As his second book Into The Wild is released, Matthew Brookes discusses following California surfers up and down the coast, the “colourful” Venice Beach community, and the bliss of living off the grid
Into The Wild – Jon Krakauer’s seminal 1996 book, which chronicled Chris McCandless’ journey into the Alaskan wilderness and subsequent death – has been championed by many as a manifesto for leaving society and immersing oneself in nature. In 2007, a film adaptation by Sean Penn raised the story’s profile even more, and in 2020, authorities were forced to remove the real-life bus that McCandless died in, since it was such a popular – and dangerous – pilgrimage spot for diehard fans.
“I love that movie,” says Matthew Brookes, a photographer whose new book – also named Into The Wild – documents a series of young, carefree surfers from Venice Beach in their prime. “I met a group of skaters that lived in a school bus on my street, and they told me they decided to buy a school bus and travel across the country to California to live Into The Wild,” he explains. “The movie was their inspiration to go on their adventure, and the title just stuck in my head. There is a definite link to the idea of this book and living off the grid.”
After losing his sister to cancer during the pandemic, Brookes – who was born in Sheffield but raised in South Africa – moved to Venice Beach in 2021 for a change of scenery. “I was fascinated with the crazy and colourful Venice locals; skaters, surfers, musicians, hippies … it’s a very unique place where everyone seems to just do their thing without judgement,” he says. Brookes, who has made a career shooting celebrities and high-octane, black-and-white perfume commercials, noticed that many surfers were living out of their vans. One surfer he met had a part-time job shaping surfboards, but spent most of his time travelling up and down the California coast in the van – his life clearly revolved around the waves. “What struck me most about the young people,” he says, “was how happy they were – they seemed to shine with an inner peace.” Brookes then embarked on a six-month photographic project shooting surfers in and around their vans, out in the waves, and on the infamous Venice boardwalk.
Many of the surfers featured in the book lost their jobs – as farmers, florists, models and fishermen – during Covid, which spurred them on to buy vans with a hefty unemployment sum from the US government. Interviews with the characters in the book carried out by Zack Raffin of Stab Magazine shed light on people’s innate love of the water sport, and their reasons for embarking on a more unconventional, nomadic lifestyle. “[Surfing] gives me clarity,” says Zian Mateo Boyd. “When I’m in a state of anger, frustration, what have you, surfing is my outlet to let go of all of that. And it’s fucking fun.” For bed-headed blond model Lucas Milan Ucedo, things are more simple. “I like a good beer, a good burger, and a good-looking girl. I could pretend to be this elegant guy, but I try not to. I’m just a Venice guy.” Plus, “girls think the van is fucking cool,” says Joshua Isaac Perez.
Brookes clearly has a thing for shooting niche communities – his first book, Les Danseurs (2015), captured the delicate strength of male ballet dancers at the Paris Opera. “I have a thing for unique tribes of people,” he says. “Photographically, it’s super interesting to discover a world that’s completely foreign to your own.” Despite the often exclusive, tribal nature of subcultures, Brookes was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming the surfers were while shooting Into The Wild. “I was very surprised how they opened up their world to a complete stranger like me and took me travelling around with them like one of the gang,” he says. Homelessness, however, is a major issue at Venice Beach – Brookes will be donating the profits from his book signings to a charity for homeless children called Safe Place for Youth.
Other surfers in the book rave about the sense of community to be found in the sport. “What makes Malibu unique is the interactions between those people in the water and the parking lot,” says Zian. “The parties after a long day of surfing, the familiar faces, and everyone pushing each other to become a better surfer. It’s really special.” Above all, the book pits the surfer-van life as an antidote to the often overwhelming, chaotic nature of modern life. “The less stuff you have the less stuff you have to worry about,” explains Samuel James Mallos.
Into The Wild by Matthew Brookes is out now.