Ben Thouard: At the Heart of the Wave

Photographer Benjamin Thouard has made a home on the French island of Tahiti, a “surfers’ rock” halfway between California and New Zealand. Every day, he dives into the entrails of one of the world’s most powerful waves to dredge up truly breathtaking images.
© Greg Gyselinck

It all began with an accident. Ben Thouard was underwater photographing a surfer speeding down the renowned Teahupo’o wave, when the wall of liquid collapsed on top of him. Surprised by the impact and “compressed between the translucent tube and the sharp reef,” he discovered a little-known physical phenomenon: When the lip of a wave hits the surface of the ocean, the transfer of energy forms a carpet of air bubbles that all explode a fraction of a second later.

“I immediately became fascinated by the phenomenon,” says the 35-year-old Frenchman. “It was extraordinary to see these columns of air, these rings forming, spinning on themselves and along the wave, before all bursting…” But to capture these “vortexes,” he had to accept being “locked in,” as surfers say. Everything happens very quickly. “When the wave arrives, I swim to the right spot, take a deep breath, and then dive to the bottom. I center the shot, then take a burst of photos, then come to the surface as a new wave is already on its way.”

© Ben Thouard

These underwater images have been compiled in the book Turbulences. Published last November, it follows on from Beauté mer (2018), featuring texts from writer and sailor Olivier Le Carrer, and Surface (2018), in which the photographer explored the area of contact between the water and the air, its reflections, and its interplaying shadow, light, and transparency. “With Turbulences, I went even further by only depicting nature. There is a surfer every now and then – they give a sense of reference, like a scale in the background – but the water is the main focus.”

An Intimate Relationship with the Ocean

Ben Thouard is a surf photographer like no other. He grew up in Toulon overlooking the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean. As a child, he discovered bodyboarding and then surfing, which he practiced whenever the sea “deigned to rise.” While waiting for the swell, he started learning how to windsurf – a popular sport in Southern France in Hyères, Leucate, and the area around Marseille – along with painting and photography. He then attended a photography school in Paris, but was frustrated to be so far from the waves and left after 18 months.

At the age of 19, he moved to Hawaii, to the island of Maui. He built a waterproof case to protect his camera and took to the water every day. Regardless of the weather, he swam as close as possible to windsurfers and took photos from the waves. It was both dangerous and exhausting, but his original perspective caught the attention of Wind Magazine. “I saw my photos published on double-page spreads, then on the cover. That’s how I started, working for special interest magazines.”

© Ben Thouard

For three years, Ben Thouard traveled back and forth between Paris and Hawaii, living on the island for three months in the spring and three months in the fall, when the world’s windsurfing smart set rushed to Ho’okipa Beach. While there, he experienced a brutal culture shock between “a young French guy and a vastly different American culture.” And, of course, there were endless issues with visas. In July 2007, a job took him to Tahiti, an overseas territory in French Polynesia. It was “love at first sight.”

On the peninsula of Tahiti Iti, the photographer found his wave: Teahupo’o, a formidable roller spawned in the depths of the Pacific, rising high above a shallow coral reef. An extraordinary, regular, aesthetic wave that welcomes a stage in the World Surf League championship, and which will soon be the setting for the surfing events at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Ben Thouard now makes a living from his prints and corporate jobs for Tag Heuer, Hurley, Billabong, Julbo, and Oxbow. He still dives into the waves in search of the perfect shot. “I spend every day in the water; it’s part of my routine.”

© Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard
© Ben Thouard

Ben Thouard’s photos will be exhibited at the BLIN plus BLIN gallery in Paris from May 18 through July 10, 2022.


Portfolio published in the April 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.