After Amber Mozo’s father Jon, a surf photographer, died in an accident while shooting at Pipeline when she was just 10, she coped in the only way that made sense to her: She picked up his camera.
“I felt like it was led by him, led by his spirit as a tool that would help me overcome the trial of loss,” Mozo recalls. “I think it was a little hint that he gave me for me to pick up the camera. And my dad kind of said to me, I didn’t build this life for us for nothing — so go ahead and live it.”
Taking photos became, in a time of grief, her happy place.
Since then, Mozo, now 21, has become an accomplished surf and lifestyle photographer in her own right; she regularly travels the world for work and has an impressive list of big-name clients.
Most recently, she’s released a photo book, Chasing Light, detailing a backpacking trip she took with her mother and three siblings that spanned 13 countries. The book comprises a selection of Mozo’s photos from the trip, as well as her reflections along the way.
“We wanted to just go out into the world and see how other people lived,” Mozo says. “The images in the book are us learning and growing and seeing new things for 80 days.”
When Mozo first expressed an interest in using the camera that Jon left behind, some of the extended family was hesitant. After all, she was only 11. But it was her mother, Nikki, who gave the go-ahead.
“She was grieving, and her emotions were way more important than a piece of equipment,” Nikki recalls. “She needed to feel attached to her father still.”
For Mozo, making that connection through photography had a particular significance. When Mozo was born, Jon was just beginning to establish himself as a photographer while Nikki worked full time. That meant Jon would bring Mozo along to all of his shoots.
“Her whole life, she has been around the camera and photo shoots,” Nikki says. “For her, it was just kind of natural — that is all that she wanted to do was photography.”
Mozo didn’t initially have any ambitions to be a professional photographer — she simply liked the creative outlet it provided her, something she could do that was just for her. She started by shooting things that interested her — the beach, her friends, and a lot of puppies. (“I mean, I was 11!” she recalls with a laugh.) As she got older, she started documenting the surf culture on the North Shore, and it was there that she found her niche in natural slice-of-life images of the ocean and the people around it.
The trajectory of her career — as you’d expect for someone who has put out their first book by age 21 — was fast. She shot her first wedding at 14 (“It’s crazy that people trusted me to take their wedding photos, looking back on it”), and was soon landing wedding and family portrait gigs regularly. By 15, she had enough momentum to quit high school midway through freshman year in order to focus on photography as a business.
Mozo credits a certain degree of her career growth to social media — her Instagram and Tumblr accounts quickly grew large followings. Eventually, she was landing clients that now include internationally recognized brands such as San Lorenzo, Billabong, O’Neill and more.
When Mozo was 18, Nikki wanted to take her whole family on a trip to New Zealand, where she’s from. But the kids had been there before, and they started throwing out suggestions for other places they could visit, too. Jon had been planning a trip to Bali but never made it — could they go there? And then Bali is so close to Thailand — why not stop by there?
Before they knew it, they were planning an around-the-world trip.
Still reeling from Jon’s death, the family had been going through a bit of a rough patch.
“When we left that year, it was kind of a dark year,” Mozo recalls. “It was just kind of funky, and all of us were feeling this way. I think when we were inspired to go, it was us leaving the darkness — like we are leaving this, let’s go try something new.”
They took off for 80 days, visiting France, Bali, Italy, Greece, Thailand, Indonesia and New Zealand, to name a few. They spent about two weeks in each destination, and along the way, they also incorporated various service projects — volunteering at an orphanage in Ghana and helping to restore a school in Cambodia.
Mozo admits that it hadn’t really dawned on her to make a book of the trip.
“I was 18, I wasn’t thinking anything but ‘yay, we are going traveling for three months!'” she recalls.
It was Nikki who encouraged the project — telling her daughter that she should share her perspective on the world and thoughts of what she has experienced.
“There is no point of just taking pretty pictures; anybody can do that — what message are you going to attach to those images?” Nikki says.
“She is not just a kid who likes to take photos,” Nikki continues. “She has a message … The story really comes across as seeing the light when you feel the darkness. And I think it is a story of resilience … it is being able to offer what you have to others to brighten their pathway just a little bit.”
This year has been a bit of a whirlwind for Mozo. She’s spent most of 2016 on the road, living out of a backpack — Bali, Vanuatu, California, Utah and Tahiti.
Even when she’s just traveling for fun, though, Mozo never stops working. She often spends any kind of trip — even her honeymoon in Bali — making connections.
“Everywhere I travel, I try to not just be on vacation mode,” she says.
For now, though, she is staying put in Hawaii for a while. Currently, she’s working on promoting Chasing Light — she’s got a book signing Dec. 9 at Kai Ku Hale in Haleiwa (time TBA) — and she also is aiming to create a workshop and art exhibits centered around what she sees are the themes of Chasing Light: positivity, moving forward and becoming your best self.
In a way, that is another avenue to carry on the legacy of her father. Her dad, she says, always was sharing positive energy with others.
“He made that a priority in his life — to spread good to others,” she says. “I want to make sure that I pass on that legacy.”
It fits in, too, with her goal as a photographer in general: “My goal would be that every photo reminds people and gives people clarity on how beautiful this life is.”
For more information, visit ambermozo.com.
On how she lands clients: “Most of my clients come from word of mouth. I think a lot of the reason that I get to work with companies that I love is because … in a way, I kind of reach out to companies I want to work for. I post and set the vibe for the type of clients I want to hire me. I definitely shoot how I want to, and most of the clients that I like (have) the same taste … I mostly take jobs where we have a lot in common and it’s super natural.”
On her photography style: “My style, I would say, is just the clean truth of what was going on in that moment. I love pictures — even if they’re soft or a little blurry — where there is movement in it, and there’s laughing. I like motion and I like expressions of people. I love candid, truthful, honest photos. And I love storytelling. If there are pictures that I could take of people being happy or celebrating or even grieving — anything that captures emotions — I love storytelling that way.”
On finding work while traveling: “I definitely travel a ton on my own, and if I am somewhere, I will reach out to (potential clients). When I was in Bali, I didn’t go there for work, but while I was there, I did a few shoots because I wanted to … And then I posted a bunch of Bali shots. I got called to go back and shoot for a month for a surfboard company. I just make the most of my time and make connections where I travel.”