• January 15, 2014

Learning to Say Aloha: Polar Photographer Paul Nicklen Heads to Hawaii

Alexa Keefe

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.”

View more of Nicklen’s pictures on Instagram and on his website.

There are 23 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Lewis McLaughlin
    November 29, 2014

    Thanks Paul, Hawaii was one of my best vacations.

    February 9, 2014

    Mahalo Paul for Documenting Da OHANA of MAKAHA. You are agreat person with skill. MUCH RESPECT ALOHA ALWAYS …

  3. Hi
    January 30, 2014

    This is so true. Aloha can mean so many things as well. I t can mean ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘I love you’, etc.

  4. Kei
    January 23, 2014

    Paul, important story; well told. Mahalo for sharing aloha spirit of Hawaii.

  5. Caleb
    January 22, 2014

    a very moving blog, and wonderful photography. Congrats, Mr. Nicklen!!

  6. Manuel Teixeira
    January 21, 2014

    make me dream with my last trip to havai

  7. Carol Markillir
    January 20, 2014

    Wonderful photo of the two women with surfboards – all your photos are outstanding. Well done.

  8. chrystel ponchel
    January 19, 2014

    So beautiful spirit !!!

  9. michael filippoff
    January 19, 2014

    Beautiful and powerful imagery!

  10. Bruce Farnsworth
    January 17, 2014

    Paul, love the textured, active environmental portraits! For sure, the the intimacy of such rural and place-based cultures is much of what engages me in my work in the upper Amazon basin. The friendships have been so real, rich and lasting.

  11. julia cart
    January 16, 2014

    Great story in both pictures and words. Well done!

  12. Julia
    January 16, 2014

    Great story in both images and words. Well done!

  13. Maraea Hokulani
    January 16, 2014

    Paul does such a wonderful job! I’ve been following him on Instagram for a month or two and I am incredibly impressed with the things and people and moments he’s shot. Especially of Ha’a & Sam doing rock training. So dope <3

  14. Fabienne Lefeuvre
    January 16, 2014

    So talented!…Thanks for sharing with us Paul your perception of the world… You see layers that most of us miss …You have an eye for perfection! I loved the angles and movements…-))

  15. Chris Blank
    January 16, 2014

    Geeeev’em bra! Great kine story! ;)Love Makaha…great body surfing. Also love the traditional spelling for O’ahu Hawai’i \nm/

  16. Marcio
    January 16, 2014

    Alo)(a !!

  17. victor h fisher
    January 16, 2014

    Great work. Well done.

  18. Ikayakira
    January 15, 2014

    Absolutely beautiful…awesome

  19. carola moriconi
    January 15, 2014

    Thank you.this is wonderful!

  20. Vernon Keliikipi
    January 15, 2014

    Hope you folks and fun here. LIVE ALOHA,LOVE ALOHA,WELCOME TO MAKAHA..E’ALA E.

  21. Cecilia
    January 15, 2014

    Very beautiful

  22. Carla Stringari
    January 15, 2014

    fantastic! beautiful work! so inspiring!! congrats!! love it!!!

  23. srimanta ray
    January 15, 2014

    excellent story with documentation….love it….. superb… regards…. :)Sri

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