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Yazzy and the Arctic Surfers

The aquatic sports documentary photography of the passionate and elusive Yassine Ouhilal

Article By Laura Feinstein, February 26, 2013

Known for his elusiveness as much as his talent, the Moroccan-born, Canadian-based photographer Yassine Ouhilal has dedicated much of his career to capturing the little known subculture of arctic surfing. Risking life and limb to document brave souls who both professionally and recreationally conquer waves from Siberia to the fjords of Norway, often spending months living completely separated from society, Ouhilal produces incomparable work. Both partaker and observer (he has been a lifelong surf enthusiast), Ouhilal has contributed his candid and stunning shots to publications ranging from National Geographic and Men's Health, to brands like Nike and Eddie Bauer. His "Thawscapes" series documents the effects of global warming on the arctic. After stumbling across his astonishing pictures on an obscure Norwegian message board, we set out trying to contact him.

That turned out to be more difficult than we anticipated. His website indicated he'd be taking part in a three-year artist residency with the National Film Board of Canada and the Fogo Island Arts Corporation in Fogo Island, Canada (perhaps in one of these artist’s retreats), one of eastern Canada's most remote areas. We tried emailing, but doubted he might be accessing the internet—though he is sporadically active on Twitter. A month after initially reaching out, we called his agent at Jean Gardner & Associates, but his answer only fueled our curiosity: "I haven't talked to Yassine in over two years. Your guess is as good as mine where he is. He's just out there doing his thing."

Matthew Whitehead

Ouhilal's thing is some of the most provoking surf and aquatic sports photography in a field saturated with competitors. From portraits of weather beaten locals wrestling with the waves (with world-weary expressions to match), to images of young riders catching the crest of a wave with epic glaciers as their only backdrop, Ouhilal's photography is both primal and sophisticated. Catching surfers in their most basic states, pushing their physical and emotional limits to the edge out of pure love for the sport, his work is a testament not just to the resilience of the human body, but the lengths we’ll go for the things that inspire us. Known for pioneering new photography techniques and surfing locations, Ouhilal is like the Captain Ahab of surf photography, often paddling out to sea in 20 degree and below water to get the perfect shot, or driving 4,000 miles through the Saharan desert to find his next uncharted wave.

French professional surfer Romaine Laulhe under the glow of the Aurora Borealis.

Though we have yet been unable to reach him for our own interview, from the few interviews we were able to find we learned that he’s fondly referred to by friends as "Yazzy," and fell in love with surfing while he was in Hawaii on a tennis scholarship with the NCAA as a teen. Later attending art school, he forged his passion for photography through hours of painstakingly editing 16mm. Today, he works with a mix of two 5DMKIIs, a range of Canon glass lenses (including 15mm Fisheye and 24-105mm IS-L, among others), a Miller DS-20 Tripod, and a couple of MacBooks for editing video. Ouhilal’s obsession with the perfect shot once led him to circle the entire country of Iceland three times before finding an ideal location. He taught himself how to use marine charts, geological maps, satellite images, and weather forecasting in order to plan his shoots—and possible forecast surf conditions.

But mainly it is patience, persistence, and dedication that has distinguished Ouhilal. He will wait years for the right conditions to emerge for a shoot, and he’ll often go back to the same spot numerous times to recreate his vision. His attention to his craft crosses over into a solitary pursuit of a vocation. A true believer in his work and way of life, he once stated in an interview “I’d rather swim and freeze in the Arctic than swim at [some] crowded Pipe.” For now we’ll have to make due with his stunning arctic surfing images. In the meantime, Yazzy, if you’re out there, please drop us a line.

 

Christian Wach tests out the new “H Bomb” heated wet suit, complete with battery pack attached at the back.

 

 

See more images by Yassine Ouhilal online at yassineouhilal.com