Shannon Glasson Interview
The teenage photographer that learned to swim before she walk, doesn’t feel fear due to not producing cortisol, and subsequently shoots the most exquisite big wave images from deep in the impact zone. We sat down with nineteen-year-old Shannon Glasson in her home town of Cronulla, to hear her inspiring story.
Her photos stand strong alongside some of the best in big wave photography. On their own merit, they communicate a world that very few see, let alone experience with such intimacy. Dark caverns of water, sucking dry off imposing reef, well below sea-level. Slabs of rock threatening to shatter the bones of surfers and bodyboarders game enough to slingshot themselves into their open faces. Behind the lens stealing these moments is a teenager driven to capture the emotion of these situations. Nineteen-year-old Shannon Glasson.
Hailing from Cronulla, one of Sydney’s southern beach towns, Shannon is local to some great waves, including heavy beaters Shark Island and Cape Fear. There is also no shortage of ripping surfers to shoot (Cronulla is where surf champions Mark Occhilupo and Richard “Dog” Marsh cut their teeth and where current CT surfer Connor O’Leary currently lives). What is more astounding than the beautiful frames Shannon documents with her camera, is her own personal story of what she’s overcome to capture them.
Shannon was born with two rare genetic conditions: Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH) and a severe case of Congenital Talipes Equinovarus (CTEV). CAH is incredibly rare affecting 1 in every 15,000 births and its impact means Shannon doesn’t feel fear due to her body not producing cortisol – a bi-product produced under stress to protect from injury. The second condition CTEV meant that she was born with both her feet facing backward, something that research says occurs in 0.5% of births. Up to the age of 7, she was in foot braces and to date, has undergone 13 surgeries to correct her feet. To clamber up the rocks remains a challenge, as her feet that now face forward, do not articulate with full flexion and extension. Something she laughed at, telling me the bill for finding flippers that fit her swollen feet has amassed $2,500!
Where land and walking presented obvious challenges pre-surgery rendering her in a wheelchair up until age four, it was the ocean where a young Shannon could really perform. Taught to swim at only 3 months old, long before she could walk, the ocean was always where she is most comfortable. Combine that comfort with her intolerance to what us mere mortals simple know as fear, it’s easier to comprehend (maybe not understand!), how she negotiates her own safety to enter some seriously heavy ocean situations. “I just like big waves” she told me, her face lighting up with memories of past aquatic dates. “It’s all about the chase”, referring to the journey of getting there and the anticipation of what’s to come. “I want to shoot The Right” (one of Australia’s heaviest waves off the West coast of WA). “That waves, as well as many other slabs around the world, is what I’m working up to”. F**k Yeah!
Shannon grinned a knowing smirk when I asked her if the boys support her in the water. ‘You are the first person that has ever asked me that” she said. “Normally everyone thinks they would be hard on me because I am a girl, but it’s not the case at all, the guys are so supportive and want to see me succeed”. To anyone involved in the Australian big wave community, this should come as no surprise. You know when someone is in it for all the right reasons, and Shannon is deadest honest, passionate, and driven to capture the visions she sees in her mind in the most organic and raw way. The surf community no doubt see that and in turn, they offer her all the support they can.
Gender, as it should be, is irrelevant.
As inspiring as her story and struggles are, it is her art and work ethic that should be the focus. On a big tow-in day at Cape Fear, one of Sydney’s heaviest slab waves, Shannon’s determination to shoot from the impact zone, inspired World Tour surfer Sally Fitzgibbons to give the deadly wave a nudge (one of the only women to have done so). In an article published by Surfer, Sally recounts seeing a girl jump straight off the rocks and inspiring her, “If she’s game, I’m game”, she said. The result of that session was a photo that earned both Sally and Shannon a front cover of Joyce Magazine and published in The New York Post and Tracks Magazine, later shared by Lil’ Wayne and George Takei from Star Trek. That photo and the story behind it, will no doubt go on to inspire women both behind and in front of the lens.
Honest. Driven. Unapologetic. Passionate and tough are how I’d describe Shannon. She calls a spade a spade and takes no prisoners (as the saying goes). When asked for advice to anyone wanting to get into surf photography she said ‘do you time, get familiar with the ocean, swim, get used to the currents. Cut no corners’. We agreed wholeheartedly that there is no substitute for experience, and time in the water was something she looped back to throughout our conversation (she is also a very keen spearfisher which has massively helped with her breath training). Does she think girls get it easier now? Maybe. But she is opposed to anyone that plays the girl card expecting to get an easier run than the guys. Success as a photographer or surfer isn’t measured by an Instagram following. Only time in the water, familiarity with the ocean and an unwavering passion to ‘just go’ will set you up. If the passion is lacking, you will never succeed. No matter how good the new camera your parents just brought you is.
Shannon still might need a tap on the shoulder every now and then as a kind reminder of the seriousness of the situation she is about to launch herself into. She is incredibly rationale in her approach despite lacking the cortisol, which would otherwise make her think twice about jumping off those rocks, or shooting Shark island alone at night. Wise beyond her years and clearly an incredible talent, there is also a softness and vulnerability to Shannon which I was lucky enough to glimpse. Although not fond of public speaking, she enjoys helping others and sharing her story, no doubt inspiring school kids and corporates with her strength, attitude, drive, and ambition. Alongside Vagabond Photographic, she is also teaching people of all ages how to shoot in the water.
So what’s next for Shannon? Well at 19 she’s doing pretty darn good, with a portfolio including some of the world’s best surfers, having been featured by Red Bull at aged 17, exhibitions in the US and strong sales of prints of her work. We look forward to seeing what she does next. Especially when those winter swells starting hitting, and The Right starts to break.
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You can see more of Shannon’s work or follow her adventures on Instagram @shannonglasson and Facebook. Her website shannonglasson.com is where you can order prints or find out about any shoot in the water sessions she is doing.
Thanks Shannon. See ya out there you legend!