National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen has spent the past three months photographing Hawaii’s indigenous surf culture on the island of O’ahu—an unlikely assignment for a native son of the Canadian Arctic.
While being around (and under) water is well within Nicklen’s comfort zone—he is after all a professionally-trained marine biologist—photographing people was a first. And not just people, but a community sustained by close connections to each other and to the sea—people unconcerned with impressing the outside world. For Nicklen, this assignment was all about making personal connections, something one doesn’t typically need to do when staking out 900-pound polar bears or catching the lightning-fast movements of emperor penguins.
“For me it’s been both challenging and wonderful,” he said when I caught up with him on a day when the waves weren’t calling to him. “With wildlife, you position yourself where a polar bear will stop by—you shoot as much as you can when you can. With people [the point is] to build relationships and trust and gain their respect and not to lose that, because once you do, you lose everything.”
Nicklen credits his partner and assistant, Cristina Mittermeier, with helping him go beyond what she describes as his being “super polite and shy with strangers…feeling awkward about shoving his camera in people’s faces,” to forging the kind of relationships necessary to document this culture in a soulful way.
“Instead of… waiting for something to happen,” Nicklen says, “it has forced me to wait as things are happening before my eyes.” This in turn, has pushed him to grow.
Nicklen tells me about a spot in Makaha on the west side of O’ahu called “the picnic table,” where the locals hang out. “We sit everyday with a group of Hawaiians, and this guy is 560 pounds—Hawaiians are proud of being big—but I didn’t pick up my camera until he asked. This was after two weeks of sitting there every day,” Nicklen says. “If I had started shooting right away it would have shut the door.”
Of the social code of this gathering place, Nicklen says, “You can’t pass by without stopping to say hello, whereas in mainland U.S. you hardly acknowledge people. Here it is rude to not acknowledge people, not to look them in the eye. Here it is always an embrace, a very warm handshake. It’s about showing everyone respect.” He continues, “Everybody says ‘aloha’ but here when they say ‘aloha’ they mean it. It is their spirit breathing the breath of life.”