Surf photo pioneer is using his talents for broader benefit

The lifetime Aaron Chang has spent in the surf-break can be measured in magazine covers and the innumerable accolades won over his storied career as a genre-defining photographer. It can also be measured by the scar tissue that plagues his sinuses.

“I’ve had so many sinus infections, ear infections, eye infections. And I’ve talked to surfers with the strangest diseases ever,” Chang said recently at his Solana Beach gallery. “What’s the common denominator? The ocean.”

So when more than 200 million gallons of raw sewage from the Tijuana River Valley poured into the Pacific earlier this year, the indignity felt deeply personal — even more so as the toxic plume spread north and forced beach closures miles up the coast, including in Imperial Beach. It was there, years before his quarter century at Surfing Magazine, that a teenaged Chang had first discovered his love for surfing and photography.

As the crisis dragged into the summer, ocean-lovers rallied to the cause, including the San Diego chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and Cerveza Imperial, a Costa Rican brewer that lays claim to making the world’s first and only water-positive beer. To bolster Surfrider’s efforts, Cerveza Imperial called on Chang and Arctic Foam, an Oceanside-based surfboard company that uses algae rather than petroleum to make its boards. Together they crafted four custom boards, each adorned with a photo from Chang’s collection. One he had taken in Tahiti, another in Costa Rica. The other two he took closer to home: the break at 29th Street in Del Mar and a wave curling off Solana Beach’s Tabletops Reef.

The boards were auctioned off last month at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, pumping $8,500 into Surfrider’s Tijuana cleanup.

“The Tijuana River situation is the Chernobyl of ocean pollution, and how the U.S., as a nation, allows that to happen blows my mind,” Chang said. “It’s a disaster, and like most things in the ocean, because it’s underwater people don’t see it. Imagine if that plume was a wildfire; it would get major attention. On one fire east of L.A., $280 million was spent to put it out. How much money has been spent on the Tijuana River?”

Activism and philanthropy have come increasingly to the fore over the decade since Chang settled into the Cedros Design District. A sampling from the past few weeks alone includes benefits for veterans’ housing, Alzheimer’s disease and the San Dieguito River. Next month, he’ll be back in Imperial Beach for an audience with state and federal officials.

“What’s amazing about this gallery is that I’m able to reach out and help a tremendous number of people,” he said. “I’m at the latter part of my career and my life, so that’s my motivation now. There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to use your God-given talents to help people. It is the most addicting and driving thing I’ve ever stumbled upon.”

Perusing the Aaron Chang Ocean Art Gallery — its walls hung with some of the iconic images that carved out Chang’s place in the pantheon of modern photographers — is like a stroll past the North County spots he so dearly cherishes. Dog Beach in Del Mar. The bridge at Torrey Pines. Cardiff reef, which he vows to be, on its best days, one of the most underappreciated breaks in the world.

That local affection has twice helped convince the San Diego Tourism Authority to name Chang their “Art Ambassador.” And amid his commitment to bettering his community, little else means as much as the chances he gets to partner with schools and inspire the next generation of photographers. The vast majority of those students may never know what a Bellows camera is — let alone how to use one, as he did when he started photography — but he has no problem bridging the mind-boggling differences in technology and media consumption.

“When I grew up, I was extremely shy and introverted, and I learned that I could speak to people through my pictures,” he said. “So I understand what it’s like for these kids now, who are growing up with photography as their primary form of communication.”

Now 61, Chang shows no hint of slowing down, not in his pursuit of the perfect wave and certainly not in his drive to share his talents and passions with the world. To him, it would simply be irresponsible not to.

“I’ve been awarded my success. To some degree, I’ve earned that success, but really I’ve been awarded it,” he said. “If you’re fortunate enough to be given something, it only makes sense to give a portion back. It’s just a basic tenet of life.”

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