It’s always a good idea to take pictures when you live in Tahiti because everything is so photogenic – the lush green foliage, steep mountains, waterfalls, and beaches with endless rolling waves. It’s the textbook definition of a tropical paradise. So, what could be the problem for a photographer in a place where everywhere you look is literally pretty as a picture? Well, it’s all been done before … all these scenes have already been captured, and all the pictures taken. And so, the challenge for a photographer in a place like Tahiti is to somehow find fresh perspectives, new ways of seeing things, in one of the world’s most photographed locales.
In the Roam Media original short film Surface, we meet a photographer who set out to do just that – find original ways to display the familiar beautiful vistas of Tahiti. French native Ben Thouard is today one of the leading photographers of French Polynesia, but he didn’t begin at the top. He simply started with a love of photography, and of the ocean itself.
Ben was raised in the southeast of France. His father was a sailor, and they spent every summer on his sailboat. He was drawn to the camera right away, and obviously, the south of France presented him with endless picture-taking opportunities. He decided to study the art of photography, learning the basics in Toulon and then continuing on at a photography school in Paris, which scarcely lacks for good photo-ops itself!
He began his Pacific journey in Hawaii, and his photography start was shooting windsurfers on his first trip at age 19. He says his shots were fine, they were competent, but he had a sneaking suspicion that they were also average. And Ben was longing to somehow break out of the average, the mediocre. True photographers are always drawn to new perspectives, and the pictures of windsurfing, while pleasant enough, unfortunately were nothing new.
But when he moved to Tahiti at age 22 in 2007, he found himself in an entirely new world. That’s when he “knew photography was going to be my whole life.” But how? Where were the new perspectives, and how could he break out of the pack of Southern Pacific photography?
Ben drew on his long history of the water, the ocean. It’s a part of him and always has been. Under the surface is where he feels the most alive, and every single time he goes, he’s still amazed by what he sees. He lives in Teahupo’o, Tahiti, which has amazing unique waves and unparalleled water clarity, and so it was a natural evolution for him to begin taking his camera underwater with him.
The struggle for uniqueness continued to drive him. “I really wanted to bring new images… I started spending all my days underwater, exploring a new way of shooting.” The idea of shooting the powerful rolling waves from underneath the surface was a revelation. These pictures are unlike any you’ve seen before, the very roots of the powerful ocean forces roiling overhead.
That’s one of the many qualities his pictures carry with them – the immense power of the ocean, even in a relatively calm environment like Tahiti. “The ocean is unpredictable and powerful, and you need to be aware at all times.” The Roam Media film crew does a masterful job of capturing Ben in his element, camera at the ready while the long tropical waves wash and thunder overhead. He says he always “feels very humble under all that power.” In the film, we see him pulled forward and backward underwater as the ocean ebbs and flows above, and in the pictures, we see the vivid detail of huge breakers captured in a precise moment. The underside of the waves are huge horizontal columns, pulling down coiling ropes of air that intertwine themselves like a sculpture.
One day, Ben realized he could actually shoot the land from underwater, through a moving wave! With each wave bringing a new perspective, the familiar Tahitian landscape was getting a new look as well. It’s almost literally a natural fish-eye lens. This brings a new dimension to the images – is the subject still the land, or is it the sea, or a new amalgamation? Whatever the case, it’s a new and necessary way of considering Tahiti because the entire place is so much of both. You can’t look at the land without noticing the sea, and the ocean would be empty without the land.
No matter how beguiling the images, they don’t really hint at the difficulty of getting these shots. As Ben relates in the film, “It takes a lot of time to find ‘the perfect moment.’” The waves are too small, or they are too big. It’s a “huge headache dealing with the forecasts to create this imagery.” For him, the ideal conditions happen very rarely. To be able to capture the images he’s after, “It happens a few times a year for half-an-hour, maybe.”
His resultant compilation of these photographs is the book Surface, a 184-page coffee table book with page after page of these new images. You can sense the pride he has in this work as he describes it. He’s succeeded in combining his two life-long passions, the ocean and photography. And he’s also included himself, simply stating, “It’s my job – it’s my life.” Describing exactly what he went through to create these photographs is challenging if not impossible, and with a smile, Ben points to his work and shrugs, “Hopefully, the photos speak better than words.”