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Gravitational Pull ︱Morgan Maassen

Frankie Harrer on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. 2013

The core of the withitgirl platforms seeks to amplify women's voices, visions, and work - we never sought to exclude those of men. We believe it to be essential to include them as well. As feminist author Joanne Lipman states in her book, That’s What She Said, “If women only talk among ourselves, we can only solve 50% of the problem.” And, despite always encouraging people of all identities to be “withitgirls” and including them in our narratives, we are mindful not to polarize the issue further, especially in a time where the representation of women is lacking significantly in front of and behind the camera. We need not exclude but uplift, support, and connect all the multiple talents.

Through studying feminism during my college years, I came to understand the solution to such complex issues will not come without a sharing and understanding of our stories and perspectives. With the key being rooted in connection, we will find that feminist issues are not us versus them—women versus men—but, rather, intersectional issues which impact us all and are realized as something the majority wants to fix. Viewing the issues as the enemy, not each other, leads us to the root causes, challenging the issues themselves, not one another. It is of the utmost importance that we take the opportunity to open the conversation with everyone, allowing people to truly reflect on their journeys thus far, learning from their past and others so that we can all do and be better in the future.

So, after years of WITHITGIRL encouraging and welcoming all—men included—to join the community, it is time we continue the dialogue, merging new perspectives and taking the time to look at and learn from our different experiences so that positive change may come from them.

Let us begin with Morgan Maassen.

Morgan Shooting underwater at Teahupo'o, Tahiti. Photo by Ben Thouard 2021
Stephanie Gilmore underwater at Pipeline, Hawaii. 2016

Sage Erickson in the Marshall Islands. 2016

Morgan is a filmmaker and photographer from Santa Barbara, California. His work is striking, leaving you in a state of fascination as you find yourself feeling connected to something from half a world away or even at your doorstep in a way like never before. With a curious eye and a bold yet minimal approach, he captures beauty in the natural wildness of these places and people that may otherwise be overlooked. This, along with more than a decade of experience in the surf industry, has helped Morgan build a successful career in the photography and filmmaking world.

What initially drew you to photography/filmmaking? Does that initial thing continue to drive your work? Or have you found new influences and passions over time?

I started making little home movies of my friends surfing and our adventures in high school while teaching myself graphic and web design and pursuing a full-time job after leaving high school early. After saving up some money, I started traveling at the age of 19 and treated myself to a photo camera and warehousing to document my adventures. Upon returning, I found my footing in the surf world as an action/lifestyle photographer and used those connections and income to take a more serious stab at making films until both passions were symbiotic functions of my work and adventure. My drive has always been my hunger to travel and explore, and that still keeps me awake at night to this day. I love meeting new people, experiencing the extremities of nature and wildlife, and using cameras to unlock those situations.

Stephanie Gilmore, North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. 2012

Sage Erickson & Quincy Davis, Mexico. 2012

As a photographer/filmmaker, your perspective plays a large role in your art's impact on people. What would you say your mission is behind the lens, and how is that influenced? What parts of you and your values do you seek to capture with your lens?

My utmost passions are art and adventure, with the ethos of both being curiosity. I think that is where my perspective comes from, affecting everything from compositions to the subject matter.

Goddess Film: Vahine, Heimiti, Kohai Fierro. Tahiti 2021

How do you support women and people of diverse communities through your work and platform?

I launched my pursuits of photography and filmmaking in the surf world, whereas a lifelong surfer – I’ve always admired female surfing more than male surfing. There is so much more style, grace, and elegance! While these observations first played out cosmetically in my work, they quickly engrained themselves in my broader outlook on the industry, then other industries like lifestyle/fashion/commercial/etc. and continue to keep me inspired and hungry to do my best to support women and learn about every aspect of their perspective and journeys.

I think something paramount to me is that, beyond focusing my lens and storytelling on women, would be to remove the gravitational pull of men and the industry wanting to sexualize them… and focus on how they are not only our equal but often times have a far more fascinating approach to their lifestyles and the environment.

Stephanie Gilmore, Mexico. 2013
Stephanie Gilmore, Mexico. 2013

What are the most significant issues you have experienced regarding equal representation in front of and behind the lens? Do you have any thoughts on these?

From my perspective as a cameraman, the largest issue is the most boring and steadfast one: women being sexualized. It seems to be this trope that women have to appear sexy to be appealing, and that percolates in every aspect of how they are approached, from brands to viewership to people in my position. I like to disregard that completely and machete to the core of who they are, as I would and we should with anyone of any background.

Are there any examples where you’ve seen someone “doing it right” that you’d like to share?

Great question… no one is perfect, but I think the best things happening right now are unobservable… because they are just happening? Like Vans sponsoring this diverse group of women and putting out surf films, concerts, contests, etc., some are lesbian punk rockers, and others are French-Mexican longboarders covered in tattoos. That is badass! But also… the exact way men have been treated forever, so it’s easier to miss that than to sit back and say, “Wow, they are doing it right!” another example is in the snowboard world, Korua Shapes is an incredibly staunch, well-designed brand that has a tight-knit family of riders who cater to its highly-curated image. They sponsor a handful of women and treat them exactly to the tune they treat their men – bringing them on trips, giving them tons of airtime, and sharing all the unisex clothing and boards. Most smaller brands will isolate their pursuit into the women’s world not just because of differences in fashion but also to derive some spectacle from it for being inclusive.

Coco Ho, Hawaii. 2014

You have a large collection of work on women, some of which feature nudity. How can you personally step away in your role as photographer/filmmaker that does not objectify them?

I’d say 70% of my work (containing people) is of women, but I’ve only photographed women naked 2-3 times. Each time was at the women’s suggestion, always a close friend and collaborator (Zoe Crosson, and Tatiana Geifer in particular), and it was to relate the simplicity of nudity to the power of nature. It is funny, though, that the concept of shooting men naked is totally lost on me, although I’ve probably done that 20-30 times in my 12 years of photography… it's usually my friends and me goofing around on boats or surfing, humor being the emphasis. Ultimately, nudity and subsequently sexiness in photography is not my intention and never has been in my work. It’s always about the mood, the environment, the textures, and the lighting. I think that’s just who I am versus someone like Terry Richardson, who wants to show you a nipple or vagina and get a reaction out of you.

Coco Ho, Hawaii. 2014 (ESPN Body Issue)

How did the assignment to photograph Coco Ho come about? What are your reflections and takeaways from the experience?

The assignment came about by ESPN and Coco reaching out to me to be the photographer for her feature in the Body Issue. I had worked with ESPN before, and Coco trusted me to be her photographer in such an intimate setting, so I was elated at the opportunity. The photoshoot took place at a secluded reef near her home in Oahu, Hawaii, and was an absolute blast - ESPN and the producers of the shoot went out of their way to make it feel like we were truly alone and safe. As time has transpired since the shoot, I feel like there is always someone who wants to poke holes at the project, and I, as a conscious individual, am always keen to listen to their opinion, but one of my largest takeaways was just how excited, and proud Coco was to do the shoot! While FHM or Playboy may objectify women for their bodies, the ESPN Body Issue is a celebration of the athletic form, both female and male. The year before had photos of Kelly Slater running naked, and while some might find this silly.... I continue to appreciate it as a fascinating study of the world's greatest sportspersons' muscles and athleticism.

Stephanie Gilmore, Mexico. 2011

Kelia Moniz, California. 2013

Are there any examples of impactful conversations or experiences that influence your work?

I left high school in 10th grade and never looked back, and while I’ve read countless books that have broached this subject from so many intentional and unintentional angles… it was real-life experiences that have delivered me to where I’m at today. Across the countless photoshoots and travels that I’ve done, all the people I’ve met, and the experiences I’ve had, it was seeing people treat women with utmost ideological respect that guided me to my mindset today, and sadly some horrible experiences (and there have been many) that showed me what to steer clear of. The advertising/creative world is rife with misogyny. Stephanie Gilmore and I have had some profound conversations about it all, and she has been a shepherd of my growth, feelings, and actions.

Stephanie Gilmore, Mexico. 2013

Research shows that most men want to do better regarding the issue of gender inequality but don’t know how or genuinely don’t understand. This often leads to men being shut out of the conversation around gender inequality before they even have the opportunity to join and learn from it. As a man, have you ever been scared to speak up or join the conversation?

I never have personally because I think that if/when the problem rears its head in front of me, it needs to be solved immediately. I have no qualms about fixing it in my workplaces, productions, collaborations, etc., because I know what I want and how to handle it. If you verse it well to someone who doesn’t understand, it’s a pretty easy topic to change their mind on and fix any issues. However, working in larger corporate structures… that’s where sometimes it can be impossible even to open your mouth because you are going against the grain of something that has the mass of a mountain. Those take time to change, but I appreciate and support organizations like the ACLU that work to tackle this on the largest scale possible.

Morgan's hand. Santa Barbara 2012

Regarding the creative industry, what changes will foster a community where everyone feels comfortable speaking out against injustices and acknowledging where they can do better to fix their own?

I think social media is doing an incredible job with small voices being able to sound the alarm for issues and putting them in front of larger groups of people. I feel like this has grown from a gradual increase in momentum/confidence that I’ve observed over the last decade +, at least in my industry. I don’t think there is an overnight fix or any stellar tools to solve these problems; it's more like the long-term effect of education and evolution getting us to the point where one day we wake up, and all the laggard ideologies and scenarios have disappeared.

There’s always room for growth–what changes can you make to improve your work? What about an example of growth you’ve seen in yourself?

For myself, I want to tell more stories and be even more inclusive! I could do an even better job of challenging myself, my viewers, and the brands I work with to step out of their comfort zone. Currently, I’m engaging most of my subjects through the scope of ocean/travel/art… why not evolve that to tackle the political logistics, like what we’ve discussed here?

Marshall Islands, 2012

Lola Mignot, 2018

Gisborne, New Zealand. 2012

I have always found your work to be incredibly mesmerizing. You capture the essence of something or someone for the viewer to see simply what is and feel a deep connection to the subjects you are photographing. What are your thoughts on connection and using that as a tool for change?

I like to create photos and videos that explore the connection to the environment and how the subject experiences it, sometimes using them as a vessel to explore their surroundings. I am very fortunate to have this be a passion of mine, as well as my livelihood… to engage and evolve it to be used as a tool for change in society (as previously, I’ve only really worked on environmental issues) would be such an exciting challenge and honor.

Your work has opened the doors to traveling around the world. This expands the mind, offering a multitude of perspectives and ways to deal with injustice. How has it expanded your mind? Are there any powerful or special stories from your travels that you’d like to share?

In the bigger picture, travel offers the universal benefit of expanding your mind. You meet so many people of so many different backgrounds and ideologies! I am extremely grateful for every opportunity to listen, observe, converse, argue and grow. And amongst all of it, I try to derive the ability to treat people better. But everything you see around the world can sometimes be overwhelming, so the ball is in your court to take it and be more optimistic than not. And I am, because in my adventures, I have met some people who showed me the extent of how fast and far people are growing and working to help us, and I try to bring that optimism back and share it in every way possible.

Compilation of Music used in Morgan's films

A music stream Morgan sent us ENJOY


Grace was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago before making her way out to the sunny beaches of California to work in fashion and film. After completing her B.A. in Feminist Studies from UCSB, she has become a world traveler with no current home base. She’s passionate about exploring and connecting with new people and places around the world. If she’s not in the water or with a camera in hand, you can find her outside skating, hiking, practicing yoga, or creating art.

Additional Information

All photography by Morgan Maassen except where noted in the photo credit

Photo of Morgan by Ben Thouard Instagram Website

The Inertia: Morgan Maassen On Coco Ho Nude and Portraying Women In Surf

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