Born and raised in Hawaii, Keith Kandell came to surfing at age ten, got good, won contests, but always knew there was something more waiting for him. Smart, intellectually curious, he graduated from Punahou and moved straight to Downtown Manhattan, where he studied film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He was a fish out of water—but he wasn’t. That part of himself that was starved in Hawaii feasted voraciously in the cultural smorgasbord that is NYC. He saw films, art, music. He made friends from around the world, and from all walks of life. He DJed parties, and soaked it all up.
After graduating in 2002, Keith moved to LA, where he freelanced as a videographer, editor, and DJ. On the weekends he surfed Malibu. In 2005, he met the world-renowned photographer Mario Testino, who took a shine to Keith and his work, and brought him aboard to make behind-the-scenes clips of his photo shoots. The clients were big time: Prada, Miu Miu, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace. Keith’s career snowballed. He got picked up by an agency in New York. He shot jobs in Paris, London, New York.
In 2009, he and his longtime partner moved back to Hawaii to start a family. I knew Keith’s work, but I didn’t know him personally. We were introduced via the great Jeff Johnson (@jeffjohnson_beyondandback). Keith and I worked together on a recent Toots film for The Surfer’s Journal. We became fast friends.
When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker/photographer?
I think it all jelled when I was a teenager questioning my dissatisfaction with doing surf contests every weekend, and wondering what my dissatisfaction was about, and realizing that the things that I had always loved beyond surfing—music, writing, and painting—all kind of converge in film and cinema. As a teenager of that era, the only way to experience a sense of otherness, or escape into some sort of distant world, was through movies. Filmmaking sounded fun, and it sounded like something that could take me out of where I was, which wasn’t so bad, but I was curious about other stuff.
What type of projects are you drawn to?
The thing that I’m always looking for is just chasing some sort of feeling of fun, of curiosity, and not necessarily having any real designs beyond that. Like the promise of a trip where you can be romanticizing and fantasizing about something that you don’t really know about, but it’s enough to make you want to go to that place. What’s most interesting to me is it forces me to get out of my head and my habitual ways and to get into the present, and to be around people and collaborate and kind of just riff off of stuff.
Growing up on Oahu must have been great.
For sure. Growing up as a white, Jewish, middle-class kid in Hawaii made me an anomaly of sorts, and I think that innately made me curious about others, and curious as to where I fit in.
I certainly was included by so many different kinds of people and communities growing up; really, really embraced and supported in such gracious, nonjudgmental ways that I just felt indebted to because I think they gave me a sense of belonging that I was probably uncomfortable with in myself. Surfing was definitely a way to start to experience myself, as an individual. I started at Waikiki, then ventured out to Makaha, and then the North Shore, all these different scenes and communities that existed around each place and spot and beach, and I had mentors who showed me the ropes. I feel fortunate.
You have a broad range—going from a Birdwell shoot on the West Side one day, to, say, a couture fashion shoot in Paris the next. Those are very different worlds.
Yeah, you’re right. And I think that’s a testament to growing up in Hawaii and the way that you are constantly interfacing with so many different people in so many different capacities. It’s sort of what pidgin is a manifestation of; it’s just this thing where we all kind of meet in the middle. And I think that goes back to your question of what kind of stuff am I drawn to. When I get to work on projects where it feels like it’s about storytelling, and it’s about people, and it’s about feelings and humanity and all its different iterations—that’s what’s fascinating to me. If it’s just about a hard sell of something, I tune out right away and I go into an existential crisis about what I’m doing. But I think I’m always looking to capture some whiff of what I felt as a teenage surfer, which is a sense of excitement, and not knowing what’s coming next.
Check out Keith’s work here: https://11thhouseagency.com/artist/all-projects?artist-id=26&project-type=26