Fierce Females No. 33: Evie Johnstone, Free surfer and Photographer
••• Newquay-based photographer, free-surfer and all-around adventurous soul Evie Johnstone has been captivating people worldwide with her beautiful images of a life full of surf, soul, van adventures and her work as a successful photographer. As we discover in this inspiring tale, Evie’s story, which has taken her from a one-way flight to Costa Rica aged 17, competing as a pro-surfer, running a successful surf retreat business, owning a bar and club in Spain and living the wild life on the road shooting as a photographer, is one full of surprise, bursting with life and experience. We caught up with Evie between adventures to dive into her exciting world…
So tell me about your journey from the beginning Evie. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Chichester, in between Brighton and Portsmouth, on the South Coast, kind of on the beach. We would say the surf was average to poor, we'd always be in Cornwall or Devon on holidays, surfing.
When you were a kid, I read you bought a one-way ticket to Costa Rica?
Yeah, just straight there. Because I loved surfing! I ended up staying there until I was 25 or so. I had a surf business, a surf camp over there. I surfed professionally, all over Latin America, then I came back to the UK to do the surf tour.
What was Santa Teresa like back then?
It was beautifully quiet. Just a dusty road with three restaurants on the whole road. I don’t know if you've been there, it's wild, how different it is now. There were literally like two or three restaurants across the strip, a few hotels, and like, you know, like 10 people in the water. F*cking wild.
So you were there for quite a while. What enamoured you about the ‘Pure Vida lifestyle?
The surf. Every day you can surf, every single day, and I'd never lived anywhere where I had that as an option. And the food was really good…mangoes and papayas…and I was quite young, I was like 17, 18, so I didn't really have any money, but was able to live healthily and eat well, nourish myself properly almost for free. Everything grows which was really nice.
What was it like being that young, a lot of people go on solo travels almost when they're a bit older?
Do you know what's funny? When you were that age, you had no fear. You don't feel young. You feel really old! I'd feel way different about it now. I'm fairly free. When you are younger, you just don't give a shit. I felt way more energy and felt way more at ease doing it back then than I would now.
Did you first enjoy competing? Because I know you transitioned out of it.
Yeah, competing was good. Because I didn't grow up surfing every day, which was what I wanted to do. I think by the time I got to Costa Rica, all I wanted to do was be a pro since I can remember. All I wanted to do was surf, but I was so shit at surfing when I was a kid, because I never surfed. As soon as I got there, I surfed every day, I just got better really quickly because it was all I cared about. I just watched videos and then an ex-boyfriend put me in my first competition, and I did really well. Then I was just like, right, I'm doing this. I got myself a trainer who really helped doing videos and in the gym and dietary stuff, you know, all the gear you need to be a successful professional in any sport. I did it for four years, whilst I had a business, which was retreats. They were girls’ surf retreats and road trips around Costa Rica. Surfing. Partying, yoga-ing. I was doing that alongside the competing, there was a lot going on, I guess! And then I came back to the UK to do the UK Pro Surf Tour. At the time, I was looking at the UK surfers and they were all like, Billabong-ed and Roxy-ed up to the nines. And I was like, I need a piece of that, that's gonna help me breakthrough. I came back and I won the tour the first year I did it. And then very quickly, you just learn there's no money in it in the UK. All those stickers weren’t what it looked like from the exterior. It was just like clothes and stickers. From what I could understand, there was no money backing people.
A bit of smoke and mirrors maybe?
Uh, potentially. I mean, it is so hard. I didn't hang around for that long. Again, I'm an impatient soul. I didn't really see where it was gonna go and the business was doing well. I had my sponsors that paid for a lot of it, but I had to self-fund a lot of the travel. I ended up thinking, why the fuck am I spending all my money to get to really shit waves, and surf in the middle of the day on the low tide. I'm like, this is not fun. This is not really like where the enjoyment for me in surfing is. I think I had a whole load of realizations that actually surfing should be for fun. You kind of get to a point where either you have to go all in on surfing or leave the other stuff in it. And I was alone, you know. I was traveling alone. I was doing it all alone. Going around Central, South America, I was traveling it all alone and I, I just think it got a bit lonely, I lost direction with it.
So how old were you when you decided to stop competing?
Is that when you began to segue into photography?
Sort of, yeah. And I moved to Spain for a couple of years. I owned a bar and a nightclub.
You had a bar and a nightclub? Okay. Tell me about that!
It was so fun, it was in a town where we spent a lot of time growing up. A little Spanish town in the south. Surf’s good, really good down there. I just kind of left Costa Rica in search of something new and exciting. There was a garden bar we used to drink in when we were kids. This beautiful, huge garden, amazing views of the town. And when I went there this time, it wasn't open. And I went and asked where it wasn't open. They said, oh, the owners don't open it anymore, it's actually up for rent. And I thought, oh, oh, this is exciting. At this point, I'd done a bit of business and wasn't really too afraid. So my friend Marg, who I lived with in Costa Rica for years, one of my favourite people in the world, is an artist, and the idea was to take on the space so she could do a European exhibition, and sell a few beers on the side. On the first day, me and her were behind the bar, and neither us knew how to pull a pint, neither we knew what we were doing, but she had all her art. We decorated it and made it this magical garden. And it was busy, you know, and it just escalated, week to week. And then it was the bar of the town. Over a thousand people! It wasn't a small bar, and then you're starting to do like events and then you're starting to get bands on, and then you start to get DJs. And then before you know it, I've got three bars within the bar, 16 people working for me. It just escalated. So that lasted for two years. It was really fun. Lots of late nights, I wouldn't change it for the world, but I couldn't maintain it because it was too much party! It was an amazing experience. Doing it in another language as well, doing it all in Spanish, no one spoke English. It was a real journey for me.Two years was enough. Then I came to England and that's when photography started.
So had you always been interested in photography?
Always. That's what I studied at school. Photography, art and Spanish. I never really thought I'd make a career in it. Also, back in those days we didn't have social media, so there wasn't as much money in it. I think by the time I was 26, 27, Instagram was a thing. People were using social media, and saw the value in photography way more than what it would've been when I was growing up. So within that shift, I found that I was getting way more work because there was way more work available and there's still so much more work available. Every day, five times a day, people need content. It's just huge how it's changed.
It feels like you're able to incorporate your love of travelling in your van and surfing into your work. Do you do a lot of your projects whilst you're on the road on the surf trips?
All. As many as I can. It's cool. I've got clients on retainer. I love to be working. So when I do travel, they find that really exciting because they get like, four or five different locations a year without having to do anything because I just take it with me. And then when I'm back in Cornwall, I've got loads of really amazing clients here.
Newquay is so beautiful and your images you capture of it are just insane.
“Newquay is amazing. Cornwall's amazing, it's the best place in the world. It really is. Well, it's definitely the best place in England. I mean, there's warmer places, there's a lot of storms and weather, but it makes the good almost better.”
Is there something you actually love to shoot the most?
I just like shooting things that make me happy, or happy people. And it's light…my best time, the best photography I ever do, is when I'm like, oh my God, look at the light. And I go and grab my camera and I run outside. It will be a really stormy day or something, and then suddenly there'll be a break in the clouds and light will come through and everything will be bright pink. Or it's in the morning and we're walking down to the beach and someone's got a surfboard. I'm like, oh my God. Look at the light coming through the palm trees, and the early morning mist. A lot of it is driven by light. England is quite hard in the winter because the light is so low, and so gray. Visually, it's really flat. I think it makes my energy a little bit flat. I'd say I’m driven by light and adventure and seeing you know, people surf amazing beaches, palm trees, all the things that we love.
Do you have a few dream shoot locations that you haven't yet been to?
I really want to go to the Ments (Mentawai), because I could surf on the side! I haven't done a desert yet, so Joshua Tree or something would be cool. I like the idea of going to Iceland. I'm definitely more of a warm, sunny surfer, but it would be cool to do ice. And then, yeah, the desert, Joshua Tree. It just looks cool and vast and expansive and starry and I just want to sit with a margarita.
Do you have any tips for someone wanting to break into surf photography?
It's so much more accessible now.
“If you've got an interesting story to tell people, people will be interested in it. They really will.”
If you're going to interesting places, people will be interested. And if you are passionate, you're really passionate about something, you find a way. I feel like if you really, really, really love it, you are gonna be good at it because you're gonna spend a lot of time doing it. You know you're gonna master something…I don't just do it for work, I do it for work and play. I do it all the time. My camera's always somewhere.
Reach out to brands. Do loads of collaborative stuff. Find the skaters, find the surfers, go out and shoot for free, do their shoots, get your name bouncing around so people know that you're a photographer. You will do loads of free stuff before you start getting paid stuff. It's just the nature of the creative industry. Unless you work for an agency, but then you don't get the freedom
You have to be seen and you have to be heard. You have to bang on some doors. And you have to get rejected. It's just the nature of all kinds of works.
What are your next plans? You mentioned you want to go on a surf trip soon?
First and foremost surfing. I'd like to get a month away and then I couldn't do some really nice summery content for all my slightly more summery brands while I'm away. The dream really is to start working with travel mags. I wanna do more editorial stuff. That's my, like, that's on my manifest.