For this spotlight, we are focusing behind the camera lens to Jonathan Kohanski - a New Hampshire resident who's a mechanical engineer by profession, an ocean surf photographer by passion, and has been living with multiple sclerosis (MS) since 2005.
We dive into his story and explore what got him into surf photography, the profound impact of MS on his life and perspective, and the transformative influence of the ocean and community.
Q. What got you into ocean/surf photography?
Jonathan - It was a direct result of the pandemic. Prior to that, I was an open water swimmer that simply fell in love with being in the ocean. When the pandemic hit during the winter months, the pools were closed, and like most folks the lives we knew and loved changed overnight and I was forced to stop swimming. As spring rolled around, that itch to be in the water, the ocean, just couldn't be scratched. At that time of year, the water was too cold for my old triathlon wetsuits, so on a whim, I bought a camera to take photos of the sunrises. The sunrises here along the seacoast in NH can be stunning, vibrant colors reflecting off the water, textured clouds, it's unbelievably next level sometimes. I loved doing something on the beach again, being near the water was therapeutic, something I feel any thalassophile can relate to, but I also sorely missed being in the water. I decided to combine my new hobby with the swimming that I loved. It was a natural transition for me, I had gotten accustomed to navigating swells as a swimmer and never recalled anyone out there shooting pictures from the water. My curiosity was sparked, the gears in my head started turning, and down the rabbit hole I went!
Q. What do you do for work and how do you fit photography into your schedule?
Jonathan - I'm a mechanical engineer and as fortune would have it, I live and work fairly close to the coast. This convenience, and my abnormal inclination for early morning wakeups, serves me well. In the summer when sunrise can get as early as 5:00am, it gives me a good chunk of time to enjoy the water when there are waves, prior to going into the office. Morning is certainly my preferred time for shooting, the light is amazing, the world is still sleeping, it's quiet, there's just something magic going on when you're an observer to everything waking up. Spending time with close friends during sunrise and in the water is the absolute best start to the day.
Q. How has living with MS affected your approach to your photography?
Jonathan - This is a really complex and tough question to answer. MS is certainly a part of who I am, but not all of who I am. It has changed my trajectory in life and without it I may have never even picked up a camera. I simply wouldn't be who I am, or where I am without it, I wouldn't have the same people in my life, had the same experiences, or learned the same lessons. MS has slowed what was previously a fast-paced, adventurous lifestyle and taught me to appreciate everything a lot more. When we slow down and observe and watch life unfold instead of rushing from one thing to the next, we start seeing details that go unnoticed. I feel like that appreciation and ability to slow down has been a gift. I didn't shoot pictures prior to MS, so I'm not sure I have the context to say how it's affected my approach. I work within the abilities I have just like any other person. I have obvious preferences when it comes to shooting that have undoubtedly been influenced by the disease. I'm not a fan of standing and shooting, my balance has been impacted and spending significant time on my feet is just difficult. Instead, I'd rather spend my time in the water where balance and gravity aren't an issue while I'm swimming and floating around...it's a matter of adapting to what I can comfortably do and maximizing that. We all play to our strengths and fortunately, I feel, being in the water is one of mine.
Q. How does being in the ocean capturing photos affect your mood and mindset?
Jonathan - I can honestly say I love doing what I do, literally everything about it, spending time in the water with friends always benefits my mood in one way or another. Photography and the ocean came into my life and was the anchor point for a massive inflection point of healing and growth for me. The ocean can be a healer on some days, and she will absolutely put you in your place on others, she's a humbling force. One of many things I've learned through shooting out in the waves is the ability to relinquish the notion of having control over situations. In the ocean, on bigger days, when things aren't exactly going well, or easy, you're not going to fight her and win. You learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, you can learn to stay calm and focused in tough situations. Almost everything that happens in the water is mimicked throughout our lives. Sometimes life turns into a washing machine, you get uncontrollably tossed around while you just hold your breath waiting for it to be over. Sometimes you get the smoothest logging waves that feel like a dream. The ocean can leave you humbled, overjoyed, calm, reflective, disappointed, and scared, all in a matter of a couple hours. With that said, even on the days where I know I had a crappy session out in the water, I love being out there.
Q. How has the ocean, surfing, and photography shaped your community?
Jonathan - This was actually a topic of discussion with my therapist a couple weeks back! I've been an introverted person my entire life. My previous activities were largely solitary as well, even the venture into photography, I was doing it on my own. When I decided I wanted to start shooting with surfers, I knew one surfer who I swam with and reached out to her for a couple of contacts. I'll be honest, taking pictures of random people that I didn't know felt weird and creepy, so not knowing folks left me uncomfortable. One contact led to a couple more, and a couple more, and the organic growth has been amazing.My community has grown exponentially throughout New England and overseas, I couldn't ask for a better, more supportive, and loving family. Groups like @lavender_lineup & @morewomensurf & @daughtersoftheseamag have had such a huge influence on me. Their missions of representation and inclusion in the lineup really had me evaluate what I was doing and why. Photography being my artistic outlet, I get to make my own decisions on who/what I take photos of and promote and because I do this on my own, I'm not bound by anybody else's influence of what they want to see or opinions. If people don't like what I'm doing, that's on them, I'm not pandering to the masses. Groups, like the aforementioned, have all been incredibly welcoming, kind, and supportive to me. One of the unforeseen aspects that I love more than anything else now is meeting people and not just for the sake of meeting people, but because I can connect more people. Women are vastly underrepresented in the lineup, so I try to connect women together where I can, to create a more equitable, supportive and inclusive sport versus an intimidating situation, especially for new surfers, paddling out into the lineup. I initially looked at photography as just "taking pictures", but it's now a vehicle for meeting and connecting more and more people. It's resulted in opportunities to share my own story, like this, but has also resulted in the people I shoot with getting opportunities of their own to share. When I get opportunities, one of the first things I want to do is find a way to share those opportunities because any opportunities I get are a direct result of their surfing.
Q. Can you share one of your favorite photos and the story behind it?
Jonathan - I've taken A LOT of shots over the past several years and just over time, and consistently being out there, shots have gotten better, but some of my early shots that I love are special not just for the shot, but the overall influence it had on me.
This shot was when I had just started taking a camera in the water, really early. At that time, I had no real direction in what I was doing, I was just getting out with the literal handful of people I knew and shooting away. This shot felt different, I fell in love with this shot, the light, the lines, Christina perfectly poised on the board and wave, there's just a beautiful elegance to it. It may be one of the first shots that started influencing the direction I moved in. Surf photography falls into an action sport, but there's so much more there than that. Everybody likes big waves, myself included, but there's something mesmerizing and beautiful to me about women longboarding, it's a dance, it's graceful, there's elegance, and ultimately art. I get to capture that, I get to freeze those moments.
Q. What advice can you share or how do you hope your story inspires others to pursue their passions?
Jonathan - More difficult questions! I feel like I've learned a lot in my life and continue to do so, growth is essential. My advice on following your passions...do it. I've spent a lot of my life following my gut and pursuing the things that caught my interest and it's led me down the most interesting roads and it's made all the difference. Life doesn't happen M-F 9-5, it's the unexpected occurrences, those things that hit you out of left field that ultimately change your course and lead you somewhere completely unexpected. I bought a camera during the pandemic on a whim. If you suggested 5 years ago that I'd be where I am, in the ocean shooting and surrounded by the most incredible people, or getting opportunities to share my story, let alone the ability to confidently do so, I would have laughed. This is far outside of where I was in my life at the time, my mental health was in shambles, some days it still is, and I was navigating a divorce. You're going to have bad days, but you have to keep your heart open to possibilities and try not to resist change, change is good, it's healthy and it leads to growth. Don't be afraid to turn the pages of your life and start a new chapter, or even pick up a completely different book. Follow those things that have you waking up at 4:00am because you can't stop thinking about them, that passion is a limitless reservoir of free energy and motivation...and it's infectious. Don't be afraid to follow those things, use your gifts, share your story, be vulnerable, create, your story will inspire others. Don't be afraid to add your own beauty, color, and uniqueness into the world, it's needed more than ever. You'll never know what's possible until you get on that path and see where it leads.
To see more of Jonathan's photography, check out his instagram page @swimtheswell
The portrait of Jonathan was captured by Miranda Rico - @mirandaricophoto
Featured surfers in order of image appearance
Britt Dahl - @britt_dahlz
Jasmine Ayad - @ayadjasmine
Christina Dubin - @christinadubin
Angela Rose - @angelarose_c
Taryn Johnson - @tarynosaurus