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Welcome back to the Photo Interview series, where I do my best to introduce you to some of the interesting and badass characters we share the sky with. As always, the idea is to introduce you to them as they are on and off the drop zone, while showcasing who they are as a person and not focusing as much attention on the sparkle of their skydiving resume. Even if by chance this interviewee’s name does not seem familiar to you, I can almost guarantee that you are familiar with his work. He has been heavily featured on the big screen, small screen, magazine covers and centerfolds for longer than I have been skydiving. As a freefall videographer and photographer myself, it was a huge (and terrifying!) honor to get the opportunity to interview and photograph one of my idols in the sport. Ladies and gents, meet Norman Kent.
Zach Lewis: Where did you start off in this world, and where have you called home over the course of your life?
Norman Kent: I was born in El Paso, [Texas] but it was more of a technicality than anything else. My father was American and my mother was Spanish; at the time they lived in Cuba. My mother was adamant about me being born in America, but she also wanted me to have choices. Right after I was born my mother crossed the border to Juarez and through the help of friends “purchased” a birth certificate from a hospital and just like magic, I was born again in Mexico. So I was born in two different countries and have 3 passports. The Mexican Norman Kent has a Spanish and a Mexican passport, and the American Norman has an American passport (don’t tell the government I am SA 008). I lived for a year in Cuba. We then moved to Mexico City where I lived until I was 20 years old. I consider myself primarily a Mexican. Even though I don’t have any Mexican blood, I was raised in Mexico City and have a Mexican heart! In Mexico I fell in love with skydiving, photography and Deanna.
Skydiving was much more serious in the U.S., and I wanted to be a photographer and filmmaker in the U.S. We moved to Los Angeles for 15 years, and from there we ran away from a corrupt Hollywood skydiving system and ended up here in Florida since 1991. At the time I thought I would never get another Hollywood job since I moved out of there in search for happiness. As it turned out, we started getting lots of Hollywood work; the big movies (“Drop Zone,” “Terminal Velocity,” “Eraser,” etc.) came to Florida looking for me. We purchased a house and were super happy.
What is the best way to really piss you off?
It takes a lot to piss me off. Just don’t laugh at me when I am down. I guess I have a laughing button that can piss me off if pressed. When I was a kid, people used to laugh at me because of my small hand and birth defect. I guess that struck a nerve, and laughing at me when I am down is a good way to piss me off.
You spend a lot of time in the sky for work and play; off the drop zone, what do you do for fun?
It is hard to tell because I do so much skydiving and love it so much. Outside of that, I love shooting [photos]. I love doing nothing! I love to just lie around and do nothing, but I don’t get to do that very often because I also love to work and I stay up late working on projects. I love to travel also, but it always leads back into photography. I can’t stop when it comes to photography. I love spending time with my girlfriend Caroline, in fact, many of the things I mentioned loving to do I do with her. I also love alone time.
How do you bring home the bacon?
I pay the bills through photography and film making. It is always scary because I never know when I am going to get another job. I go through dry spells; I had to learn to budget myself between jobs. Sometimes it is a feature film, and other times they are smaller projects and smaller jobs. I’ve been lucky and always landed on my feet when it comes to making enough money to make ends meet. If I had lots of money (which I don’t) I would spend it on new skydiving film projects which I have in my head but cannot afford to produce. I do play the lottery from time to time in hopes of winning!
When you started skydiving, did you ever imagine you would make your living in the sport?
I don’t know that I had a vison or plan; I am not much of a planner, I tend to improvise and be lucky. I have always had this obsession with skydiving and photography and I have always believed that things would work out for me as long as I stayed true to what I am passionate about. Doing what I love and being happy comes first, the “making a living” part just worked itself out as the universe aligned itself for me. I am a lucky man.
What do you suck at?
I am sure a lot of different things! I suck at reading. I am sort of dyslexic. I’d much rather hear and see things than read. Ironically, I suck in the wind tunnel. Completely! It’s horrible and embarrassing. I don’t like to look bad. Although I have a full sponsorship from Paraclete XP, it’s really hard to go to the tunnel and suck at it. The expectation people have based on the number of jumps I have is high and when they watch me fly it is a disappointment. I wish I could train in the tunnel by myself with no one watching! So when I train in the tunnel I look at it as also training on being OK with “looking bad” and not letting that stop me from doing things in life. It’s great training!
What accomplishments, skydiving or outside of the sport, are you the proudest of?
Number one would totally be that I am a father to my son Ramsey. He is an extension of me and giving life to someone else is amazing. That’s at the top of the list. Outside of that I am very proud of my in-house films “Willing to Fly” and “From Wings Came Flight.” They revolutionized the sport with the introduction of three-dimensional flight through Deanna’s freestyle. This led to disciplines like freefly, skysurf, angle and all the new branches in our sport. It has been many years, but I still get positive feedback from those films. People who are young and don’t know me otherwise often know me from those films. Sometimes people thank me for making a difference in their lives with those films and many times I find people that say they grew up watching them. It makes me feel great to know I have contributed in a positive way.
What might be your drink or cocktail of choice?
In moderation, my favorites are tequila, bloody mary, and beer or wine with my meals. A fine tequila in small increments would be number one.
Would you consider yourself an extrovert?
I feel that I am extroverted because I am very outspoken, I like to talk to people, and I am very comfortable in front of a camera. I love that, but I also like to be by myself often. Sometimes I feel afraid of people, or afraid of speaking in public. I feel like I am weird and don’t fit in. Maybe I am introverted faking to be extroverted! It is hard to tell, but if you ask other people I think they would say I am extroverted.
Do you like to cook?
I hate to cook! I LOVE great food, but hate cooking. I feel like it takes too much time to prepare it and to clean up. I don’t want to spend three hours cooking, eating and cleaning. I want to eat and keep working.
What do you think cameras for skydiving will look like five years from now?
I think the cameras have gotten about as small as you want to get them if you want to keep the practicality of having a screen and buttons you can push. I think the quality will continue to increase. We will have cameras that may just be the lens with a separate wireless transmission to a recording device.
In my world, the size is never going to change. Better will always be bigger. It is impossible for that to change. A true shooter is always going to want the highest quality, and the highest quality will always come with size. A GoPro is better than a 75-pound camera from 30 years ago, but the GoPro doesn’t have the quality of the modern larger cameras. The technology will always move up, and there will always be smaller cameras and bigger and better cameras.
What is the most important thing in your life?
Keeping a sense of humor. There were times in my life when I was an unhappy person and I realized it was self-induced. You have a choice and now I choose to be happy! It is very important to me to laugh and joke and keep a sense of humor. My work is also super important to me. As well as how I present it and how it is perceived. I want it to touch people with it. Also, my relationships are important to me. It’s the people in my life that make me complete. Sometimes I notice that important things for me are things I don’t do often enough (like being with nature, a walk on the beach, etc.) but when I notice that, I start doing more of it to stay in balance. It’s an easy fix.
Not really. Ironically what I am stuck with is “Norm,” which isn’t my name. People think I hate it, but I really don’t care.
Who do you look up to?
I would say any artist who has made it. Musicians are usually on the top of my list. Especially those who are still playing after 30 or 40 years. I have mentors who taught me photography (Carlos and Jose Antonio Fernandez), and I look up to them as well.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
There are some cheap wines that I really like, and that is kind of embarrassing. Sometimes I start off my meals by having dessert first.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
I wake up really slowly! I don’t like to spring up and go. Sometimes my first thought is that I am not getting enough done and become afraid of life, but I get rid of that thought as quickly as I can. I like looking out to see what the weather is, for the sake of beauty. My bedroom has a window that overlooks the ocean, and I love to watch the sunrise. I love looking at my cute girlfriend Caroline. If you start with beautiful thoughts it’s easier to make it a beautiful day.
What scares you?
Disappointing people. It scares me to risk not living up to people’s expectations. I ask myself, “Why I am living for other people and not for myself?” I am living for myself, but somehow it is really important to live up to expectations, perhaps it’s a positive driving force. There is a fine line between needing acceptance and not caring what others think. In the end, I think of myself also as a person and I ask that person, “Hey Norman, how am I doing?” He always responds, “You are doing great!” Then I feel complete.
What non-skydiving life event has had the biggest impact on who you are today?
Meeting Deanna was the single most important event that defines who I am today. She challenged me in ways that became so instrumental in who I am. When we started our relationship, she had a need for the cosmic stuff. She wanted to communicate through telepathy and feel the energy that surrounds and binds us all. I didn’t believe in any of that. I came from a non-religious family, and we didn’t believe in that type of hocus-pocus BS. I almost lost Deanna with that attitude and realized if I wanted our relationship to grow beautifully I would have to open my mind to that world.
It became such an instrument for me in general in my entire life. When I learned to communicate through telepathy, which isn’t that hard to do if you believe in it, it opened up a level of communication of feelings that I could actually engage in. It became a form of communication that allowed me to live in sync with everything, it’s like magic. What a privilege to live like this!
One of the things I learned through her was to read the future, anticipate it and meet it in the present instead of reacting to present and living in the past. Trying to anticipate the future and staying one step ahead of things is a huge skill to have in my world of skydiving and photography as everything is so dynamic and changing so quickly, you must anticipate what is about to happen in order to meet it and shoot it. She was the person who pushed me to that level. Meeting her was the most important thing in my life.
When I think of Norman Kent, it is hard for me not to think of images of you with some sort of wild camera strapped to your head. What is the craziest camera you have jumped with?
I jumped with a Sony Betacam. It was huge, long and very uncomfortable. It was aerodynamically horrible. My heaviest camera system was a movie camera setup that weighed 32 pounds. The camera and film were heavy, and it had an anamorphic lens for the anamorphic format with movie film. I added a still camera because I couldn’t help myself; I always like to shoot stills besides movies.
I remember doing a shoot with a similar system and the camera wanted to fall faster than I was. I had to pull the camera up with my neck while I maintained the fall rate of the jump; if I just relaxed it would fall faster than me and drag me down. It was exhausting and painful. Normally the cameras are only an issue on deployment, but I could feel this one in freefall. At the end of every jump with that camera, I was spent. At breakoff I would roll into a sit to give my neck a break for five seconds before going back to my belly to deploy.
I also jumped with a tripod behind my legs once. I added a fourth leg and bolted them down to shin guards that went on the back of my thighs. This allowed me to have the camera over my shoulder as I dove down to a freefall formation and docked on it. To deploy, my idea was to bend at the pelvis and bring my knees in. The tripod would then be parallel to my body and not in the way of deployment anymore. It wasn’t a good idea, but I did it anyway.
For those who don’t have the internet handy, the Sony Betacam was the huge shoulder mounted camera commonly used by broadcast TV crews. Since you have jumped that, I’m afraid to ask if there were any camera setups you declined or refused to put on your head.
I have! It was so obvious that it wasn’t even a question. The IMAX camera, for example. There would be no way to strap that to your head, as it weighed 85 pounds and was very large. I had to go to plan B and design a chest mount treating the camera as a tandem passenger.
What is your greater skill? Being able to take badass images and videos in the sky or being the engineer who is able to figure out how to make the gear and equipment to be able to capture the shots you are looking for? When I saw your workshop, I was amazed at all of the things that you made with metal, brackets, screws and ingenuity to enable you to get the shots you wanted.
If I had to pick one it would be the drive and passion for the photography. But the engineering plays a huge role for me in my photography; one feeds the other. I have to engineer something that allows me to get the shot that I have in my mind. I must understand the physics of my environment to overcome the obstacles that are there. The engineering side is super important, but that was born from the passion to get the shots. I consider myself an inventor and designer. I have designed every part of my helmets, my jumpsuits, my camera mounts, etc. I LOVE this process; it makes my images even more full of that energy we spoke of earlier. This is something people can feel in my work.
Teacher’s pet or class clown? Class clown
IMAX or 3D? IMAX
Coffee or tea? Tea
Physical strength or mental fortitude? Fortitude
Sing or dance? Dance
7-cell or 9-cell? 9-cell
Love or passion? Isn’t that the same?
Beach or mountains? Beach and mountains.
Vodka or whiskey? Vodka
Chocolate or caramel vanilla? Caramel vanilla
Surf or turf? Surf and turf
Comedy or horror? Comedy
Friends or family? Family and friends
Formal or casual? Casual but rock-star dressy cool!
Million dollars or a million memories? memories
Early bird or night owl? Night owl
Loyalty or ambition? Loyalty with ambition!
There is more to the Norman Kent interview that I wanted to share with you guys and your readers, but I didn’t have the space or think it appropriate for the interview itself. All of the interviews I do really leave a mark on me because I get to spend time and get to know some of the most incredible people in the world. However, for me this one was different!
When I started skydiving in the late ‘90s, Norman was already a big deal. There were a few photographers whose names I knew even before I started flying with cameras. The guys shooting all of the movies with skydiving scenes, taking the cover photos for all of the skydiving magazines, and those wearing cameras on their heads that seemed so big, they had to be wearing them as a joke. Guys like Mike McGowan, Tom Sanders and Norman Kent were who I looked up to and who I was amazed by.
I had met Norman a time or two in passing, but never more than just a “hello” in the loading area. When I made the trip to Florida to shoot these interviews, I didn’t have a connection or a way to contact Norman. The next thing you know the lovely ladies at the magazine helped get me in touch, and we set up an interview. However, this interview turned out to be very different from all of the others that week. We weren’t shooting in Maxine Tate’s garage—that I had turned into a photo studio. We weren’t shooting around DeLand. Norman asked if I could make the hour drive to his house to shoot him there.
Holly shit! This would be like a Chicago Bulls fan not only getting to shoot hoops with Jordan, but being asked to go to his private court at his house to do so. I had this really strange mix of being very excited to shoot someone I consider a legend in the sport, and being really nervous because I’d be shooting someone who knows WAY more about photography than I do. Someone who would know if I was fucking up. Someone who would have a more discriminating eye than your average Joe.
It turned out to be an amazing afternoon. We took some pictures at his house that overlooks the ocean. I got to see his workshop where he builds all of his helmets and camera setups. I was shown his camera collection that would make any photographer jealous (Canons and Sonys, and Reds, oh my!).
I got a tour of an old house on an adjacent property that he uses for storage of all of his inventions and contraptions (like the behind the back, leg mounted tripod mentioned in the article). Finally, he took me to his local favorite place to shoot events and portraits outdoors. It is a really cool state park with these huge trees, flowers, ponds and an intercoastal waterway. As nervous as I was, I found it funny that he was somewhat uncomfortable being in front of the lens, and he often borrowed my second camera to make him feel more at home out there. I thought it was pretty cool when he took a photo of me taking pictures of him.
It was an awesome adventure! Thank you Lara, Kolla, Maxine and Norman for making that shoot, and the other 5 shoots in DeLand possible!
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