This interview is published in SURFER Magazine, Volume 59, Issue 5, on newsstands now. Subscribe here.
How'd you get your start in surf photography?
I'm from the southeast of France. My dad was a sailor and I spent all my weekends on the boat, exposed to the ocean. I discovered surfing when I was 8 and photography when I was a teenager and quickly started taking photos of my friends surfing. I went to Paris for photography school, but I really started missing the ocean, so I decided to quit school and move to Hawaii. I worked for a windsurfing magazine in France and I had a good connection who lived in Maui. I was only 19 when I landed on Maui and I didn't even know where I was going to spend my first night. I had no budget so I built my first water housing myself. I spent all my days shooting windsurfing at Ho’okipa from the water.
Wait, you made your water housing?
Yeah. Growing up, I was always fixing my surfboards and knew how to use fiberglass and resin, so I just made a mold for my first water housing. It wasn't as good as one you can buy, but it was the only way for me to start shooting. And as a surf photographer, what I really wanted to do was shoot from the water—I didn't want to just stay on land and take photos.
What drew you toward that perspective?
I've always loved being in the element and playing in the waves. Surfing happens in the water, so it makes sense to shoot from the water as well. It gives the viewer a better perspective to see those scenes from the water.
How did you transition from being a windsurfing photographer to taking photos of some of the best surfers in the world out at Teahupo’o?
I love windsurfing, but my passion for surfing is stronger. When I went to Maui, I started shooting surfing at Jaws and other surf spots around the island. Then when I moved to Tahiti in 2008, I spent all my time shooting surfing. I fell in love and have been here ever since.
Over the past couple years it seems like you've become synonymous with underwater photography. When did people start recognizing your work?
In 2013, I shot that underwater photo of Landon McNamara that I call "The Silver Surfer." That photo ended up on the cover of many magazines and it definitely was a turning point in my career. It's also when I decided to really dig into that direction of underwater photos of surfers and waves. I realized how amazing the underwater clarity is in Tahiti and how unique that is. Tahiti is almost the only place you can create these images.
Is Teahupo’o your favorite wave to shoot in Tahiti?
I would say so. It's such a perfect wave—it's consistent and obviously a really good barrel. When shooting surfing images, it can hardly get better than that. There's no current, not too much water moving, and it breaks in the same place so you can put yourself in a critical position without taking too many risks.
But that spot gets really heavy, of course. What's the sketchiest situation you've experienced there?
I remember the first time I was shooting Raimana [van Bastolaer] and Laird [Hamilton] on a day when the swell was building quickly. It was 5 foot when I jumped in the water, then slowly became to 6 to 8 foot, and then all of a sudden a 10-foot-plus bomb arrived. I dove under it and ended up in the lagoon over the reef. I lost my fins and my water housing. Another time I was shooting on my ski and I flipped over when a wave came. My Pelican case fell in the water and I lost like $25,000 worth of equipment.
Tell me about the concept of your book.
This book is the result of a long process. There are 10 years of photography in the book. The economic crisis hit about the same time I moved to Tahiti and media started changing completely, so it got really hard to make a living from photography. I then decided to work on something that belongs to me and started shooting for myself. For the last 3 or 4 years, I've been shooting exclusively for this book, even if that meant sometimes missing Chopes when it was good and surfers were out, just because I wanted to score another wave. I spent a lot of my time underwater, trying to create new images and find something new. That's how I started shooting landscapes through the wave too. Like the cover of my book—the photo is taken completely underwater, but the water is so clear and the surface is so glassy that you're able to see the landscape in the background through the wave.
What's your favorite image in the book?
There are a few, but one is definitely the cover. I shot it over a year ago and I decided not to show it to anyone. I didn't want to just release the photo on social media or on the web—which was really hard to do for one year. Nowadays with social media, when you shoot something it's almost instantly online. That's another reason why I really wanted to work on this book: today everything is on Instagram, everything is online, everything is posted right away and it lasts for 24 hours and then your photo is done. It's forgotten. As a photographer, it's a really good tool, but it's also really frustrating. I didn't want to work on a collection of photos for Instagram. I wanted to work on something tangible.
You have a way of making the ocean look equal parts beautiful and terrifying—is that a message you're trying to convey or just a byproduct of your style?
It's my own vision of the ocean. It's how I see it and that's what I really try to capture in my images and what I try to make people feel about the ocean. To me, the ocean is very powerful and also very beautiful, so I try to capture that into all my photos.
For a short film on the making of Ben Thouard’s new book, “SURFACE,” click here.
To purchase a copy of “SURFACE,” click here.