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‘I came to Tahiti and found home.’

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Photo>>>Ben Thouard

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Feature by Exceptional ALIEN

After discovering Tahiti on a trip to take windsurfing photos back in 2007, French–born ocean photographer Ben Thouard knew at once that he had found his new home.

Living there now with his wife and two daughters, he has, quite literally, immersed himself in his art, sometimes spending eight hours straight in the water in search of the perfect shot. It’s a life that has resulted in a stunning portfolio of imagery that encapsulates the raw power and beauty of the element in which Ben works, the best of which can be found in his art book Turbulences. Now settled in Tahiti, where he has lived for more than a decade, Ben chats to us about life in the water, his creative journey so far and his Tahiti Travel Playbook.

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On where you grew up

I was born and raised in Toulon, a little city in the southeast of France. It's beautiful, close to the Côte d’Azur, but it's pretty much flat. I discovered surfing when I was probably seven or eight years old, and I fell in love with the sport, but I was missing the waves all the time. I was always thirsty and hungry for waves and conditions. That's probably why I grew such a passion for the ocean and the waves and the weather. I think that's really what inspires me today in my photography, to really transmit the power of the ocean. Hopefully people feel the energy through the photos.

On your introduction to photography

I discovered photography by picking up an old camera from my father at home. I bought new film right away, shot my friend surfing, and that's really how it started. I went to Paris for photography school, then quit in the middle of the process and flew to Hawaii to take windsurfing photos. That's how I built my personal work: trying to shoot windsurfing. Then surfing. Then underwater.

On building your own gear

I couldn't afford to buy a water housing in the beginning; I just had a camera body and one lens. I'd always fixed my surfboards and windsurfing boards, so I knew how to use fiberglass. When I was at school in Paris, and wanted to fly to Maui to start shooting windsurfing photos, I built my first water housing case to go into water and shoot photos. I kept it for maybe two or three years.

Ben Thouard has been drawn to both the ocean and photography from a young age. The two collided during a windsurfing trip to Hawaii. Shortly after, Ben left photography school and Paris behind to spend his time chasing swells, building his own gear and learning his craft along the way. Images of Ben Thouard in his early days courtesy of Ben Thouard, and second last image by Ugo Richard.

On working in extreme conditions

Depending on if the swell’s big, if it's small or if it's a clear day to shoot in the water, you always have to adapt your equipment and your techniques to the conditions that come to you. But that's what's exciting in photography, I think. What I try to capture is the power of the water, but it's hard to capture water, especially when I shoot most of my photos underwater. That's why I use different techniques like slow shutter speed, to really give the sense of movement and energy in the photo.

On mentally preparing to shoot at sea

It's really close to meditation. I'm very focused on my gear at first when I'm still on the boat — I put my camera in my housing, I get everything ready — but as soon as I jump in the water, I focus on what's happening in front of my eyes and then just take in the little things that inspire me. It's a lot of patience. There's a lot of waiting that goes into these sessions. I spend from one hour to eight hours straight in the water, depending on the conditions and the inspiration. But when you have the inspiration, time goes fast. That’s why I'm so patient, because I feel good in the water. I feel no stress. I'm not a very patient person originally, but the fact of being underwater and going with the flow teaches me patience.

‘I spend from one hour to eight hours straight in the water, depending on the conditions and the inspiration. Being underwater and going with the flow teaches me patience.’

On shooting on dry land

I had the chance to travel for surfing and windsurfing in the beginning — amazing places, but very similar to what I can find in Tahiti. But I had the chance to work for French TV production for quite a few years and they took me to places that had nothing to do with the ocean. We went to visit a very remote tribe in Papua, then we went to the Arctic to shoot polar bears, whales and the narwhals, and we slept on the ice for three weeks. We then went to Central America to shoot some more wildlife. This really took me out of my comfort zone, and I think it helps you keep the motivation and creativity alive. It's definitely opened my eyes to how I see the water. Traveling to places that have nothing to do with the water and the waves really keep me in love with Tahiti and keep me inspired.

On Tahiti

I’ve been living in Tahiti for 14 years, very close to Teahupo’o — it's five minutes by boat from my house — and that's where I spend most of my time shooting and surfing. Tahiti is like a main island with a small peninsula, and Teahupo’o is on the south part of the peninsula. It's on the opposite side of the main town, which is called Papeete, about an hour-and-a-half drive from town. It’s the rough and raw part of the island, and a very good surf destination because all of the surf spots are located mainly on that peninsula. We mostly have reef breaks; all the waves are pretty hollow, quick and fast. They break on shallow reef so it's more for a confident surfer, not for beginners. We do have beach breaks on the north part of the island in Papeno’o — they’re great for beginners and other surfers as well.

Being taken out of his adopted tropical environment and placed at the mercy of Mother Nature in the completely foreign extreme of the Arctic fuelled Ben’s appreciation for and understanding of Tahiti. Spending three weeks in the desolate region, Ben grew more appreciative for the ocean and the big swells Tahiti plays host to. All images by Ben Thouard.

On realizing Tahiti was home

In 2007, I was spending a lot of time in Hawaii shooting windsurfing, and traveling around the world. I was traveling like 10 months a year, which was great, but it didn't make sense. I had a flat in Paris but was always working in tropical places. So I was like, ‘OK, I'm going to have to move somewhere where I can work, or I'm going to have to start shooting something else, because it's not going to work in Paris’. And this is exactly when I discovered Tahiti. It's the landscape, the water, the light, but also important was the feeling with the locals and how they share their culture, their experience and their ways in their land. That's really what made me fall in love with Tahiti, and right away I knew this is where I wanted to settle in.

On learning the language

People speak French but the Polynesian culture has its own language, which is Tahitian. So, of course, you'll learn the first words like ‘ia orana’ which is ‘hello’, ‘e aha te huru’ which is ‘how are you’, and all the little words that allow you to connect with the people, especially in the water, and try to respect the culture and the language.

‘The feeling with the locals and how they share their culture, their experience and their ways in their land. That's really what made me fall in love with Tahiti.’

On Tahiti’s surf community

Surfing is a weird sport. Sometimes surfers can be rough, arrogant and selfish — and I get it, because when you surf on busy spots, the atmosphere and the lifestyle is different. But Tahiti has none of this. It has always been very respectful about sharing the waves and that spirit and experience. I think it's the only place in the world where you can actually surf, meet all the guys, and there is no aggressiveness in the lifestyle. Tahiti is very special for that. As long as you're respectful, it’s amazing how people are welcoming and share their ways.

On Tahiti’s creative scene

Connecting with the creative community has been a little hard because there's not many photographers or videographers. Maybe there's been more since digital and video came around — a lot of people are shooting from the water with a GoPro and iPhone. But when I first moved to Tahiti, there weren’t many. And this part of the island is quite remote and not very busy. It's been pretty much a lonely career so far.

The ocean is a place of solace for Ben, who finds calm in the chaotic and towering swells of Tahiti. He often finds himself engulfed in the movement of the ocean, losing whole days at a time chasing the perfect shot. All images by Ben Thouard.

On favorite places for inspiration

Underwater at Teahupo’o! This is really where inspiration and meditation all comes together. It's like therapy mixed with productivity. It’s just a little corner of reef that sits under the ocean there, so obviously it does seem familiar all the time when I go back there. But the ocean is always changing, and you can never predict what's going to happen. It's always different, bigger, changing, so you always have to stay focused and open to what comes to you.

On your most incredible ocean experience

I specifically remember one day, I was on my boat with a friend of mine. And we were going out in the ocean, into the deep blue, to search for whales. We saw one mom and her baby, and we stopped the boat. Both my friend and I jumped into the water and swam with them for almost four hours. The boat was just there — the engine was off, no wind and it was glassy. I shot like 2000 photos. It's very intimate yet intimidating to be so close to such a big animal, but also amazing and intense. They come to you very close and are very gentle, but they will never touch. You feel so small.

‘It's very intimate yet intimidating, to be so close to such a big animal, but also amazing and intense.’

On whale watching

In Tahiti, it is still very easy to approach the whales. We have humpback whales, same as Hawaii, except that the whales from the south hemisphere never cross the equator. Our whales come from Antarctica all the way up to Tahiti to mate or to give birth, and then they go back to Antarctica to eat. They come back to Tahiti every year from July to November.

On experiencing other marine life

Definitely go to Mo’orea, the sister island of Tahiti — you can go with a ferry boat. There’s a famous sandbar where all the sharks and the rays are. They're mostly blacktips and stingrays, and stay on that sandbar in the lagoon; they've been there for like 25 years or more. All the boat tours stop by and it's like a natural aquarium. It’s just the north side of Mo’orea in the lagoon, in front of Les Tipaniers, which is a famous beach. You have to go on the boat though — you start from the beach, and it goes deep, then the sandbar is further out.

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Some of Ben’s most memorable experiences of shooting in the water are being joined by creatures of the deep blue. For a few short weeks in July every year, migrating humpbacks visit the warmer waters of Tahiti to birth and raise their young. Swimming near a mom and her calf for several hours is one of the best moments of shooting for Ben. All images by Ben Thouard.

On where to stay

I would suggest Tahurai Homestay, which is my friend's place in Teahupo’o. He welcomes surfers and people to stay, and he will show you the surf and the waterfall in the background of Teahupo’o.

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On exploring Tahiti

My friend Cindy Drollet has the Teahupo’o Surfari boat tour and she will take you from Teahupo’o Marina all the way to Teahupo’o. You can shoot or surf Teahupo’o, which is one of the heaviest waves in the world, but also one of the most amazing. If you're a good surfer, then probably head even more south to go to the Fenua Aihere, which is the south coast. There is no road after Teahupo’o, all the coast past it is protected and very remote and raw. But it's also amazing — there are very few houses and all the rest is mountains and waterfalls. It's pretty much like the Nāpali Coast on Kauai — very exposed to the weather, but in the right conditions on good days it has the most amazing views.

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‘Surfers from around the world that come to surf Teahupo’o always stop by Snack Tavania and enjoy sashimi, poisson cru, tartare and carpaccio — all made with raw tuna.’

On Tahiti’s festivals

Every July there is the Heiva show. It’s a big festival for dancers; the culture of Polynesian dancers is unique and that's something you really have to see if you come to Tahiti. And the wave season is not very cultural but it's part of Tahiti — we have the waves that come to Tahiti from July to November.

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On Tahiti’s food scene

We eat a lot of fish — there is always fresh tuna in the ocean. There is a specific plate called poisson cru — raw tuna mixed with a little bit of veggies and coconut milk. That's the typical Tahitian meal, served with rice, and it’s amazing. And there is a very good small restaurant — it’s close to my house in Vaira'o — called Snack Tavania. It's very famous, and surfers from around the world that come to surf Teahupo’o always stop by and enjoy sashimi, poisson cru, tartare and carpaccio — all made with raw tuna.

Tahiti for Ben is a launching point to explore the 118 islands of French Polynesia spread across 2000 kilometers in the South Pacific Ocean. From raging waterfalls to towering mountains and barrelling reef breaks, the natural spoils of the islands and atolls are abundant, with many of the 118 remaining untouched. All images by Ben Thouard.

On the best hikes

In Tahiti, the tallest mountain, Mont Orohena, is a little bit more than 2000 meters. I think it's 2241 meters. There is a big hike that goes all the way to the top. But my favorite one is probably in Mo’orea — there's a hike in the middle, which is called Mont Rōtui. You're on the edge of the mountain all the way up and you have a huge view, 360 degrees, and you see Tahiti Mo’orea, and Mai'ao and Tetiaroa in the north. It’s the most amazing hike I've done in Tahiti.

On shopping destinations

There is a big market in downtown Papeete. It’s very famous — there's always people playing ukuleles and singing, and they sell all the fish. There's also all sorts of carvings on wood. It's a good place to buy some souvenirs from Tahiti but also to feel the local lifestyle.

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‘My favorite hike is probably in Mo’orea, there's a hike in the middle, which is called Mont Rōtui. You're on the edge of the mountain all the way up and you have a huge view.’

On your upcoming projects

I just released a second book called Turbulences in November of 2021. I worked for years on that book. It was four years shooting and six months designing and printing it. Since I released my first book, called Surface, I’ve really loved working on my personal portfolio and designing books to share my vision and my photos with people, through the book and exhibitions. I really love that more than working for brands and magazines. I'm already thinking of a third book, so right now I'm still shooting a lot, trying to discover new ways of capturing the ocean and the water.

On window or aisle seat

I would definitely prefer a window seat in the plane. I like to have my own little place, and I hate to have somebody climbing above me to go to the toilet. With two daughters, it's a little bit more complicated. We usually try to get a whole row.

On a song that best represents Tahiti for you

‘My Island Home’ from Bobby [Holcomb] and Angelo [Ariitai], who are two famous singers from Tahiti. It's about finding your home and I think that's what happened for me. I came to Tahiti and found home.

On Tahiti in one word

Passion. 


Passion for the ocean, for the waves and the light there as a photographer, and how people are dedicated to the land and the culture, and how important it is for them.

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THOUARD

‘I came to Tahiti and found home.’