Type7 Volume 2, 2020 (coffee table book, a collaboration with Porsche, as contributor and copy editor)

In the fast times of “pics or it didn’t happen,” modern culture likes to tell us that photography simply commemorates a happening. But in reality, a picture can do considerably more. A glimpse of impermanence, the camera is a vehicle of memory, a reminder that moments are fleeting and that if you pause, you’ll find beauty. This is especially true when it comes to the images made by Sebastien Zanella, a man with a sixth sense for splendour and an eye for creating postcards from where you’d rather be.

“When I was 16, I thought everything around me had a beauty,” says the French artist. “I felt like my life was a movie. So even now, what you see is me pressing stop.” As editor of surf/skate journal Desillusion Magazine, Zanella is mostly known for his lifestyle photography and films; however, he doesn’t consider himself a photographer, but rather a poet. Born in Cannes, and now based in the historic surf municipality of Seignosse, Zanella’s life is as idyllic as his imagery. His home is a treehouse by the sea, and the beach is his studio. One imagines the surfers bobbing in the water, patiently waiting for their moment while Zanella waits for his, both at the mercy of the sea. “It’s like when you are driving a car and everything is moving,” describes Zanella. “You can’t predict the road or pedestrians, but after a few years driving fast, you know how to control your car, where you can speed, you can predict the movements. And so 99 per cent of my pictures are like this. I take them in the moment, no settings, I don’t set anything, I just try to control the car.”

Zanella’s surf images are not typical of the sport – they are tender, uninhibited, and they are all images of women. “For many years, I was just shooting men. I found it was always about testosterone and having the biggest tricks,” he explains. “But that was not what I loved about the sport. For me, I saw surfing as beauty; it was more about the moments in-between and the lifestyle, than tricks. So I concentrated on documenting that.”

In the last five years, as surfing and skating have increasingly become more significant commodities (and Olympic sports), Zanella has set his focus to shooting mostly women. Because in them, Zanella finds women embody his true ideals of surfing and skating: rebellion, meditation and mother nature. “I’m not interested in photographing men – they’re so competitive now, surfing loses the culture it had back in the day,” he says. “When I see women surfing, their attitude is more laid back, less aggressive. They are in harmony with the waves. When I watch how men surf now, we surf against nature, like we need to show how strong we are against it.”

Another catalyst for the shift in Zanella’s gaze came seven years ago, with the birth of his daughter, who he says arrived just at the right moment. “All my life, my choices have been dictated by poetry, not the hype,” he muses. “But she helped me to understand, as a man, the construction
of femininity. And how in this world dictated by men, it’s a rebellious act to be feminine, because everything pushes you to be a man.” Zanella says he now looks to the women he shoots as the role models he’d want for his daughter. “Even if we speak about successful women, they still are expected to act like a man – I realised that to truly be feminine and embrace it 100 per cent, that is so strong and rebellious.”

The defiant attitude at the heart of what the Frenchman loves about the sports may have faded, but as Zanella’s images show, the future burns bright. “If you are a skateboarder or surfer, you are popular these days. But a female skateboarder or surfer? That is rebellious! In this patriarchal system, girls are taught to be quiet and not do this. Being able to be strong and keep your femininity on the wave or the skateboard, for me, is the new rebellion, freedom and strength.” He smiles. “That is poetry.”