Photographer Ben Thouard doesn’t just surf the big waves—he takes you inside them.
Photographs by Ben Thouard
Not to be like this, but you’d really rather be Ben Thouard right now.
The ruggedly handsome, well-mustachioed Frenchman isn’t just a seasoned surfer and a vet behind the camera, he’s someone who’s managed to make a profitable, fulfilling life out of combining those passions. Between commercial and purely artistic projects, he’s managed to forge a photographic style that captures the insides, underneaths, tops, sides, and more of the waves he rides and loves. Along with lensing and publishing SURFACE, a collection of his wave photography, and touring the world behind solo exhibitions, he’s also settled down into true domestic bliss on Tahiti, which serves him as both home base and muse.
It’s this mix of the adventurer and artistic spirits that attracted Ulysse Nardin, who recently added him to a growing crew of endorsed explorers that includes sailors Dan Lenard, Sébastien Destremau, and Romain Pilliard, snowboarder and surfer Mathieu Crépel, Kitesurfing champ Alex Caizergues, and freediver and fellow photographer Fred Buyle.
We grabbed Thouard for a moment to talk about the match between him and the watchmaker, how he managed to become an ardent surfer despite growing up in France, his love of the ocean, and more. It’s a colorful set of answers you’ll wish you were the one giving.
Let’s start at the beginning: how did you get into surfing?
I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean and waves, so it didn’t take long for me to focus on surfing. I discovered the sport with my older brothers when I was around 8 and fell in love with it right away.
Why did you fall so hard?
It’s just you and the ocean. It takes your mind away from any troubles you have on land.
And how’s the surfing in France? Not many people think of it as a destination for the sport. I’m from the southeast of France, where there are very few waves. You have to be patient and wait for the right conditions to surf—so that probably grew my passion even more.
I read that you inherited your love of the sea from your father. What’s the most important lesson you learned from him? Yes, my father had a sailboat and we spent much of our free time onboard. The most important lesson I learned was to never turn your back to the ocean—not that the ocean is bad, but because it’s powerful and unpredictable. You have to be in constant observation and ready to move and adjust. It’s a continuous challenge, and this is what I like about it.
And when did photography come into the mix?I found my father’s old film camera at home, bought a few rolls, and started playing with it. Since a very young age, I’ve always been attracted to art. I’d been painting for years before I started surfing and long before I discovered photography. Then photography took it all over. Then I started mixing it up with surfing. All of a sudden, I imagined photography as my occupation and the world opened up to me. I knew it was going to be challenging, but being able to create, witness, freeze, document, and show people my work with the ocean was something much stronger than anything else.
And that’s when you chose to become a professional photographer. There was no choice to make—this was it! Once I made the link between surfing or the ocean and photography, I knew.
And that was when you were—what—15? What did your family think?To convince my parents that I wanted to become a photographer was a completely different story, especially since my dad is a surgeon. But they knew I had a strong personality and that if this was what I wanted to do, I was going to do it two-hundred percent, so they followed me and supported me.
What do you consider to be your greatest adventure to this point?When I was 19, I quit school, bought a ticket to Hawaii, and started work as a freelance photographer. Also, when I moved from France to Tahiti, eleven years ago. I realize that all these amazing experiences were related to my wish of adventure and exploration.
And what’s the most remarkable thing you’ve seen underwater?Definitely the images I created for my book SURFACE—you’re able to see the landscape through breaking waves. I imagined these photos in my mind a while ago without really thinking it was possible. Then I realized Tahiti was the place to capture them. I put all the energy I had into this project. It was the most amazing moment I’ve seen out there!
How is an adventurer different than an average civilian? Is the difference something you’re born with? Something you learn?A bit of both I think! It’s definitely something you’re born with, but also something you wish to develop. It’s easy to stay home on your couch and escape from any challenge. To go on an adventure you have to accept challenges and enjoy it. I think that’s a state of mind and some people just don’t like it. You also have to give yourself the chance to experience these challenges.
Many cultural critics believe that we’ve lost our sense of wonder. Do you agree?
No! I don’t agree at all—not in my case at least. It’s true that some people don’t have that taste of adventure in their life, but I believe that the next generation has a strong desire to go out there and experience life.
Talk about your process. When you’ve got a new project brief and a clean sheet of paper, where do you start? It starts in my imagination, then I go out there and try to shoot it. This always leads me to shoot new and different photos. Then the inspiration comes from the ocean—magic just happens in front of me and I try to capture it.
How did you get involved with working with Ulysse Nardin?I’ve always been intrigued by the relationship between watchmaking, photography, and the ocean. They’re all related by one main factor: time! Ulysse Nardin truly connects these elements as the brand is deeply rooted in the sea. The ocean is a huge part of my life, so the partnership felt very natural. It began with Ulysse Nardin reaching out, as they wanted to build a team of “Ulysses” to tell stories about the sea. I loved the idea of being in a group of explorers who share my passion.
The UN Diver watch you use can travel to depths of 300 meters—what’s the deepest you’ve been? Personally I’ve only experienced a depth of sixty meters or so in scuba diving, but swimming in the heavy waves, you definitely need a timepiece that can endure heavy pressure. Only the best and the strongest can follow you on your journey. My favorite is the Ulysse Nardin Diver Chronometer. It’s comfortable on the wrist and easy to read even when I’m underwater.
Were you involved with the design of the watch? Are you working with Ulysse Nardin in other initiatives?
Not yet but I am of course open to it!
You’ve lived in the south of France, Hawaii, and Tahiti—what are your favorite aspects of each place and what are the differences? Do you have a favorite? Each place is special in its own way. France will forever be home. It’s where I grew up and where all my family is from. I love going back there every year! But Tahiti is definitely the best place I’ve found on earth. Where I live is very quiet, very remote, but it gives my wife, two daughters, and me a wonderful quality of life. I have the perfect playground as a water photographer, and I was able to create my own style of photography.
What unconquered challenge are you looking forward to facing? Is there a place or person that you’d like to photograph, a place that you haven’t visited, or a dream photo assignment? My own large-scale exhibition in Paris where I can show people the amazing power of the ocean as well as its delicacy and fragility! Over the last few years, I have almost exclusively worked on my personal projects, and less and less for clients. I’ve had the chance to devote most of my time to something I loved, which lead me to create my book SURFACE and to producing a dozen of exhibitions over the last year. I will definitely continue to work in this direction and hopefully make that dream happen!