At 16, Cole Barash was prepared to chase his passion. With the approval of his parents, he left his family home in Vermont with two snowboard friends of his age, and set out for California. There, he juggled the demands of being a homeschooled student and an obsession with snow and photography. Soon after high school, Barash’s move paid off, as he landed a job at one of the industry’s leading snow sports companies.
Now, the 27-year-old, self-taught photographer has earned several of the photo world’s most prestigious distinctions for young talent, including being recognized as part of the Photo District News 30 , which he won at 22. And he is frequently commissioned by big-name brands like Nike.
Although primarily known as an action and commercial photographer, Barash managed to distinguish himself from the rest of the genre with his keen eye for capturing emotion and context. Yet the long hours of commercial work were slowly draining his creativity. “I just hit the ceiling creatively and got really frustrated,” he says. In 2013, when the opportunity came to photograph the famed 22-year-old surfing phenom John John Florence, Barash didn’t hesitate.
Born in Honolulu and residing in Haleʻiwa, Florence was introduced to surfing by his mother Alex, shortly after he learned to walk. At 13, he became the youngest surfer ever to compete in the prestigious professional surfing competition, the Triple Crown. Barash realized he needed to unlearn the routine and expected practices of photographing wave riders – which, in Florence’s case, would be his signature tube riding – and make it a more personal project, both for himself and Florence.
“I want to dig deep into what his family looks like, the surrounding area, and what really makes up that amazing story he has,” Barash says.
The photographer began by shadowing Florence’s family: his mother Alex, a surfer herself, and his two younger brothers, Ivan and Nathan. He then broadened to include members of the island’s insular surfing community, as well as the landscapes of the legendary North Shore of Oahu, where the massive waves made it popular among world-class surfers and film crews.
“Every year, so much amazing action is documented there. I wanted to go 180 degrees away from that,” he says.
Barash exposed about 100 rolls of film over the course of six weeks. Blending color images with black and white ones, the result, compiled in his self-published book, Talk Story, offers a more subtle and intimate look into the young surfer’s life as well as the Hawaiian subculture that created him.
Cole Barash is a Brooklyn-based photographer. His images have been featured in various exhibitions and publications, including the Rolling Stone and ESPN Magazine.
Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.