When the collapse meets the surfing world: A chat with Kyle Lightner

We’ve all been through something similar: wanting to disappear. Just for a while. Just staying under the water a little too long just to see how people will react. Just closing our phone and not picking up, simply to see who’s going to come and knock at our door. Just to hide in our room until our mom comes and hold us. Just forget where we are at that specific moment, all these broken memories and mistakes. All these happy moments that ceased to exist and all these hopes that end up being total bullshit. We all thought of it, but we never did nothing about it – getting out of the society isn’t something typical to do, so we never did. Some days without answering your messages will be the death of your life. But it isn’t not. Even when it seems like everything is falling down, we close our eyes and keep going. It’s scarier to disappear. This isn’t what Kyle Lightner thought.

Nouvelle Vague: We don’t have to talk about that part of your life. You know, what is past is past. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Kyle Lightner: It’s fine, we can talk about whatever you want.

I ended up not talking. Just listening. Just hearing Kyle’s words getting mixed up with confused memories and stories that haven’t been told yet. Is it because no one wanted to hear it? I don’t think so. Maybe just because no one never took the time, even though it’s important. Just to shut up and be there. Be quiet. Let them show their weakness and then their strength, to a complete stranger. ‘’You know, one day I’ve just decided that I don’t like working in that industry, everyone tells you what they want you to hear, but they don’t follow through. They promise you a certain amount of money and at the time, it was big because it was my only source of income. I needed the amount they were promising me and I wanted them to give me the money on time and they wouldn’t. They were taking three months to pay while I’ve got rents coming up. It was really hard’’.

We constantly idealize the surf industry, which I don’t exclude myself from – we think about all these trips, these beers shared and these cultures seen. All these waves captured, these tricks realized and these endless beaches. But, there is more. There is a dark side of the surf industry sometimes, like in anything else. ‘’I deleted my Instagram, I deleted my pages - deleted everything. I went on the internet, contacted people that I had interviews with and I told them I didn’t want them to be online. I just wanted nothing to do with it anymore’’. What kind of trouble can come into your life when you are the one that need to capture surfers doing their best tricks while travelling with them – it just seems great to you. To me as well. ‘’When I secluded myself, I went to the desert, took 10 surfboards and 25 skate decks. I made a teepee and I poured gasoline, then threw a Malakoff cocktail at it, I burned it all. I was so dumb and frustrated with myself and depressed, I was at the point where I was thinking that I don’t even know if I still want to do this anymore – I don’t know if I even want to shoot photos. So I stopped’’. 

The self-serving industry and egoist way of some surfers to get shoot wasn’t at the base of the burnout. Hard drugs aren’t something surprising these days and even though weed is something typical in California, hard drugs is worst. Being on it since he was 25, his mind was never sane and even when Kyle was at work, his mind was wandering somewhere else. Those who thinks that drugs can’t affect your life are wrong. ‘’Even when I was shooting pictures, I was fucked up. A lot of time, I was on pharmaceutical, taking a lot of pills and I would barely talk and they can tell. ‘’Just fucking go home, we will shoot tomorrow’’. I was frustrated. After that trip, I was exhausted. It was because of my drugs used and then secluding myself – I was having a depression’’.

‘’Every time you mix your escape with your job and your life, which is skateboarding and surfing for me, and having it all crumble in one is incredibly devastating. It was no one’s fault, it was contributing factors. So, I was basically just burn out. I wasn’t shooting and I didn’t know if I wanted to pick up a camera ever again so I just picked up a warehouse job at a Sunglasses place, worked there for two years and I went to rehab’’.  For someone that is passionate about photography and film cameras, processing his own films and making the whole process back home, without the help of anyone, quitting photography wasn’t something he was thinking of. How do the things that made you breathe and survive for years can become a struggle? ‘’I put myself into a couple of depression clinics just because I intended suicide twice. At the time I didn’t think it was the drugs, I thought the drugs were helping me, keeping me more relax. Anyway, so I went to these depression clinics, but they didn’t really do much so I kept doing drugs, but they made me stop smoking weed so I said ok, but they were giving me a bunch of pills and it just made me like I was before, a zombie’’. He was in Colorado some time later and was coming home to watch a music show that was during four days, so he went to the shows and stayed awake during the whole time because of the drugs. ‘’I was doing drugs on the way home while someone were driving me, and then stayed up for the next three days. I woke up, well, I didn’t sleep, I called my cousin and I told him ‘’I may have a drug problem’’. We decided that night that I would go to rehab the next day’’.

After one month of rehab and good progress, the clinic decided Kyle was ready to leave. But he wasn’t. He asked them to stay another month and they were glad to keep him with them to be sure he was clean – falling back into drugs is something easy. He then realized during the rehab that the drugs were an issue, but that there was a deeper problem: something he wanted to forget so badly. He wanted to run away from photography, from the pressure of it and the anxiety that was coming along with it. The fact of being born in a Christian home while he wasn’t a firm believer. Realizing your deepest weakness isn’t something we are used to do, so staying at the rehab longer was a way to be stronger before going back to the real world. Facing the reality. JJ Wessels then called him after a moment he was out of rehab and proposed him a room he had to rent. Still working at the warehouse at the time, but starting to shoot some stuff again, living with him was a motivation: he was waking him up and asking him if he wanted to shoot, which he was usually doing. Matix then hired him to do a film, which went pretty good. For him, it was all about taking his time. ‘’For me, it’s logic, it’s math. 1 + 1 would always equal 2. For me, if I have myself in drugs, the outcome will be the same every time. I’ve been clean for two years’’. At the end, the relationship with Wessels was not at his best, he then moved and found a new job, where he’s working at right now, SoCal SkateShop. ‘’It still has been a really slow process for me because before it was, it’s just my personality, but when I see something and I want to do it, I want to do it now – as fast as I can. Just go and go. So, coming out of rehab and ‘’one day at the time’’ is the main thing they say, I thought, ‘’you know what? I want to slow down this time’’. And I did’’.

He then worked with Matix a bit, then a company in Japan, which was a nightmare and ended up being an obstacle in his ‘’come back’’. People wouldn’t wake up on the trip, wouldn’t stay awake late enough, basically, wouldn’t listen to any directions. A nightmare for any photographers. 

Photography is something extremely hard these days as everyone are following each other, capturing the exact same thing with the exact same light and same frame. ‘’Don’t come me wrong on that, I love surfing, I’ve been surfing since I was 13, but, I feel like a lot of the surfing shoots out there are extremely cliché. I feel like there is a formula and everyone is following the formula, and especially with digital photography now, it made anyone able to shoot photos’’.

So, after being clean for two years, secluding himself from the world and then coming back alive with hopes and still some passion inside, Kyle want the world to know that he’s back, but with a completely different mindset than before. ‘’Since I’ve been back versus when I worked with companies before, they told me that I am a completely different person. That I am much more patient, easier to work with, obviously not high on drugs and that I am not fucked up. It has been cool to hear people say that.’’

So, now, what’s next?

‘’You know, I have no expectation. Of course ideally I would love to be back where I was, but making more money of course. I’m 31 now, I need more money to support myself and have a family. It would be great to work with a company I fully support’’.

Because his website is brand new, his Facebook page as well and his Instagram too. 

Maybe just give it a glance?