The Pacific Ocean near the Galápagos Islands. Picture by Sebastien J. Zanella



Interview | Photographer Sebastien Zanella | On the Edge

Sebastien Zanella: ‘My idea is to capture the truth’

Sebastien Zanella doesn’t have a plan. Whether he’s shooting for Saint Laurent, Chloé, or Zara, or embarking on a surfing adventure, the celebrated French photographer and Editor-in-Chief of Desillusions Magazine lives in the moment. ‘I’m not someone who informs myself on the direction I go,’ he says. ‘I improvise. If I meet someone on the road, I will go with him (or her).’

This approach, and his starkly beautiful, spontaneous aesthetic has won him world famous clients and admirers, among them On the Edge. Was Sebastien available for a photoshoot in the Galapagos? Remarkably, he was. Read on for his thoughts on his experiences with free surfers Pacha Light and Coral Fujino there, and elsewhere.

Sebastien on …

… his journey to the Galapagos I act with my feelings. Mostly. And that's why I ended up in the Galapagos with Pacha. I met Pacha in Panama, five or six years ago. It was for a campaign for Billabong. I didn't like working with the industry because they use a lot of sexualised images of young women, and I didn't feel comfortable. I was surprised when Pacha quit Billabong for the same reason. 

We have the same history. I was shooting surf and skate all my life, but slowly I started to feel there was something wrong, just using nature. It was like a new colonialism: we travel, we take, and we bring back our memories as a picture.

Pacha Light surfing in the Galápagos Islands. Photography by Sebastien J. Zanella

… poetry and truth My idea is to capture the truth. I don't care about the result. I care about writing poetry with my life. My idea is to find the right person at the right place and let them happen. When Pacha saw the video, she told me, ‘I love it. You captured a moment of my soul’ and I said, ‘I didn't do anything, I just pushed the button’. All my work is to do that, to be at the right place with the right person … but it's not safe. It's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for truth. If you go to Amazonia, everything is between death and birth, and it’s about accepting that. 

… the limits of being human When you are in Galapagos, you're back in your natural habitat. There are many more animals than humans and the animals aren’t scared. I was so surprised to be in the water touching fish. Everywhere in the world you go, you’re a predator and there, they don't care. The sharks, the sea lions, they swim around you … I started feeling that maybe they are more intelligent than us. There is something more than the human perspective and you feel it there, that makes you humble. All my work is based on that. The human brain doesn't help us to understand, it's just a filter for information, but there’s much more we cannot analyse.

… being an artist I think the work of an artist today should be to bring back magic, to bring back mystery. That's why I don't inform myself. I try to be as pure as I can. I train my eyes and I train my brain. It’s what Picasso called the ‘supplement of soul’. When I can feel something that I didn't feel elsewhere, I push the button. Afterwards, I analyse the picture. If you analyse before, you try to colonise, to capture something. I don't take the picture; the picture is given to me. I didn't direct Pacha. I didn't direct Coral. I didn't direct the sea lions, I just let things happen. It's more difficult, of course, I need more time. I cannot do a full video in one day and I have my camera with me all the time because it can happen at any time. I feel that Pacha and Coral are the same. When you’re surfing for yourself, you’re in the water and you feel the energy of the ocean. That energy dictates which movements you can do; if the waves are close, you’re going to be like the dolphin and move yourself.

Surfer Pacha Light swimming with a Green Galapagos Turtle. Photography by Sebastien J. Zanella

… being in the water I’ve swum with many different creatures, and I’m always scared. It’s your animal instinct. I carry my equipment; I'm concentrating all the time. Every time we went in the water, there would be three to four sea lions, turtles everywhere. I didn't know if they were going to hurt me. You have sharks. You have everything. I was shooting and when the wave passed I was looking around because when you swim with sea lions, sharks attack. 

… feeling alive I did a documentary with Dave Rastovich, a pro surfer from Australia, and he told me, every time you go into these conditions, you feel so alive because you’re back in the food chain. And it's addictive because you are in the place you should be. We forget living in the city, but when you go back into this (eco)system, you don't think about anything else. You focus. I'll never tell someone, ‘Yeah, I shot that wave, and it was fabulous’, because it's much more about discovering yourself. Happiness is a human construction. This is much more powerful. Living on the edge, like the animals. Every day, they can die. This is why people do crazy stuff like free solo climbing, surfing the Big Wave. When you start playing with your life, nothing else matters. You touch your animal instinct. 

… kit he can’t do without Just my camera. Even when I go to the supermarket I take my camera because it helps me to see. If I go without my camera, I don't see anything. Even if I just touch my camera, I enter another world. When I walk on the street I see all the detail on people’s clothing, the shadow of things, I enter another dimension […] That’s why I say I don't care about the result. I care much more about being present and seeing things and caring, and if I don't have my camera, I feel I care less about people. I care less about flowers. I will never look at the flowers if I don't have my camera, I will never look at the ocean in the same way … I try to have my camera with me all the time.

Surfing in the Galápagos Islands. Photography by Sebastien J. Zanella

… being in your element I cannot swim like the sea lions. I cannot fly like the bird. I can just do stupid stuff. That's why it's crazy. That's why I say, they are another form of intelligence and it's not about domination. It's about being in your element. When you see this fish, when you see these birds, you can feel that they are much more evolved than us, in their element. I'm always scared, but it’s normal. The fear is there to help you to concentrate. You handle your fear and it's what we call courage. 

Check out our Instagram for Sebastien’s images of the Galapagos and his short films of Pacha Light and Coral Fujino . All were shot as part of our new Creators on the Edge campaign, which explores the natural world through the personal experiences of up-and-coming athletes.

See also Sebastien Zanella on Instagram.