Written By: Jason Frye
Photography By: DJ Struntz
D.J. Struntz does not fidget. He sits calmly, hands still, except when illustrating a point or raising his coffee for a sip. His hands are not busy, but there’s an energy to him. It’s coiled there beneath the surface, secreted beneath a wash of calm. It’s in the long lines of tendons in his fingers, the muscles in his forearm and calve, and in his eyes.
His eyes go from locked in during the conversation, to observant. He surveys the room, scans every person walking by, takes in the light. He evaluates, classifies, and categorizes. As intense as his gaze may be, when he smiles it flashes there first, in his eyes, then his lips part and a wide friendly grin appears. He’s quick to smile.
“I’m Type A, always have been,” he says, explaining the intensity.
“My family and my faith, those are what’s important to me now,” which explains the truth of his smile and the sense of calm he exudes.
“When I was in the Azores photographing spearfishing,” or “On an adventure surf trip to Yemen,” tell the story of how his gaze absorbs light, analyzes angle.
“I spoke to a sheriff the other day; he was the first one through the doors of that church in Texas. He’s a hero and I’m finding a way to tell his story.” Which is to say there’s a depth to the intensity Struntz wears, a knowing of the great harm and heroics humans hold inside.
Once upon a time, Struntz was a passport-at-the-ready surf photographer. Before that he was a graduate student at UNCW; a marine biology researcher at Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, and at Fort Johnson Marine Resources Center in Charleston, South Carolina; a high school student in Napa Valley, California. Now he still picks up his camera for the occasional surf or adventure shoot, but he spends his days focused on telling the stories of heroes and lifesavers as the Minister of Propaganda (a cheeky, but apt title) with North American Rescue.
If you haven’t heard of North American Rescue, that’s ok, they make medical equipment—specifically trauma gear—used by the military, law enforcement, first responders, and serious adventurers. Struntz, as Minister of Propaganda, helps get their products in the hands of the people that need them most, and to do that, he’s expanded his storytelling from photography to include the written word.
“What I do, it’s not advertising or even traditional marketing,” he says. “I don’t tell the story of our products, I tell the story of the people who use our products, or the people who’ve survived thanks to our products.”
In the last couple of months, he’s had a pair of difficult phone calls, one with a senior paramedic on the scene at the horrific mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in which more than 50 people were killed; the other with the sheriff who was the first one through the doors of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people lost their lives to a deranged shooter. Both calls, Struntz says, were exceptionally difficult, but enlightening and heartening with regards to the heroism of both the senior paramedic and the sheriff, and also to the efforts of other first responders—official and nonofficial alike—in each instance.
“It’s another planet from what I was doing with adventure surfing,” he says.
Struntz admits there are moments he misses the adventure surf photography gigs but that he’s found rewards in adapting and reinventing his career.
“In everything I do, I have to be the best in the world at it. I’ve had that ‘I’ll show you’ mindset since I was in school. When my classmates were looking at pre-med or pre-dental college tracks, I was interested in research, particularly in marine biology, so I spent my time with my counselor looking through fellowship opportunities to the most prestigious places. I wasn’t used to not succeeding, so I went in knowing I had the GPA, the intelligence, and the work ethic to succeed at any of the fellowships I found,” he says.
And that led him from California to the east coast for a pair of summer fellowships. He made such an impression on his supervisor at Fort Johnson Marine Resources Center that he was hired full time—sans interview—after graduation.
“I loved working there, but Charleston was a challenging place,” he admits. “I went to college near my home and had lived, what I learned was a pretty insular life. So to be in a beach town where there was a 7:1 ratio of women to men, I had moments.”
Back home in the Napa Valley, he grew up in a Christian household in a Christian community.
“All the elements of our town were Christian it seemed. We went to church and there were several more around; the school was Christian, sports and social groups were tied to churches, it was Christian everywhere you looked.”
But in Charleston, out of the nest for the first time, he experiences some real crises of faith.
“I learned I was maybe best described as Christian by name but I was practicing more of a passive faith. Before that, I’d lived my life on the straight and narrow, but now my path hit a delta.”
After three years in Charleston, he moved to Wilmington to attend graduate school, and that’s where he
picked up a camera. Shooting film, he realized, was a formula, like working through a math problem or using sound lab methodology. He learned the ways to manipulate his camera to achieve the desired results, figured out color and composition, and soon was shooting for surfing magazines.
“I fell in with a crowd of surfers from the Outer Banks, and I’m lucky it was those guys,” says Struntz. Those OBX kids, they were strong in their faith while thriving in an industry where that is not the norm.”
Surfing with and shooting them rekindled his faith and helped him reestablish it as part of his life in a genuine way.
Over time, he was shooting bigger surf adventures, visiting 50 countries— “or more, I’ve lost count,” he says—in the course of shooting surfers, divers, beach parties, treks in and out of hot surf spots. It was an exciting time, but not without its issues. There was no Surfline (the online surf clearinghouse that includes everything from webcams of breaks, to live reports, to wind, weather, and wave reports updated by the minutes) or widespread cell usage (or coverage, for that matter), no reliable prediction of surf breaks.
“Everything was ‘Go there and wait, the waves should hit in the next two or three weeks, which is exciting as a young, single guy, but as someone married, it was more difficult than I know how to explain. So I had moments of ups and downs. I was getting great shots and telling great stories, but I had my struggles too. After a while, I knew it was time to find something more consistent.”
He found it in North American Rescue. There he found satisfaction in the stories he was telling, and immense pride in the products they make. He also found a group of people—military and first responders—who, once he was in their good graces, made it easy to be faithful.
“That expression, ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’ is true. The brotherhood, the family, I found in our military and first responders made it easier to be faithful. In my surfing world, everything was ‘good vibes’ and karma, but here it’s people who have been challenged and tested in their faith and in their own capabilities in ways that most of us will never understand. In them, I find a value system I’m in line with.”