craft? Is it making money? Or is it, as is the case of New Jersey surf photographer, Ryan Miller, creating a seasonal business lucrative enough to carry you through eight months of travel, including mortgage payments on your crib, every single year.
If you don’t know Ryan, you’ll know his photos. The hard-working ice-cream store owner travels to each event and… works it. His game isn’t the oblique or the abstract but straight sports photography. Ryan doesn’t misfire. And, every single day, his photos are uploaded and distributed. Red Bull is one major corporate client who rain shekels for his work.
I ask Ryan, who is your favourite surfer to photograph and why?
“Good question but fuck, I don’t even know if I think in those terms. I get “where is your favorite place to go?” all the time. I honestly feel like here and now is my favorite place wherever I’m at right then is just fine by me. If you start to think “Oh this place sucks and I can’t wait to get to Fiji or wherever” then you can suck all the life out of that trip real quick. Same logic applies to my favorite surfer. Whoever I’m shooting at the moment is who I’m excited about shooting. I don’t really think in terms of favorites or that would relegate me to thinking if I was shooting anyone other than that favorite person, then I would be having a lesser experience.”
What essential truths has he learned about the pro tour since following it?
“That if you open yourself up to new experiences and learning new things at every step of the way then you really can. I learned more this year on tour by seeking out new experiences than I have learned all other years cumulatively.”
Ryan mixes a solid education (two photography degrees and a fellowship that allowed him to live in Haiti and document that wildly dysfunctional country for one year) with a work ethic borne out of 80-hour weeks at the beachfront ice creamery called Yum Yums he owns with his wife, Cristen.
The pair bought the biz 15 years ago for five gees. Neither had any experience, but Cristen’s parents knew restaurants, and, with a little help, the two 20 year olds made it through the first year. They didn’t make a ton of money, even working from noon to midnight every day, but it was still enough for ’em to take off for the rough east coast winter. The business turned around when they discovered that they both had a natural affinity for small-talk.
“We created a strong bond with the customers. We learnt their names. We remembered their orders. We taught some of ’em how to surf. We even go their houses for dinner,” says Miller.
These days, Cristen is still in the store for the crazy summer, but Ryan, whose photography is starting to pay off, only stalks the counter one day a week.
If you’re on the Jersey Shore (yep, where the MTV reality show was filmed), you find the Millers at 31 John F Kennedy Boulevard. From mid-May to mid-September, the place is absolutely fucking hectic. But then, it’s like France, the place shuts down. The tourists leave. Absolutely everything closes.
As soon as the first of those autumn fronts move in, the pair are riding the gulfstream to more human-friendly climates. It used to be India, Nepal and Thailand, the classic path for travellers chasing adventures in the sun, but ever since Ryan taught Cristen to surf, their destinations now involve sweet beachbreaks.
In a neat twist, Ryan says that his wife Cristen is “responsible for everything. She’s the one who got me into surf photos. It was her initiative to start traveling. It was her initiative to buy the ice-cream store. And, when I taught her to surf, instead of wanting to go to Asia or wherever, she said, fuck India, let’s go surfing on the Gold Coast.”
How good is the gal? Fuck India! Go surf! Four months of work and eight months of fun. It’s a very good definition of success.
Ryan Miller’s 5 tips for success
1. Find your niche: It ain’t easy, but discover what you’re good at, whether it’s running an ice cream store or taking travel photos or being a hellman water photographer, and make your mark. Stand out. Be better than the next guy. Exploit your talent.
2. Bury your ego: Business is so fricken full of being let down. If you carry that ego thing with you, you’ll be buried alive by rejection. Don’t question your self-worth. Keep going! Keep believing!
3. Customer service: Tie up all your loose ends. Answer emails promptly. If someone’s doing biz with you, make it easy for ’em.
4. Be persistent: But, at the same time, don’t be a dick. It’s a fine line. Don’t freak out if your emails aren’t answered within the hour and don’t start sending paranoid shit full of capital letters.
5. Forge great relationships: Be a good guy. You get so fucked, so let down, that it’s easy for the devil to come out. Don’t let it happen. Take rejection in a gentlemanly fashion and keep rolling.