Sunset Selfies: a life of extraordinary moments

Laura Tichy-Smith
Special to Coastal Life

The sunlight interplayed with the water, making the waves sparkle, as the sun sank lower in the western sky.

People and birds intermingled on the beach until suddenly, responding to some signal unheard by humans, the birds took flight as one.

John Marshall, left, poses with a passerby on Bonita Beach for a Sunset Selfie cardboard cutout designed to make it appear that the pair had built a Taj Majal sandcastle.

The call of the seagulls punctuated the steady sound of the rolling surf, while someone nearby softly strummed a guitar.

Making his way in from the parking lot, a man wove his way through the colorful beach umbrellas, carrying a large cardboard cutout of a kangaroo toward the shoreline. An older man walked beside him, carrying a piece of metal rebar and a hammer.

John Marshall began creating his Sunset Selfies photos while living on an island in Maine this summer.

Until this moment, it seemed like any ordinary day at Bonita Beach. But for John Marshall, life appears to be made of extraordinary moments, many of his own design.

“It really started as kind of a joke,” Marshall said. “I’m a writer, so I spend a lot of time in front of the computer. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a cartoonist. I started messing around one night watching the sunset — I was living on an island in Maine — and I cut kind of an alligator shape into a beer box, stuck it on my head and jumped into the picture. The picture looked amazing. I did this stupid little mask, but then it really looked like an alligator. So then I started to think maybe I could do a little bit more. So each day I’d draw a little picture. It doesn’t take long — just a few minutes to draw it and a few minutes to cut it out — and then at sunset I’d go down and take a picture and watch the sunset.”

John Marshall, left, anchors the bottom of a cardboard cutout in the sand while his father, Hugh Marshall, right, steadies it.

Marshall and his father, Hugh, take a moment to check the angle of the sun as well as the direction of the brisk breeze before choosing a spot.

Marshall scuffs a trench in the sand with his toe into which the pair plants the five-foot-tall kangaroo, and then he pounds the rebar into the sand to provide some stabilization. Marshall basically has created a sail shaped like a kangaroo.

The cardboard flutters against the rebar in the coastal wind, which isn’t ideal for taking still shots in the low-light levels of sunset. Marshall sets his camera on a timer and then runs to interact with the cardboard cutouts for photos created from sunlight and shadow.

Sunset Selfies

He calls them Sunset Selfies. In some ways, his art seems reminiscent of Victorian-era silhouette portraits, but his subject matter runs to the whimsical and humorous, creating photos that play as single-frame comics once he adds the captions.

“They’re sort of the anti-selfie because I disappear in the picture and I’m just the black outline,” Marshall said. “I started posting the photos online (in late September) and people really liked them.

“I’ve done a lot of things,” Marshall said, “I’ve been a TV producer, I’m a writer, I keep a blog, and I’ve done things to try to get a lot of people involved, but this little thing — for whatever reason — is the thing. It was just a way to take a break from the computer, but now people are interested, so I do one a day just for fun. I post one online at 7 p.m., and 10,000 people will come and look at the picture. That’s amazing — I don’t even know 10,000 people — and they come from all over the world.”

Marshall may not know 10,000 people, but he does know people from all over the world.

He is the author of “Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family's Lives Forever,” published by Ballantine Books earlier this year.

As a world traveler, he lives out of a knapsack that always leaves him packed for his next flight with very little need for preparation. His life’s work now centers upon helping orphans around the world after he stayed at an orphanage mission in India last year while he recovered from an illness.


He is in the process of setting up a nonprofit called New OrphanAge that will vet orphanages for legitimacy. He uses his video skills from his career as a television producer to convey the stories of the reputable orphanages he has located.

John Marshall, right, meets with Rev. Clifton Shipway, left, and a group of orphans in India.

“There are a crazy number of children in the world today who are orphaned,” Marshall said. “It’s overwhelming, but once you meet them, it’s hard to live like they don’t exist. So having met some of these kids, I think about them all of the time and about what I can do to help the kids out there.

“There are lots of great organizations out there,” he said, “and I only work with organizations that I’ve met and trust because there’s so much corruption. There are scams and fake orphanages. I’ve seen some with my own eyes where I think none of the kids lived at this orphanage. I think they just bused them in when they knew we were coming, and they put on a show to try to take money. It’s hard to know who you can trust, so I look for the most trustworthy, honest orphanages in the world and help them do what they do.”

Marshall said he is “working with one in India, the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission, and I’ve helped expand their school and raise money for all kinds of different projects. I know they’re trustworthy.”

Raise $200,000

In an email interview, Rev. Clifton Shipway, the deputy director of Good Shepherd, wrote that Marshall launched a successful child sponsorship program and helped the orphanage raise $200,000 for projects.

“John has spent over a year volunteering with our orphanage here in India, and during that time he had an incredible impact on our children and staff,” Shipway wrote. “The most important thing that he has done is to build lifelong friendships. He is everything we could hope for in a volunteer and has truly changed our lives for good.”

You can see Marshall’s photo updates on his webpage, but don’t look for him at Bonita Beach again until March. He is spending the holidays pursuing his work for New OrphanAge in India and Zimbabwe.

He said helping orphans is the most rewarding work he has done in his life, but he is glad for the attention that the Sunset Selfies project has drawn because it serves as a way to introduce people to his other projects. He is in talks with his literary agent about a book of the silhouette portraits as well as a memoir of his year volunteering at Good Shepherd.

“It’s powerful stuff when you get to help one of these kids come from no hope and nothing to where people care for them,” he said. “I don’t know what could be better than that, other than Sunset Selfies, of course. I hope to continue to make a living doing creative things, and Sunset Selfies is one of them. If it turns into something more, that would be amazing, but it’s still fun and if it’s fun for me, it’s served its purpose.”

Connect with this writer: @LauraTichy Smith (Twitter)

To learn more

What: John Marshall and Sunset Selfies


What: The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission