White sand, warm blue water and tropical temperatures – it’s the typical imagery most people think of when it comes to surfing. It’s also a typical workplace setting where you will find French surf photographer Alex Laurel.
Having worked for 14 years for Surf Europe Mag and five years for Nike 6.0, Alex has seen and shot almost every photogenic and warm-water wave on this planet; from Teahupoo in Tahiti to Hawaii. However, this aspect of surfing has ceased to excite him nowadays. “The industry is saturated with the imagery of white sand, blue waters and palm trees,” he told us.
Lately, Alex is drawn to different sceneries: Traveling to remote, wild and frigid locations to capture surfers in environments that have rarely been photographed and surfed before. “Some of my best memories come from trips to wild, uncomfortable and uncontrollable places like Iceland and Russia.” With great enthusiasm he talks about shooting in 2°C cold water on a fjord in Iceland: “When I looked around me there were just mountains covered in snow – a place where you never expect a surfer to rip. A truly unique experience.”
The self-taught artist has a strong urge to compose images far from stereotypical surf photography. Since looking for big waves is one of his greatest passions, he studies meteorological reports on a daily basis. Once a big storm is about to hit, he is the first to leave everything behind and go after the big swells. When the storm Hercules hit the coast close to his home in 2014 he went out on a jet-ski close to the deathly impact zone to create the best image possible. “It requires experience, physical fitness and a lot of mental strength,” as he notes.
We had the privilege of speaking with Alex about his unconventional surf adventures, life on the road and the status quo of surf photography in general.
Alex, you are considered one of the most respected surf photographers in the world. How did you get into surf photography?
When I was a teenager, we had a special week at my school in Gabon to help us make future career choices. During that week we were given the chance to gain some initial practical experience outside the school system. My dad had a good friend who was a reporter based in Gabon working for Gamma, a French photo agency, and he propelled me to look into the field of photography. I was 14 years old, only thinking about surfing and sincerely believed that photographers weren’t really working, but just taking photos, exploring and traveling the world for fun – so naturally, I was excited to work for my dad’s friend.
After a week of flying over the country shooting photos from a helicopter, coming back through the mangrove and capturing the lush Gabon forest, I was totally hooked. On top of that, I thought I could mix it with my passion for surfing, and that was it: I wanted to be a surf photographer. My dad’s friend supported me a lot and after I successfully finished my first work experience, he let me visit his studio whenever I wanted and use his equipment to work on my first photos. Back then, he used to give me ten rolls of film and didn’t let me come back to the studio until all of those rolls were exposed. It was a dream for me.
You were born in France but moved to Gabon in Africa when you were young. Now you are back in France. How did this happen?
My dad had an opportunity to work in Africa, so the family decided to move there. It was great to grow up in that country, although at that time there wasn’t much entertainment: no TV, no movie theatres, no soccer fields or anything people already had access to in Europe. To get a better idea of the area, picture dirt roads and a single traffic light in town that was actually not functioning most of the time. But we had the ocean in front of our house. Spearfishing, fishing and surfing – those were the activities that shaped my childhood. The only downside was that I couldn’t be a surf photographer in Gabon, so I decided to move back to France to try and make it in the industry.
To be precise, you moved to Anglet, close to the French surf city of Biarritz. Tell us, what makes this area so special in terms of surfing?
Biarritz has the name, but the real surf area in France is Hossegor where all the well-known surf companies like Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl are based. This is where all the contests – also the WSL – happen. Biarritz is very popular as a surf city because that’s where people started surfing in France. However, the best waves are in Hossegor. Almost everyone who works in the industry is also a surfer and they try to be in the water as much as possible: Before work, during lunch break or after work. If the conditions are really good it’s hard to keep people inside the office. Biarritz is a place with easy access to good waves, so it’s the perfect surfing location.
Living out of a suitcase is part of your job. What did you miss out on in the past due to such a restless lifestyle?
Being a surf photographer is definitely a dream job but also has its downsides. My daughter was two weeks old and I had to embark on a spontaneous three-week Hawaii trip to shoot an advertising campaign for Nike. At the time, it was hard to fly to paradise. Apart from that, I missed the wedding of my brother but all my friends are used to this by now. When there are family plans made months in advance, they know that I may or may not show up since I have no choice sometimes.
Surf photography and surfing in general can be like slow poison for relationships. In order to surf or shoot the best waves on the planet, there is no other option but to be ready to leave friends and family behind, drop everything immediately, and travel to the other side of the planet. A quick last check of the weather chart and you’re good to go.
At the same time, this kind of trip can strengthen friendships and bonds more than any other project. I am already used to traveling through uncomfortable and harsh terrains and I know I can end up in places far away from my comfort zone. When you’re on a surf mission you need to deal with difficult challenges with your travel companions or rely on the help of local people with a complete different cultural background. These experiences make you and your friends a tightly-knit unit. They always help you come back stronger.
What are the best destinations in the world to surf and to shoot surfing?
Every destination is unique in itself. Your next trip has the potential to be your best one. The Mentawais Islands are definitely very photogenic with surreal water color, ideal light conditions and a good variety of world class waves. Surfers love it, photographers even more so. Teahupoo has some of the most beautiful barreling waves; you can sit on a boat, just 50 meters away in a safe zone and look straight into the big and dangerous mouth of those monster waves. And then you have these “off-the-track” destinations in cold remote countries which procure nothing like the typical surfing imagery. The industry is saturated with the imagery of white sands, blue waters and palm trees. Some of my best memories come from trips to wild, uncomfortable and uncontrollable places like Iceland and Russia.
How do different kinds of locations alter the experience of the sport?
Every country is different but every beach looks the same to me. When you go to a lagoon in Tahiti or the Maldives, there are a few differences but in general it’s pretty much the same. When you go to Iceland or Russia for surfing, you end up at places that offer a completely new setting – something that you wouldn’t expect from a surfing destination. I remember shooting in the water in Iceland on a fjord – when I looked around me there were just mountains covered in snow – a place where you never expect a surfer to rip. A unique experience.
Surfers are always looking for new spots, good waves and lesser known locations. Where do you expect to find the perfect surf setting? From your experience – what region has the biggest potential for new wave discoveries?
To be honest, we spend a lot of time on Google maps. We explore different locations and study topographical maps online to find new places that look like they have potential for good waves. When you see a swell coming, you have to give it a go, but you never know if it’s going to work out. Finding new waves is always an investment. The reason you do that is because, as a surfer, you want something different. Surfing has become so big in the past years that it’s getting more and more difficult to find a location where you can surf by yourself – there are simply not enough waves for all the surfers at popular beaches. We look for new spots and secluded locations and that’s what we recently found in Africa. For example, in ski resorts there’s a queue, a set number of people get on a cable car, reach the slope and then are good to go with all the space they need. In surfing there’s no line or anything, of course there are rules, but not everyone respects them. There is always that guy who shows up and tries to sneak into your wave. So, whenever we discover a new location with nice waves to ride, we never disclose the details. It’s not out of selfishness, but out of respect for the locals and the area. Usually, in places like these, there is already a handful of surfers there and we don’t want to barge in and take away their small paradise. Otherwise, that “secret” location is going to be taken over by overwhelming numbers of surfers and surf tourism.
In 2013 some of the biggest waves ever appeared at the Belharra reef in France, close to your home. You went out on a Jet-Ski to take photos of the big wave surfers. How did you experience this day?
The Belharra reef is two kilometers off the coast. When we took off from the harbor to get there, we already heard the strong break of the wave. Honestly, there’s high risk and fear during those sessions but with experience you learn to control them and focus on what’s going on. For Jamie’s wave, the pilot and myself put ourselves in a scary situation. My intention was to show the height of the wave in Belharra – and to do so we had to go right in front of the wave. We had a plan with my jet-ski pilot where we would sit in front of the wave and once I’ve triggered the shutter, we would speed up and get out of the impact zone. We actually had 10 to 15 meters of room before the white water could hit us.
How do you prepare for shooting in such harsh conditions?
Well, the key is to take it slow, one step at a time. First, you have to get familiar with the waves and surrounding nature. You need to learn about all the different spots, where it’s safe or dangerous. Then you can start shooting properly. It takes time and you need to be patient, well-prepared and never rush it. It definitely demands a lot of experience and repetition. If you have the skills and trust the jet-ski, you’re well-prepared. Of course, you can start shooting straight away but from a safer angle and then, gradually evolve and try different angles as well. But in the end, it’s all a matter of psychology: You need a lot of confidence – You need a lot of confidence – and you get this when you are physically fit and experienced. I know the ocean very well, I started bodyboarding when I was eight years old and when I was still a teenager I became a surfer. So I’ve spent a big part of my life in the water. In a nutshell: If you don’t feel ready, you don’t go.
You worked for 14 years for the Surf Europe Mag and five years for Nike 6.0 as a staff photographer. Currently, you are back in the freelance scene. Why?
Paid photography is dying. Everyone is a surf photographer nowadays. Surf Europe was on the verge of insolvency – so all the staff photographers had to go. And Nike pulled out of the surfing industry. Seen retrospectively, this was more like a chance for me. Being a freelancer gives your creativity a boost. When I was still bound by contracts, I always had ideas and things in mind that I wanted to do but I never had the time to pursue them. You’re doing stuff that you really love on your own initiative. I’ve always been attracted to shooting motion and in the last few months I’ve dived into that completely.
What do you think of today’s surf photography?
Instagram allows everyone to be a photographer in one way or another, surf magazines are closing down and no one buys images anymore. I decided to move away from photography and start shooting motion – it’s something that I wanted to do for a really long time. It’s a different approach, but you’re still capturing imagery and looking for that perfect moment. This year, if I have the choice, I would like to focus more on film. Also, when it comes to style in surf photography, most of the angles have been already covered. The most recent project I’ve seen that presented something new was by Laurent Pujol. It’s difficult to find a new angle, underwater, above from a helicopter, inside the tube with the surfer – it’s all been done. Also, when you’ve been shooting for 15 years, you want to do something different and since I’ve always been attracted to motion and fast changes in videos, I’m going towards that direction.
What kind of projects and trips are on your agenda for this year?
Thanks Alex for sharing your work with us and talking about your various experiences from the surf world.