When I entered my favourite art bookstore Mendo, Surf Tribe was one of my favourite books. The fascinating faces of the people who just came out or entered the water. The attention for just the human being, without clothes, without “settings” of the background, whether they were young, old, woman or man, sometimes the weathered faces and sunburned skin, they were all equally beautiful. After seeing this book, I knew that I wanted to get the Belgian art photographer Stephan van Fleteren for an interview for my Blog. At the Kahman Gallery in Amsterdam there was an exhibition of these beautiful photos and at the opening, I got the opportunity to interview him. A fellow photographer told me at the exhibition:
“If god would come to earth, he would choose Stephan as a portrait photographer.”
For those who want to order the book, you can do so with this link: Surf Tribe
Stephan, congratulations with this beautiful exhibition. Tell me, do you come from the surf world yourself?
I grew up on the coast and many of my friends were surfers, but I have never been a real surfer because I discovered photography. So when my friends were surfing, I was photographing. I noticed that I could not combine these two. I did surf but I was a bad surfer and it was never the main thing. But then I saw what kind of people surfers are and I never forgot that 30 years later I thought, I have to do something with that.
Do you mean that Surfers are beautiful from the inside or from the outside?
Both. I like them from the outside because they are often athletic and their tanned skin and eyes become brighter, also the hair becomes blonder. The pores of that sunburnt skin catch that sunlight and reflect back shiny.
“I also like it when people know their place in the world and do not think that the world revolves around them, but that you realize that you are a resident of a bigger picture, namely a blue planet.”
And with a surfer, for a sportsman, that awareness is very big. A surfer must always defy nature, the waves, and sometimes they are very big, intense and outrageous. He is always confronted with his own failure and with something bigger than himself, namely the power of nature and the risks are very great. And someone who realizes that the risk is very great, with the chance of dying, is much better in life than someone who thinks he is immortal.
A footballer like Ronaldo, no matter how genius he is, thinks, I’m immortal, everyone comes to me. I’m at the centre of that green field. A surfer never thinks like that, he thinks, I am part of a larger whole and I can surf on that wave and the people who come to watch often also watch that beautiful wave. It is a much larger picture, a very different mindset. You really feel that with every surfer. Every surfer is grateful and if the weather conditions are favourable, he is a happy person because he is in a place where wonderful things happen. The sea moves and the wave fall and he can’t do anything about it. He has no control over the weather conditions.
“Just as a photographer is waiting for the right light, and just as happy when he gets it because that is not always the case, the surfer is happy with his perfect wave, which is also not always the case. The gratitude and feeling of happiness is therefore great “
I also thought it was great how you created such an overall uniform in all the various places on earth within the portraits, with almost the same light, nevertheless, you just work with daylight. How did you manage that?
I have always taken a background and photographed in the shadow. It was not about the locations but always about people, about the surfer. That also had to do with the fact that I often make portraits and that is just one of my specialities. So many beautiful surf actions are already being photographed in such a good way that I can not add anything to that, it is already done so well.
And in this way, I could also have my own signature in every photo. So I made a clear choice beforehand, of what I’m going to record and what not. Sometimes it was very tempting, because I have seen such beautiful locations and situations, but I had to stay with my concept, my own thing.
How did you manage the sponsorship? 1.5 years “on the road” to such beautiful locations is quite something…….
I was fortunate that a cultural centre gave me an assignment for an exhibition in Belgium and the budget was enough to cover my costs, so I could make all those trips to New Zealand, Australia, Hawai and many more places.What is your favourite photo of the exhibition and why?
I do have pictures that are dear to me because I think they are stronger, but there is one photo of Kelly Slater, the multi-world champion surfer, who is extra dear to me because he was the key to the success of this project. I had met him the second trip to Hawaii at the beginning of the trip more or less by chance by someone that I was going to photograph. And he was the key for the other surfers to pose too. When I asked surfers to pose for me, I first showed the photos I had made of Kelly and if Kelly makes time for you as a photographer, who would they be to not do that.
Furthermore, I found Kelly also incredibly charismatic, impressive, friendly and very correct, a very special man. It is a top athlete and lives very modestly. He was very patient and I was allowed to photograph him 20 minutes in peace. There was a kind of shared peace and concentration, and he really allowed me to photograph him in a good way.
Which camera and lens did you use?
I work with a Hasselblad digital with a standard lens.
Was it almost impossible to choose between so many beautiful images?
Roy Kahman, the gallery owner could choose the pictures for this exhibition.
It hurts to let many people “die” if they do not appear in the book, and then I have to put together a smaller exhibition (Kunsthal Rotterdam) where I had to choose 74 photos. For this exhibition at the Gallery Kahman I did not have to choose myself, fortunately, Roy chose this. In the end, choosing is, of course, a luxury problem, if you can choose you may be glad that you have that choice.
Are you editing the images yourself in Photoshop?
Yes, but I do have a printer that makes my Gallery prints, someone who knows my prints well.
What did you learn from this project?
In terms of life lessons, that I have encountered nature again. Although during this exhibition and in the book you do not see anything of nature.
“But the realization that we live on a very fragile planet, that awareness has come back.”
Surfers see the first signals when things go wrong. They suffer from pollution in the sea, and some surfers in LA have inflammations and wounds due to sewage that is being transported into the ocean. They see nature changing, they also have more contact with the sharks, which nowadays are forced to swim closer to the coast to look for food. These are all changes that create a very large consciousness of this planet.
“The prize money of the matches, women and men is equated. That is also something unique in our world. Usually, women earn less than men in all other sports. So urf sport is more progressive than the other sports. “
Did you get nice feedback from the surfers themselves?
Yes, predominantly yes. Look, there are a few who find themselves somewhat strict on it but most surfers were very enthusiastic and also very grateful. You can imagine that for an ordinary hobbyist surfer or novice surfer, it is great to be in a book with their heroes such as Kelly Slater and Lord Hamilton. They think that is fantastic of course. The beauty is that I also photographed children on self-made shelves in Senegal. And the people there are stuck on the African continent, have no money to travel and suddenly they are in that book and they are standing in an exhibition with their picture of their great heroes.
That is why it is also one big tribe. They share the love for that wave and the love for the ocean. And whether you are a top surfer or just a hobbyist surfer and wherever you live., Everyone recognizes that feeling.
To which country/place or location do you keep the most valuable memory?
Every place has its own identity and character. But maybe the most beautiful, our last trip, it was to a very small island near the equator. That’s where I came after to have seen all the toppers and the hi-tech boards, back to the essence of the surfer and that was so beautiful. Even on that non-empty plank of wood they still have fun with friends on the ocean, how beautiful is that! It was the primal basis of surfing. A nice completion of the project. Did this book or the process of making the book make you happy?
Yes, the process, certainly. It is now a year back but I still follow surfers on Instagram to see where they are now and what to do. Some projects, you do, around you and then you’re done with it. But this project continues to hang and continues to work on my life. I still get a weekly response from surfers who could not find the book. (Now ☺ Link of the book at the bottom of the article!)
Is it not difficult to exceed this project for yourself?
I hope not. That is the beauty of photography. you start something and it is very intense and then you have to finish it because there is an exhibition then a photo book and then you have to do something else again. But photography is so spacious. And you can never compare projects, it may be that next time I do something more with a reportage style instead of portraits.
What tips would you like to give to other photographers who will carry out such a large project at multiple locations?
“Work from your heart, do it all the way, Do it with conviction, so other people see how important it is to do this.”
Surfers also see that I am not a surfer but they see how important I think it is and how well I want to do it and then they see me back in France and then in Hawaii. “Oh, that guy is back.” In the beginning, I had to get on my knees and then they came to me.
Art is limitless <3
For those who want to order the book, you can do so with this link: Surf Tribe
The exhibition is still at the Kahmann Gallery!
Underneath: Anton Corbijn (Photographer), Stephan van Fleteren (Photographer of Surf Tribe), Roy Kaymann (Gallery Owner) at the opening “Surf Tribe” exhibition in the Kahmann Gallery.