A few months ago, I received an invitation to be part of a surfing expedition led by X Pilipinas, a group of athletes that travel to remote parts of the Philippines in search of swells.
The way the ocean interacts with a surfer and his board can be breathtaking to witness. It’s chaotic yet simple at the same time. These characteristics attracted me to surf photography.
It took several ferry rides, vans, trikes, and bancas, to get to the spot the folks at X Pilipinas were certain had swells: an island in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea with clear, turquoise waters – so clear, the reef and marine life below would show through. We were the only souls here.
We created our own routine on this island. Wake up early to catch fish, siesta in the midday, surf in the late afternoon, and finally, conversations late into the night around a bottle of Ursus (a local alcohol).
As a photographer, it becomes second nature to search for light. Some of us become light snobs —wanting to know how good the light will be before going to a certain location. Before leaving for this island, I did my fair bit of looking at image results and weather forecasts for this area, even going so far as to check star-tracking apps.
Luckily, the light played beautifully throughout this island. The sunrises and sunsets were a rich orange hue. The waves were backlit and had an emerald glow. The stars at night were bright and visible across the horizon.
There will be photographers who are easy on the shutter. They are deliberate, capturing only one or two images from a location. I am not that type, especially in a place as great as this. I filled up memory card after memory card after memory card.
Yet even if I had several keepers bagged, I still hadn’t captured this one surf image I’ve wanted ever since I first took a camera into the water: a surfer “duck diving”. This photo would be a fitting homage to these guys who quite literally move under pressure and live in the counterculture just to do what they love: finding that perfect swell.
There are two ways to shoot surf:
1. Snap a camera to a tripod, slap a large telephoto in front, and shoot from the shore
2. Place a camera in a waterproof housing and swim with the surfers in the lineup.
Both definitely have their merits, but I find shooting in the water a little more intimate and way more spirited. I just love the idea of weaving in and out of the waves, waiting for the right moment.
Day four of this surf expedition came and the waves have really started to pick up. Clean, with head-high swells. The X Pilipinas folks sure know how to read wind maps!
I was reluctant to head out but the prospect of bagging that image was much more enticing. So, with the camera properly in the housing and with my fins on, I swam to the line-up. Every time a wave came in, I’d dive with the surfer and fire off a burst of shots. The waves were very intimidating and quite heavy. Then, several sets and tens of frames later, I bagged the image I’ve been wanting for so long.
A short while after that surf expedition, and still very much *stoked*, I headed up the mountains in Panay to film and photograph a rock climbing expedition for The North Face.
The town of Igbaras is nestled high in the mountains of the Central Panay Mountain Range. Here can be found one of the most exposed and most remote walls in the Philippines, with route grades that cater to really advanced climbers.
The mornings here are cold and foggy, the days are very windy, and the climbs are hard and scary. Getting here meant taking a habal ride on some of the wildest dirt tracks I have been on (imagine World Cup-level mountain biking). The ride in itself is an adventure on its own.
In the past, the local climbers ignored climbing here as it was deemed too futuristic, meaning the moves on the wall were too hard to ascend with the techniques and hardware of the time. But in only a span of a few years, the community’s passion has resulted in the installation of several lines with route grades that would have probably been hard to imagine a decade ago.
One of the most prominent ascents in Big Wall is Mackie Makinano’s The Engagement , an 8a+ graded route straight up the middle of this limestone behemoth. I was to film Mackie, a North Face Athlete, climbing this route.
Just like surf photography, capturing images in climbing is also two-pronged. One could either shoot from the ground below with a multitude of lenses, or ascend a fixed line and capture the action from above.
Generally, I’d be tiered way above the ground as it gives me a better perspective and allows me to capture the expressions on a climber’s face.
Igbaras didn’t make my shooting easy though. Getting to a good vantage point above meant ascending a 9.5mm rope in howling winds, with nothing but a hundred-foot drop to the valley floor below. At certain times, a gust of strong wind would swing me many feet in all directions like a pendulum.
Big lines, such as The Engagement, are considered breakthroughs in the climbing world. The climbers who attempt these hard lines bear the burden of breaking through the norm and opening our minds to what is humanly possible.
Silence envelopes the whole area as Mackie starts the first moves. Bit by bit he moves with precision through the minuscule holds, sometimes as thin as 3 one-peso coins. He has worked this line before. Several times actually and over the course of many years. Each attempt taking him closer to the top. Yet he falls just under the anchors , a crux section filled with nothingness. Through the viewfinder I see Mackie’s expression turn serious as he prepares to tackle these last few barriers to the anchor.
With lactic acid coursing through his forearms, he clips the anchors a few minutes later. “Nindot gid!”, he shouts into the wind. With a huge smile on both our faces, I agree in silence.
Climbing and surfing have similar traits. They are both nomadic sports that entail traveling to remote outdoor locations. They challenge you to zero in on a singular pursuit - the limits of what you are capable of.
Whether it’s finding that perfect curl or ascending a series of small imperfections on a rock, they provide a sense of contentment and happiness, a sense of stoke, to those who dare to move within our oceans and mountains.
As for me? I’m just grateful I could tell the stories of these people through my photos.