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Riding the Mythical Wave at Teahupo’o

In his book Turbulences,the photographer Ben Thouard transports us into the barrel of the mythical wave at Teahup’o in Tahiti.
Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard

The story begins in Toulon, in the Southeast of France, on the Mediterranean coast where photographer Ben Thouard grew up. “My father had a sailboat, and we spent weekends and vacations sailing. That’s where this relationship was forged, my love for the ocean, the ocean in the broadest sense of the term.” Thouard’s first discovery was surfing; then, as a teenager, he discovered windsurfing and photography. “My father had an old camera at home, I was intrigued, I bought some film and went to shoot my buddies surfing. I captured images of waves and I also brought the camera on the sailing trips.”

Ben Thouard knew he would become a photographer. He went to Paris to attend a photography school, but he didn’t feel he belonged in the capital: “Life in Paris was complicated for me because I had always lived by the sea and was used to spending all my time in the water.” He dropped out of school and left for Hawaii, where he started taking photos of surfing and sailing. He traveled around the world until he arrived in Tahiti and settled there. That was fourteen years go. He had “a real crush” on Tahiti, it was “a true love at first sight, at all levels, both as a surfer and as a photographer.” The light, the fauna and flora, the warm and clear water had won his heart.

Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard
Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard

“I started out as a surf photographer, working for magazines, brands, with a rather photojournalistic or commercial angle. Then, gradually, I wanted to create something more personal, more artistic.” In 2018, Ben Thouard released his first, self-published photobook, Surface. Composed of 180 photographs, it tells “his story and expresses his personal vision of the ocean.” One project completed, he immediately embarked on another, which, four years later, resulted in Turbulences published with Éditions Mons. Focused on the waves of Teahupo’o — or Chopes to the surfers — Ben Thouard wanted with his new book “to expand the artistic aspect of the image and the photographic research of the underwater side of Teahupo’o.”

Ben Thouard is lucky enough to live very close to Teahupo’o, the surfer’s mecca. Here you get “a truly unique wave because of the reef topography underwater: the swell from the South Pacific collides with this perfectly formed, shallow reef which delivers consistent barrels.” The barrel is the queen figure in surfing, it’s the surfer’s ultimate dream. At Teahupo’o, the barrel is beautiful. “It’s one of the heaviest waves in the world, but also one of the most pleasing: everything here comes together to yield the perfect wave.”

Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard
Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard

Ben Thouard’s shooting session (just like the surfers’) hinges on the weather conditions. “It’s really the weather that drives our lives. We study the weather, we look out for good swell conditions, meaning no wind or a steady wind that doesn’t ruin the wave.” When these conditions are met, Ben Thouard goes out at sunrise to his chosen spot, looks at the waves for five–ten minutes to size up the situation. Then he sets up his gear depending on the conditions. “If [the wave] is small, I go for the wide angle [lens] and plunge into the heart of the action. If it’s bigger, I tend to use a telephoto lens and stay a little behind the wave for safety.” The session lasts between an hour and four hours. He repeats the same thing at dusk.

The book Turbulences contains 75 photographs of “the water element” handpicked from among some 300,000. “I also went back to my hard drive to find images taken during my past ten years in Tahiti.” After a first selection of 500 images, Ben Thouard worked with photographer, graphic designer, and editor Alexis Berg to cull images with the theme of “white and blue.” He also went back into the surf to get a few additional shots. “The goal was to push the photographer’s work further and create a book-object. I wanted to convey the full range of emotions I experience when I’m in the water to people who are not necessarily familiar with the marine environment. “

Ben Thouard, Turbulences, Éditions Mons, €55, 128 pp.

Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard

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