Point Break

Photographer Tim E White's Senegalese surf shots see in the endless summer

This interview with Tim E White is from Futurespace Issue No1. Find it on iTunes.

Flitting with ease between the opulent glamour of Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton and Skrei fishing expeditions in the Arctic, Tim might also be found rubbing shoulders with Saudi sheikhs or receiving a ritual welcome from Benin’s voodoo kings. For the photographer who abides by the rules of the road, no two days are ever the same.

Having shot 150 assignments in over 60 countries, Tim was driven by his work to arrive at a surf-shack base on the expansive beaches of Yoff and Almadies that surround the capital city of Dakar. The perfect spot to take stock of life, from dawn to dusk these beaches play host to a vibrant surfing community hankering for a different way of life. The first western surfing pros — Californians Mike Hynson and Robert August — came here in the 1960s, as stars of cult surf movie The Endless Summer. We ask Tim whether he felt Senegalese surf flips the switch on a cultural normative, and discover just how much of his identity was forged behind the lens.

So firstly tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up and any instances that may have informed your career as a photographer?
I’m from the southeast of England, Essex, but I don’t typify the image. And my father, Eric, although a lifelong accountant, briefly worked for a stock photo library and Rank films… so he influenced my creative ambition. I studied a BA in Fine Art in Sussex and soon found myself living in London, travelling to Europe, Asia, Brazil for holidays.

At which point did you know that travel/lifestyle photography would be your chosen path?
Having finished my fine-art degree, which was pretty multidisciplinary, photography seemed the most logical form of expression for my visual interests, as well as history and geology. I had won a travel award, ‘Sussex Artist of the Year’ for a 3D installation, and received a bursary — £500, which was a lot of money in those days. This enabled me to travel to Thailand, my first sponsored trip if you will, in 1990. Back then I found it easy to assimilate, it was a well-trodden path.

Can you elaborate on your brief for the Senegal trip?
It was commissioned in 2010 for a European travel magazine. I’d been to Belem to shoot the voodoo rituals for them, then a monkey sanctuary in Cameroon, so they next asked me to portray the surfing community on the beaches of Senegal, in a photo story. But my first trip to Africa was Ethiopia.

And what were your initial impressions of Africa?
Ethiopia was quite surprising in the sense of its geography. The northernmost are some of the highest peaks on the continent; the highlands were very temperate. It was also a bit of a culture shock; there was a lot of poverty that you just can’t ignore, but still it was how I envisaged it. I liked the simplicity of life there. In Senegal they have a more stable economy, and a relatively high standard of living for western Africa. The scenes I saw on its beaches, the fishermen in the morning, the drumming culture, the children playing — having fun, surfing, playing with plastic water bottles… throwing water over each other — it just seemed really joyous. A really positive image.

The scenes I saw on the beaches; the fishermen in the morning, the drumming culture, the children playing… just seemed really joyous

I was stationed at Yoff beach, at a surf school housed in a shack, basically someone’s flat — run by a really accommodating couple — an African man named Aziz and an Italian woman. It was quite basic accommodation but they were very welcoming — we stayed with them, they fed us everyday. We’d wake up in the morning and go down to the surf.

You shot Aziz for a few of the photos [the tall surfer, brandishing a board and smiling in the sun] how was he in front of the camera?
Aziz is a very handsome guy, very charismatic, really cool. This is a couple that have a great quality of life.

How did you locate the boys in the photographs?
There was a lot of activity on the beach, and these boys were just playing near the water. A guy with a camera creates a lot of attention. The boys would come up to me and get in the frame — I got some lovely shots of them running around. They’re on the beach 24/7 just having a whale of a time. The beach was like an outdoor gymnasium, and there was lots of wrestling [Senegal’s national sport].

Do you find it easier to shoot people in Africa and Asia?
In Senegal, if you go down to the beach everyone’s getting on with their own thing. Having a good time was the greater distraction. So it was a lot easier for me to assimilate and snap away. I could lie under a straw hut and people would approach me. And surf is really big in Senegal — being so close to the Atlantic makes it a prime spot. It may not be equipped for your high-end surfers, as far as accommodation goes it’s not quite Taghazout in Morocco. Maybe it will become that way in the future.

Did you learn much about surfing? What were their perceptions of surfing that came across during the shoot?
They were all technically proficient — the surfers. It just seemed genuine and a very natural way of having fun. Despite the emphasis on surf schooling most of the surfers were there just hanging out, mucking around in the water — you saw the occasional tourist getting lessons but the majority were very relaxed, there were no primadonnas.

Were there any techniques you used for the shoot that produced a better end result?
Occasionally, I used lenses to make shots more visually exciting, to go with the action, some blurry effects — I used hand-held lighting for the portrait of Aziz because it was midday which can mean tricky lighting conditions.

Most of it was shot pretty naturally — with the kids running up to me constantly I couldn’t do much except photograph the action. It’s a beautiful country, the backdrop doesn’t change much — on the beaches, the islands, it’s pretty flat land so my focus was on the interesting people.

Was there a moment when you had a Henri Cartier-Bresson opportunity — the perfect encapsulation moment?
The close-up of the boy smiling [last page], his expression, the sand over his face. They were all running at me and it was difficult to control and compose a shot but that one summed it all up. An expression of the freedom they have, on a day-to-day basis. There were a lot of water fights that caught my attention too, which worked visually, some of my shots were quite abstract.

How do you reconcile your own identity, as a boy from southeast England, photographing people of varying cultures? And have your perceptions of cultural identity shifted, personally or otherwise?
I’m more relaxed when I travel, and I’m more informed.If you venture from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia — there’s just the Red Sea separating them but a huge difference in the culture. And you can identify with an aspect of each. It’s a skill that just evolves — you find ways of adjusting, coping — even with the language barrier. The camera breaks down a lot of barriers, it can alleviate tension — taking someone’s photo is a way of talking, communicating, connecting. It gives you an excuse to converse, you have a purpose. I’ve done almost 150 commissions in the last few years with­out noticing. You just become adaptable.

The city, though bustling and busy, can feel quite static and exposed, whereas being on the road feels more like home

Being a photographer on the road — I know you’re based in London and often shoot here — but how does travelling on assignment influence the way you work and the end results?
It depends on where I am and how long I have. It can sometimes be exhausting. Some trips do offer the time and space that the photographer needs — to relax and investigate a location, to meet people you normally wouldn’t encounter. If you have longer you can really get under the skin of a place rather than dash around.

I prefer to work on shoots where a set of images tell a story, rather than a city destination where you run round and cover everything. I prefer stories where you can come back and weave a tale that is fairly small. My ultimate destinations would be China, Nepal, Tibet, the wilds of Canada, the Antarctic, Iceland.

And what’s the ultimate feeling when shooting on the move?
I felt more at home on this particular shoot — in Senegal, less alien. The main focus was beach life, away from the city and I became a bit-part player in that. I felt more a part of what was going on around me. The kids were having fun running up to be caught on camera, and I was part of their game. In the city you’re more of a voyeur, exposed — people are more defensive because you’re shooting them undertaking their day-to-day tasks, whether in a souk or financial centre. The city, though bustling and busy, can feel quite static and exposed, whereas being on the road feels more like home.