by Pete Rocky

“What Clark does is amazing. He puts himself in places that most humans would never want to be. … And he generates the most incredible images because of it.”

-Rob Machado

It’s 5:30 a.m. on a perfectly cool spring morning on the North Shore of Oahu. Clark Little is up and tinkering with his camera equipment as light begins to pour across his gorgeous Pupukea home and property. He has several acres perched a few hundred feet above a handful of the best shore-break waves in the world. 

On this particular day, Clark drove down the hill to a shaded palm tree, parked and darted down to his favorite shore-break wave. Sitting on the beach, he reflects back to eight years ago, before he was a world-famous photographer, when his wife Sandy brought home a photo she’d purchased of an empty wave. Clark couldn’t believe she spent money on something so extravagant, a photo he believed he could capture on his own.

Feature-Clark-Little-4L-Magazine-San-Diego-02“She’s the one who got me into photography, you know, coming home with a picture that she purchased,” Clark says. “I said, ‘What the hell are you doing buying a wave photo? I’ll go out there and I’ll shoot one.’ I mean, literally, that’s how I picked up a camera. I got a little housing to get in the frickin’ shore-break. Because she came home. Honestly, I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.”

The very next day he went out and put together a $150 housing to protect a rinky-dink camera, and the rest as they say is history. 

In those eight years, Clark, or “Turbo” as his friends refer him to, has garnered the attention of a massive wide-eyed audience. His photographs have won various awards and graced the cover of countless magazines. They have been included in a two-page spread in National Geographic, an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., where Clark also received an award, and led an appearance on Good Morning America. 

With all the success, Turbo is still a humble, stoked-on-life guy. He’s 45 going on 16. His peers refer to him as the luckiest guy on earth, while his two kids still occasionally refer to him as a dork. He puts it all into perspective and agrees that he’s been very fortunate but admits it’s been far from an easy road. 

The word “charge” is often thrown around loosely in the world of surfing. Few people on the planet have the stones that Clark Little does. Whether it’s big wave surfing, riding the shore break at Waimea Bay or putting his life in harm’s way to capture amazing images, Clark Little is the epitome of a guy who charges. 

He and his older brother Brock were born in Napa. Soon after, their dad got a job teaching photography at the distinguished private school known as Punahou Prep in Honolulu. (Yes, the same school the president of the United States attended). The boys made the entire campus their playground and were able to attend the school tuition free, living on campus in faculty housing with their parents for several years. The family kept making trips to the North Shore and eventually moved up to the countryside. 

From the day they moved in, surfing and the beach became their entire way of life. They ended up attending their final high school years away from Punahou because a three-hour-daily bus commute was becoming too hectic. They settled instead at Waialua High School near their home. They developed life-long friendships during those high school years and grew closer to the ocean each day. 

I asked Clark who mentored he and Brock, aside from their parents during that time. “Kerry Terukina and Marvin Foster looked over my brother and I. They taught us the ropes with surfing Haleiwa and protected us always.” Terukina was a longtime friend of fellow Hawaiian waterman Foster, who died in 2010.

Clark looks back on those days as the path that shaped he and his brother’s life. Brock went on to become one of the most famous big wave surfers of his time, while Clark quietly charged massive shore-break barrels at Waimea Bay and began to devise a plan to become a successful grower of orchids and plumerias. 

Aside from his father’s career as a photography teacher, he was also a plumeria hybridizer. Clark grew fond of the process and adapted his dad’s methods of planting, propagating and crossing different plumeria breeds. This led to Clark starting up a successful eBay business. 

I asked him to explain what it took to get that up and running. “I spent 17 years working in Wahiawa as a horticulturalist supervisor. One thing led to another and I began to use a point and shoot camera to list these special hybrid plumeria cuttings on eBay and would sometimes get more than $500 per cutting for the rare breeds. I was literally able to build my house up in Pupukea with that plumeria money.” 

Clark is one of the most humble guys you could ever meet so hearing that story of success led me down another path, asking how he met  his beautiful future wife Sandy. “I spent a lot of time down at Papailoa Road at the Hill House. Ronald Hill and I would surf and sometimes play beach volleyball. I met Sandy down there and we became inseparable. I’d go surf and she’d sit on the beach and watch. I definitely knew she was the one I wanted to be with for the rest of my life and a year and a half later, I asked her to marry me.” 

Clark and Sandy have two awesome and talented kids, Dane and Allie. Both have their parents love for the ocean and are gifted athletes. 

Feature-Clark-Little-4L-Magazine-San-Diego-03With the success of Clark’s photography came a ton of travel. He was constantly on the go heading off to Asia, Tahiti, Brazil and all over the United States. Clark tries to take the family whenever he can, and they’ve had some pretty amazing trips together. 

Clark’s mom was also a schoolteacher and spent 30 years teaching speech, so he has photography in his blood from his dad and the gift of being able to speak to large audiences from his mom. Clark has been able to thrive. Whether it’s at one of his two book tour signings or sitting and articulating his life’s success during numerous television interviews, he comes from a strong foundational background for his profession and lifestyle.

All this running around takes a high-energy person, and Turbo isn’t afraid to admit his strongest vice is a good strong cup of coffee. He loves driving down Pupukea hill and hitting the coffee shop in front of Foodland. He sees friends and swaps stories while sipping his cup of Joe. 

I asked how he officially received the nickname Turbo. “My buddy David Liu and I were driving back from the Turtle Bay where we were lifeguarding and I kept overtaking slower-moving cars. One car was really lagging and I made a beeline to get around him. Liu clenched the edge of the seat and yelled out “Turbo Little” as we passed the guy. Ever since it’s stuck. And I have to admit, the name fits because I’m a pretty hyper guy.”

I’ve known Clark since I was a grom and I’ve always known him to have an incredibly strong positive energy. I asked him to explain when and where the success of his photography first started to pay off. “It’s funny because when I first started getting into the shore break to take photos, people were wondering what in the hell I was doing. People saw me floundering around wondering to themselves if I needed help. 

“Slowly I was beginning to capture some pretty cool images. I started to share them with my brother and wife and a few other people and I kept hearing them say they thought I had something. I started shooting with an SD 500 and a housing I bought off Amazon for $150. At that point I was about four or five bills in. The set up was on delay so I’d have to shoot early to capture what I wanted about a second or two later. They didn’t have these GoPros back then that took 30 shots per second. You really had to be in the right spot at the right time. Anyway, the shots were starting to turn out and the next thing I know, I’m doing a little gallery show in China Town called China Town Boardroom. It was the first time I had my photos on canvas. A bunch of people came out to support me. I felt really stoked, proud and happy. It was this tiny little place but I was so stoked to have my first exhibit there. One thing led to another and my next show was in Kailua, which led to a bunch more local shows.” 

I asked about what it’s like to receive all the recognition and how he’s been able to deal with the fame that still continues to gain momentum. “I get blown away with how cool it is to have these kids coming up to me with their GoPros talking about how much they love doing it and how I’ve inspired them. It’s pretty crazy to be down in Mexico and have people come up to our table and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you the photographer Clark Little?’ I enjoy it and embrace it. 

“Another thing that stokes me is seeing all these kids that have their $299 GoPros out in the water floundering around just like I was. They’re getting ocean awareness. They’re learning about camera equipment. Some of these kids are already selling their prints online so they’re learning about business. With Instagram and technology the business side of photography is becoming more and more limitless. It’s all there with just a single push of a button.” 

Clark’s continued online growth has actually been in large part due to two particular mouse clicks. At press time, he currently has over one million followers on Instagram. A video of him that began to circulate on Facebook has gone viral and after three days, has a total viewership of over 2 million. In addition to the videos and Instagram, Jack Johnson and Kelly Slater also wrote forwards for his latest book, The Shorebreak Art of Clark Little. It’s seems as though the world is quite literally his oyster. 

The coolest part about seeing all this success come to Clark is the maintenance of his down-to-earth demeanor. He still tries to answer questions regarding equipment. He still makes time for an eager fan with a question. And he made time for me on a moment’s notice, treating me to a front row seat and view into his world. Clark’s major success, as he puts it, is simply traced back to his wife bringing home a picture she bought of an empty wave. Eight years later, he’s reaping huge rewards from that moment. 

A set wave smashes onto the beach. There’s now more than a dozen groms flapping around in the water with GoPros attached to their arms. They’re all trying to capture a photo similar to what Clark has become famous for. 

What is it in your life that’s right there ready for the taking? For me it’s appreciating every opportunity I have with friends and family. Clark has been an inspiration for greater success, to follow your passion and dreams, no matter where they may lead. I was honored to spend a couple of days with Turbo, learning the ins and outs of photography and what truly makes him tick.

I guess we should all be thanking Sandy for making that purchase.