The Ben Thouard Interview
For a long time, the backbone of surf photography consisted of deserted line-ups, ambitious action shots, and mouth-watering walls of water. Then, in came close-up photos of panoramic barrels from an underwater perspective, something singular to watermen with wits and water-housings. Until recently, however, the aesthetic relationship between land and water (in the context of surf photography) hadn’t been tapped into properly. Perhaps because no one had considered it. Perhaps because for such an image to be created in a compelling and honest fashion, one has to pass beyond technology and technique, truly establishing a bond with the place as a whole.
Photographer Ben Thouard is one who has tried – and succeeded – in bringing both of these elements together, developing his own style of composition that focuses on the land through the wave. And the place that he chose to do this was Tahiti.
Surf Simply caught up with Ben to delve beyond his underwater photography, into the way his footsteps on land have transformed his vision in the ocean – and vice-versa.
“Photography is a way to save and collect proofs of beautiful and unique moments lived in the ocean. Surfing is a wonderful collaboration between human and nature.”
Hailing from the south of France, Ben is a land mammal who seems to have been raised and hardwired to develop a set of psychological gills that allow him to be utterly at ease in the water. Under the guidance of his sailor father, he learned the brass tacks of living with and caring about the ocean; influenced by his older brothers, he took up surfing; at 15, he grabbed a camera and began photographing his surfer and windsurfer friends. In hindsight, his now nearly two-decade-long journey and career as a surf and ocean photographer feels like destiny.
“The simple fact of being close to the ocean every day was the most decisive factor in my career as a water photographer. Other than that, it’s probably something deeper and more spiritual. I’m a lone wolf; I like being alone and working on my own projects. Being alone out there swimming in big waves brings me joy and peace.”
After studying photography in Toulon and Paris, Ben began travelling the world as a water photographer; that is, until he encountered Tahiti.
“I was invited to go on a trip to Tahiti with my friend Baptiste Gossein who was living in Hawaii at that time. We both fell in love with Tahiti, especially the village of Teahupoo, and decided to move here together.
I was already a photographer starting my journey; I had already travelled to a few places for windsurfing and was spending some time in Hawaii. But Tahiti…the waves, the culture, the people, the light – everything got me. I was young and ready to move, so I made the move.”
For Ben, choosing Tahiti as a home was hardly a dilemma: it offered him a way to be in the ocean every day, both as a surfer and water photographer, and to discover and create with his photography. This utter proximity to the underwater world strengthened his passion for the ocean and that, in turn, reverberated in the way the place he lives in is represented through his work.
“Since day one in Tahiti, I’ve been completely amazed by the underwater world and the translucency of the water. So, naturally, I decided to explore this as much as possible, particularly because nobody else was really doing it. Spending all this time underwater to work on my photography opened my eyes on this other [subaquatic] side of Tahiti.”
Such an in-depth bond with the land is something most surf photographers – who tend to have a varied portfolio location-wise – don’t attain, or even consider. Yet for Ben, nurturing his relationship with Tahiti was as much a part of finding and fine-tuning his voice as it was of making the place home.
“It’s only a question of choice and the way you promote yourself. I’ve been travelling around the world for many years now, discovering new places, shooting new waves for new clients. I love it and I hope I can still do it, but I just don’t communicate with these photos.
I only show my personal work on social media and my website, so in this case, it is true that it is mostly of Tahiti because it is where I have been based for the last 11 years and where I developed my style and knowledge in terms of water and underwater photography.
But I don’t base my portfolio on one location; I try to develop it around a style instead, a body of work. It’s a research around the element of water and surface, and Tahiti surely offered me the best when it comes to that.”
Now with Teahupo’o as his backyard, a few awards under his belt and his first hard-cover coffee table, SURFACE, published last year, Ben seems to have found his professional Shangri-la in a sustainable alliance between surfing and photography.
“Photography is a way to express yourself. You can choose the way you want to show the reality, for there is not one reality, only the reality that each of us sees. Photography allows people to express what they feel or see.
And it’s the same with surfing: Surfing is an expression of yourself through sport. There is not one way to ride a wave but the way you choose to and that’s how surfers express themselves. When you mix surfing and photography, there are multiple ways to create and express yourself which often leads to phenomenal captures.”
But no great work rises without a challenge. And for many artists, a “creative bump” is a rather figurative but nonetheless true translation of “challenge”. Fortunately and ironically, the very process required to overcome a creative bump ends up providing the artist with the answer he/she was looking for all along, and in the case of Ben it was to build a tighter link between land and water – a feature that is vividly depicted in SURFACE. Looking from the outside, this transition may seem like a eureka moment. But backstage it involved subtle and gradual shifts in mentality as well as lots of experimentation.
“There has definitely been a transition which took me many years to overcome and that has been pretty hard both mentally, financially and technically. There has also been a lot of decisions to be made: Should I go shoot Teahupoo because it is good and there are surfers out or should I go somewhere else, to that little wave I spotted, which may be good or not – maybe I’ll have to go check 20 times until I get the right photo. Those kinds of questions you ask yourself leading up to an important decision are not easy, especially when you are a father of two daughters. But with hard work, dedication, and lots of love for what I’m doing I eventually managed to create a unique body of work that is my own expression and vision of the ocean.
The tricky part is to actually find your own [kind of] inspiration and create your own style. Lots of photos have already been done; I did not want to recreate what everybody else was doing, so I tried to force myself to go in different directions and that’s how I was able to develop my own style.”
Likewise, no great work arises without a process – a vision, a method, a set of techniques acquired after years of duck diving, a tinge of good-old instinct. And in a fickle environment such as the underwater world, a well-balanced coalition of the aforementioned is of essential.
“I would say that I imagine the photos before I shoot them; maybe because of something I saw or just something that I’ve imagined. Then, I put countless hours of shooting until I get the shot I wanted. Sometimes it takes me one hour, sometimes a year, and I don’t release a photo until I’m really happy with it. But yes, it is a challenging environment to shoot and this is why I love it – all photos are unique.
Weather conditions definitely play a huge role and I think I always try to adapt my camera settings and imagination to the conditions I have on the day I’m shooting. Conditions are always different so there isn’t an ideal setting – there are the right settings for the conditions you have that day. I always shoot all my photos in manual so I can adjust my camera to the light I have and the photo I want to get.”
Regardless of the medium, creating a portfolio is most artists’ reaction to Gestalt’s law of closure. For Ben, his lifelong passion for the ocean culminates into his latest photo-book, SURFACE – a project that took over 10 years from the birth of the idea to realisation.
“After shooting my very first ‘seeing through the wave’ shot I knew I was onto something new and different. But [the idea of] creating a book had already been in my mind for several years; this is something I was already working on.
I’ve been working on my style and portfolio for nearly 11 years now in Tahiti, and this is how I could create these underwater images and publish my book SURFACE. I was photographing as much as I could in the ocean – above and below the surface – and after years of exploration I finally shot all these underwater photos in the last 2 years and I knew that was the final part I needed. Then, I selected all photos around the “SURFACE” theme and created the book. It has been hard work but I really enjoyed doing it and I really hope I’ll be able to make another book in the coming years.”
As for the message, concept, or intention behind SURFACE, it is as elementary as spreading the love for the ocean and as pertinent as raising awareness about issues that threaten it.
“This book is the expression of my love and dedication for the ocean. Shooting these images really amazed and excited me and I just hope people feel the same way when looking at the photographs. Sometimes, I could not believe what I was seeing and capturing, so I hope the images transmit this feeling. And, of course, it comes at a time when we all really need to play our part to help protect and preserve our beautiful ocean so I’ll definitely use my work to sensitize people.”
Check out Ben’s work and get a copy of SURFACE at www.benthouard.com.