We’ve all been through something similar before: the urge to disappear. Not forever, but just for a little while. To stay under the water a bit too long just to see how people will react. To close our phone and not pick up anymore, just to see who’s going to come look for us. To hide in our room until a loved one comes to hold us. We thought about it all, but we never actually had the guts to just do it and vanish for a bit. Kyle Lightner did.
Nouvelle Vague : We don’t have to talk about that part of your life. You know, what is in the past can stay in the past. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Kyle Lightner: It’s fine, we can talk about whatever you want.
I didn’t end up talking much that day, I mainly listened. I listened to Kyle’s words getting mixed up with confused memories and stories that haven’t been told yet. Is it because no one wanted to hear it? I don’t think so. Maybe just because no one never took the time, to actually sit down, be quiet and listen. “You know, one day I just decided that I didn’t like working in the surf industry anymore. Everyone tells you what they want you to hear, but they don’t follow through. They promise you a certain amount of money and at the time, it was big because it was my main source of income, I needed the amount they were promising me and needed them to give it to me on time, but they wouldn’t. They were taking three months to pay me while I had rents and other expenses to pay. It was really hard”.
We idealize the surf industry, me included—we think about those luxurious trips, the endless beers and the cultural shocks we get to experience. We think about the waves, the beaches, the tricks. But like in everything else, there is more to it. For some, it is paradise. But for others, their passion quickly turns into a dark moment of their life. “I deleted my Instagram and I deleted all my online pages, everything. I contacted the people that interviewed me before and told them that I didn’t want to be online anymore, I wanted them to take off the interviews. I wanted nothing to do with it anymore”, mentioned Kyle. He then continued, “When I secluded myself, I went to the desert with 10 surfboards and 25 skate decks. I made a teepee and threw a Molotov cocktail at it, burning them all. I was so dumb and frustrated with myself, and depressed; I was at a point where I didn’t even know if I wanted to do this anymore, if I wanted to keep shooting. So I stopped”.
What was the turning point for Kyle? It is hard to define. But what we can imagine is that being in a constant fight with addiction didn’t help his situation. Being using drugs regularly since he was 25, Kyle’s mind was never fully present, his mind was always wandering elsewhere. And that’s when you realize that drugs truly can affect your day-to-day life. As Kyle’s explained, “Even when I was shooting pictures, I was fucked up. A lot of time, I was on pharmaceutical drugs, mainly pills, and I was barely able to talk. People could tell. They would tell me to just fucking go home, that we would shoot the next day. That made me frustrated. My drugs use and the need to seclude myself made it clear for me, I was having a depression”.
Even when I was shooting pictures, I was fucked up. A lot of time, I was on pharmaceutical drugs, mainly pills, and I was barely able to talk. People could tell. They would tell me to just fucking go home, that we would shoot the next day. That made me frustrated. My drugs use and the need to seclude myself made it clear for me, I was having a depression.
He continued, “When you mix your way of escaping with your job and your life, which for me was skateboarding and surfing, it is devastating when it crumbles. It was no one’s fault; it was many different factors that lead me there. I was burned out. Not sure if I wanted to ever shoot again, I accepted a warehouse job for a sunglasses shop, worked there for two years then went to rehab”. For someone passionate about photography and film cameras since his early age, quitting it all wasn’t an easy process. “I put myself into a couple of depression clinics just because I intended suicide twice”, he honestly added. “At the time, I didn’t think it was because of the drugs, I thought the drugs were helping me stay relax. Anyway, I went to those clinics, but they didn’t do much, so I kept doing drugs. They eventually made me stop smoking weed but gave me a bunch of pills instead, making me feel and look like a zombie”.
Sometime after this episode, Kyle left the clinic in Colorado to go home for a music festival. The drugs kept him awake for four days. “I was doing drugs on the way home while someone was driving me, and I then stayed up for the next three days. I woke up, well, I didn’t sleep, and I called my cousin to tell him that I had a drug problem. We decided that night that I would go to rehab the next day”.
After one month of rehab and good progress, the clinic decided that Kyle was ready to leave. He didn’t think he was, so he asked them to stay another month. He then realized during rehab that the drugs were an issue, but that there was a deeper problem: something he was trying to forget. Kyle was trying to run away from photography; from the pressure of it and the anxiety it made him feel. He was also trying to forget the fact that he was born in a Christian home but wasn’t a believer. Those two things were being heavy on his shoulders.
It still has been a difficult process for me because it’s in my personality; when I see something and I want to do it, I want to do it now, as fast as I can. So, coming out of rehab with the ‘one day at the time’ mentality, I had to work a lot on myself.
Freshly out of rehab, JJ Wessels called Kyle to offer him a room in his apartment. Still working at the warehouse at the time, but slowly starting to shoot again, Kyle jumped on this opportunity as living with JJ was motivating; every morning, JJ would wake up and ask Kyle if he wanted to go shoot. Matix Clothing then hired him to do a short film, which went pretty well. The secret was in taking his time; to go slowly and respect his limits. Kyle explained, “For me, it’s logic, it’s mathematics. 1 + 1 always equal 2. If I do drugs, the outcome will always be the same. I’m aware of that, and because of it, I’ve been clean for two years”.
Kyle learned a lot from his time in rehab and has slowed things down since then. “It still has been a difficult process for me because it’s in my personality; when I see something and I want to do it, I want to do it now, as fast as I can. So, coming out of rehab with the ‘one day at the time’ mentality, I had to work a lot on myself”.
Photography isn’t an easy career, especially when you mix it with your number one passion, which is surfing in Kyle’s case. “Don’t get me wrong, I love surfing, I’ve been surfing since I was 13, but I feel like a lot of the surfing shoots out there are extremely clichés. I feel like there is a formula and everyone is following the same formula”, he added.
So, after this emotional journey that lasted about two years and his removal from the surf industry, Kyle is ready to come back, but this time, with a completely new mindset. “Since I’ve been back, companies I worked with before told me that I’m a new person. I’m much more patient, easier to work with and obviously not high on drugs so not fucked up. It has been cool to hear people say that”, he mentioned while explaining his change of demeanour.
So, now, what’s next for Kyle Lightner? “You know, I have no expectation. Of course, ideally, I would love to be back where I was, but also getting more money to do it. I’m 31 now, I need more money to support myself and eventually have a family. It would be great to work with a company I fully support”.
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