Born and raised on the Southeast side of Chicago, Peter Matushek is a high school math teacher, photographer and surfer. Growing up in an industrial, blue-collar community where nothing came easy shaped Peter’s personal identity, as well as the surf culture he’s a part of. He and his friends make up the small group of surfers who surf the South end of Lake Michigan. The surf is best when the lake is below 35 degrees, but hasn’t completely frozen over.

American Giant: Can you tell us who you are and what you do? 

Peter Matushek: I’m 35, I’m from the Southeast side of Chicago, which is like the industrial south side, I teach high school math, I’ve been surfing for 7 years. Me and my wife always question if we want to move to a coast, but I love being from South Chicago, I have so much family in South Chicago that I don’t want to leave.

The last couple of years I’ve been thinking about my identity in general, my identity is, nothing was handed to me, you had to work for everything. Everyone in the South side is blue collar and everyone works for a living.

Photography developed over the years. I never took it in college; I never took it in high school. I lived on the east coast for a little bit, in Philadelphia and I took a dark room class. On developing black and white photography. And, once I took that my teacher clued me into everything photography. I’ve been learning on my own over all these years, talking to people, and people have always helped me out. On what I should be doing and what I could be doing.

“Snow days are good days to surf.”

AG: How’d you get into surf photography?

PM: Like everybody knows when they first started surfing they suck. I had these grandiose dreams about how I thought surfing should go but I was horrible, so, I’d surf for an hour and a half, get exhausted, then get out. And I’d get out and start shooting all the other surfers in the water. From looking at my photography, I saw what they were doing in the line up and I saw what they were doing going down the line of the wave and I became so much better as a surfer, because I was shooting it so much.

The South End Community, which is what we call it, on Lake Michigan. It’s the same guys all the time. And so, if I get done surfing and my best friends are in the water, I’m gonna shoot them so they have great images of themselves.

AG: Have you surfed anywhere else? 

PM: I’ve surfed Hawaii, El Salvador, I go to northern county San Diego every year. It always comes down to, I identify with South Chicago and when you go to surf when it’s gnarly on the Great Lakes, there’s not too many people out there and you can have as many waves as you want.

AG: What the difference between a lake surfer and a more traditional surfer?

PM: The people that will surf, go before work everyday and go when it’s 10 below, it’s maybe 10 guys.

Every time I go to California it blows my mind, my west coast buddies will be like, “Ahh, the waves are ok today, not great “today’s kind of shitty, let’s not go out today.” But in Chicago, anytime there’s any kind of bump, we’re on it. Days when the waves are head high… it’s like Christmas day.

They canceled school in the Chicago land area because it was so cold. The wind chill was, oh god, 20 below. Me and the 5 of my South End Community buddies who are teachers, we went surfing.


All photos © Peter Matushek

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