Sometimes a journey takes you to the very end of the road. For award-winning photographer Ben Thouard, the journey took him all the way to a little village at the end of the road at the end of an island in the central South Pacific, in this case, Tahiti. From his backyard, he could keep an eye on the legendary wave break, Teahupo’o, which creates some of the world’s heaviest swells. After years of shooting surfing and windsurfing and struggling to find his distinctive photographic voice, Ben let the waves and the crystal clear water of French Polynesia be his muse to invent a new vision of the ocean. “I realized you could actually shoot a photo of a landscape through the wave, underwater. It really amazed me,” says Ben, who went around the island a hundred times to find new spots. “I thought, ‘This is really next level. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before. This is what I’ve been looking for.’ ” The resulting collection of images, which took a year to hunt down, is published in his new book, SURFACE. Watch his story in the new ROAM Original film, above, in association with Pela.
Here Ben tells us about his long journey to the end of the road—and don’t miss his gear kit.
THE PLACE: Teahupo’o, Tahiti, French Polynesia
How did your journey bring you to the end of the road in Tahiti?
Tahiti was pretty much a dream since I was young. When I first discovered Tahiti, I just fell in love with the place and the local culture. I love the lifestyle we have here in Teahupoo. It’s very quiet and calm. It’s not a really good social life, but we have a really good quality of life. Very natural, and that’s what was important to me to build a family here.
Is the Teahupo’o wave break really in your backyard?
Yeah. That’s the good part about living on this side of the island. It’s not that expensive, so I can afford living oceanfront. I have my little boat in front of the house, and I can just go to Teahupo’o in five minutes. That’s how I have been able to create the collection of images because I was located right in front of one of the top wave spots in Tahiti. I usually wake up right at or before sunrise and check the conditions from my house with a long lens. If I need to go shoot, I can rush on the boat to go out and shoot.
THE MOTIVATION: A Need to Create Something New
Why was Tahiti the place to develop your creative vision?
When I first moved to Tahiti when I was 22, I was really amazed by how clear the ocean can be. We have probably some of the clearest water in the world. And because the waves break on the reef barrier two to three miles from shore, there is no sand, no pollution, nothing. The water is pretty much all of the time, clear. I’d been spending so much time in the water, underwater, with my goggles, looking in every direction, and discovered that—with the right conditions—you could actually see the landscape through the wave. So I started spending all of my days exploring a new way of shooting underwater and using different lenses. I came back home and downloaded the photos. I was like, “Wow! This is really next level. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before. This is what I’ve been looking for.”
It was a huge challenge to finally be able to make a photo like that, especially in real waves. It took me over a year to find the right conditions and capture that collection of photos. It happens for a short time, a short window, probably like half and hour or 40 minutes, where the ocean gets really, really glassy, before the wind from the day, and the wind from the early morning.
Then what did you do?
I started searching for new spots with the right angle of light, the right wind, the right swell directions, and really focused on the seeing-through-the-wave kind of photos. Sometimes I waited for two months or even more to get the conditions. I went a hundred times around the island to find new spots. There have been only two or three days where really, all of the conditions came together, and I was able to get all of these photos, like the front cover of my book.
Tell us about the cover of your book.
The photo that I chose for the front cover of my book is a very technical photo. I’m diving underwater, before the wave actually hits the reef, and I’m looking back at the wave rolling. As the wave rolls above the reef, there is that fraction of a second where you can actually see through the wave, because the water is very clear, and the surface of the water is perfectly glassy.
Because of the compression of the wave onto the reef, it kind of lifts the surface of the wave, and you are able to see through the wave. Once again, it’s a question of angle and position. Where you sit underwater, you don’t want to be too high, looking down, or low, looking up. You don’t want to be looking left or right, because that surface of the water makes a huge reflection of anything, especially when it’s that glassy.
That’s why SURFACE ended up being the title of my book, because there’s endless possibilities of shooting the surface.
THE GREATER PURPOSE: Showing What’s at Stake
Are you concerned about the health of our oceans?
I couldn’t be more concerned about the ocean. Luckily, here in Tahiti, we don’t have too much plastic in the ocean. Probably because we are away from the current, or we are just a little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But it doesn’t mean I’m not aware of what’s happening in the rest of the world and on the other parts of the ocean. It’s clearly becoming worse and worse, and we are already seeing the results on the fish that have plastic in their stomachs.
And I’m not even talking about the microplastics. I want to use my photography to sensitize people about how good the ocean is, and how urgently we need to take care of it. I think education is the key to getting the plastic out of the oceans. I’m hoping, through this work, people can realize that we need to take care of our garbage and recycle all of the plastics.
The research shows that microplastics have made it almost everywhere.
True. We are discovering now that microplastics are even on top of the mountains, in the air, and then it gets in the rain. There are microplastics everywhere, even in our bodies. We don’t have a proper idea of how bad it is to our body yet, but we are going to soon discover it.
Is there concern in Tahiti or French Polynesia about sea levels rising?
We definitely see the ocean rising. It’s going to be a big problem in the Tuamotu, which is an archipelago of French Polynesia where we go surfing pretty often. Its atolls are one or two meters above the ocean. It’s going to be the first concern, and then Fiji, as well. Tonga, I’ve heard some islands are already getting worse, by the ocean rising up.
THE PHYSICAL JOURNEY: Shooting Waves Underwater
Why do you want to be in the water for your photography?
Shooting in the water with a water housing gives a much better perspective in the photo because I’m in the element. When it’s really clean and consistent, I’m able to be in position where it’s pretty safe, and I can shoot the wave from the water. That’s what is amazing about Teahupo’o—you can be close to the wave, but still in a safe spot.
What about when the waves get really big, as they can at Teahupo’o?
When it’s really big, there’s a lot of water moving. It would be really hard to be right behind the wave when the wave is sucking all of the water off of the reef. Also, because of all of the impact of the wave on the reef, it creates a lot of bubbles and whitewater, and the water gets not as clear. The big waves also move over the lagoon and get all of the dirt from the lagoon out into the ocean. That makes the water green, not blue.
It’s easier to make these photos in very small waves, but my challenge was to make this photo in real waves at Teahupo’o and in other waves. These waves are probably like two meters high. I need really clean conditions with a glassy surface and clear water. It doesn’t happen every day. It’s a lot of going back and forth to get the right conditions in the right place at the right time.
How do you get into position to glide behind the waves like that?
Water photography is all about the position. I try to follow the wave from underwater from behind. You feel the energy, and you use that energy to follow the wave. But at some point, you don’t want to get taken over the falls. If you go too close to the wave, there’s a chance that you’re going to go over the falls. Then, you’re going to crash into the reef.
Has that happened to you?
Yeah, it happened a few times. Fortunately, not too much and not too bad. Of course, it was part of the challenge, and part of the discovery of shooting behind a wave from underwater.
How long do you have to hold your breath?
When you’re shooting underwater, you stay underwater for about 20 seconds at the most. It’s what you are doing underwater is what matters. You’re swimming hard underwater, you’re expending a lot of energy, fighting the current, fighting the energy of the wave to position yourself in the right spot. That’s what takes the energy from your body and makes you tired. So spending 20 seconds underwater is harder than what it usually is.
BEN’S GEAR KIT
Underwater Camera Housing
Delphin 1D Canon Camera Water Housing, $1,895.00
Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, $5499.00
F-stop Tilopa backpack, $319.00
Hurley Advantage Plus 1/1MM Jacket, $80.00
DaFin Flippers, starting at $65.95
Go Foil Foils Board, starting at $1,900.00