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Page 186 of Tahiti Surf by Michel Haddi
Page 186 of Tahiti Surf by Michel Haddi Copyright Credit: Michel Haddi
Copyright Credit: Michel Haddi
Copyright Credit: Michel Haddi

Tahiti Surf: Photographer Michel Haddi on capturing Teahupo'o, Kelly Slater and beach girls

By Theo Farrant
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Photographer and film director Michel Haddi's latest book celebrates Tahiti's natural beauty, surfing culture, and its people.

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In 2003, Michel Haddi, known for immortalising the likes of David Bowie, Tupac Shakur, Aretha Franklin and Kate Moss with his portrait photography, set out on an unexpected trip to the vibrant shores of Tahiti for a photoshoot.

What began initially as a routine assignment soon turned into a profound exploration of the island’s rich surf culture.

From a tiny boat, Haddi captured stunning images of Teahupo'o, one of the most powerful and deadly waves on the planet. He also took portraits of surfing legends, including Kelly Slater, widely regarded as the greatest professional surfer of all time.

Now, over two decades later, Haddi is unveiling his long-awaited photography book titled "Tahiti Surf", made up of images from his two weeks on the sun-drenched French Polynesian island.

And the timing for its release couldn’t be more perfect, with the cinematic buzz of the Cannes Film Festival debuting Nicholas Cage’s adrenaline-pumping thriller "The Surfer," and the Paris Olympics just around the corner, where the world’s top surfers will attempt to conquer the legendary waves of Teahupo'o.

In an exclusive interview, Euronews Culture sat down with Haddi to discuss the project, his inspirations, the challenges he faced, and the unforgettable moments along the way.

Waves in Tahiti
Waves in Tahiti Credit: Michel Haddi
Linda Hardy, Miss France in 1992,  photographed by Michel Haddi in Tahiti
Linda Hardy, Miss France in 1992, photographed by Michel Haddi in Tahiti Credit: Michel Haddi

Euronews Culture: What initially inspired you to create Tahiti Surf?

Michel Haddi: About 25 years ago, my agent in Paris called me to his office and said, "Listen, I have a project for you. Let me know if you’re interested." At that time, he was representing an actress named Linda Hardy, who had been Miss France in 1992. They wanted me to take photographs of her in Tahiti to which I agreed.

As soon as I landed in Tahiti, I realised that I had never felt closer to paradise at any point in my life. The place was absolutely amazing. For two weeks, we photographed Linda and everything around her.

One day, someone mentioned that I should check out the surf competition. The World Surf Tour was happening, and the legendary Kelly Slater was competing. We took a small boat out to Teahupo'o, and my god, it was unbelievable. It’s an extraordinary experience to be in a boat and see such massive waves coming towards you.

I ended up photographing everything from the surf, the surf patrol, Miss Tahiti girls, Kelly Slater, local children and even stingrays on a small island called Motu.

Euronews Culture: Why now?

Michel Haddi: About two years ago, I heard that the Olympic Games surfing event would be held in Tahiti. So, we found all my old photos from that trip and scanned everything. That’s when we realised we had a fantastic project on our hands.

Teahupo'o surf
Teahupo'o surf Credit: Michel Haddi
Teahupo'o surf
Teahupo'o surfCredit: Michel Haddi

Euronews Culture: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while photographing in Tahiti, especially considering the treacherous conditions at Teahupo’o?

Michel Haddi: When I was at Teahupo'o, I went with a fisherman in a small boat the day before the competition. Now Teahupo'o is surrounded by this very formidable coral reef and if you were thrown overboard, getting back would be incredibly difficult without an engine. You would just drift off to sea.

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I had to tell the fisherman to slow down as we got closer because the sight of the waves crashing was overwhelming. I was lying down in the boat, and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Facing those powerful waves was the most challenging part for me. I brought only a small point-and-shoot camera, not my usual large equipment like a Canon, because I knew that if anything went wrong, everything could be lost.

Euronews Culture: What was your goal when photographing the surf?

Michel Haddi: Some surf photographers are much better than me and focus on the technical aspects of the sport, but I was more interested in capturing the beauty of surfing from an artistic perspective. I wanted to show that surfing was an art form. You'll see this reflected in the cover and other photographs.

Kelly Slater photographed by Michel Haddi
Kelly Slater photographed by Michel Haddi Credit: Michel Haddi
Kelly Slater photographed surfing
Kelly Slater photographed surfing Credit: Michel Haddi

Euronews Culture: Kelly Slater is a legendary figure in the surfing world. How did you approach capturing his presence in "Tahiti Surf"?

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Michel Haddi: Well like many times in my life, I've photographed someone amazing without knowing much about them beforehand, and that’s just my luck.

So, when I was working at Teahupo'o, I didn’t know who Kelly Slater was. I knew he was a great champion, and that was good enough for me. I saw him and, as you’ll see in the book, there’s a photograph where he looks remarkably like a dolphin. For me, that was enough.

Euronews Culture: What makes surfer style so enduringly cool?

Michel Haddi: So, for years, I lived in Venice Beach, California, just 150 metres from the shore. Every morning, I would see surfers heading out to the waves. They have this unique attitude towards life; it’s almost as if they are surfing through life itself, trying to achieve their goals. These guys wake up for the waves and look fantastic doing it.

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They stay very fit and lean. They love to party and are very territorial, almost tribal. They travel from place to place in search of the perfect wave, just as I move from place to place as a photographer in search of the best shots.

The surfer girls, too, look incredibly fit, very cool, and exude a kind of freshness. If there’s one word to describe them, it’s "fresh." That’s why I like surfers so much.

Page 116 from Michel Haddi's Tahiti Surf photography book
Page 116 from Michel Haddi's Tahiti Surf photography book Credit: Michel Haddi
A page from Michel Haddi's Tahiti Surf photography book
A page from Michel Haddi's Tahiti Surf photography bookCredit: Michel Haddi
A page from Michel Haddi's Tahiti Surf photography book
A page from Michel Haddi's Tahiti Surf photography bookCredit: Michel Haddi

Euronews Culture: A lot of these images look quite psychedelic. What was the creative thought behind that?

Michel Haddi: I think it’s because, ever since I was young, I’ve been drawn to intense, colourful, and metaphorical visuals. I’ve always perceived the world in vibrant colours.

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It also aligns well with the kind of music I love, like electronic and dance music.I come from an era where, in the early seventies, psychedelic music was everywhere, with bands like King Crimson and Pink Floyd. It's the essence of my life.

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