Athens-born surfer/photographer Taki Bibelas instills his Mediterranean sensibility to his film projects. Whether shooting fashion photography or working on his new surf film The Still Point, Taki brings to the frame his strong sense of color and light.
What was your childhood like?
Protected middle-class North American. I was born in Athens, Greece, but grew up in Winnipeg and then Montréal in Canada. Not much surf.
When did you get your first surfboard?
I learned to surf about 15 years ago in Morocco. I woke up one morning in a tent next to the sea at some surf camp after an all night drive with some local friends—not knowing where I was going, just after I ended up back in France where I made the classic mistake of buying a used feather-light pro board from a longboarder in for a competition. It broke in two shortly after.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
That nothing else mattered, that I was able not to think of anything except what I was doing. Not even thinking of it … just feeling it. Everything and nothing … a state of meditation.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
Hey, I’m still a young man! (Laughs) I would say when I was a kid, I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau and live with dolphins. As I got a bit older, I started to admire the work of visual artists. The list is too long. Of course, Jimmy Page was in there somewhere too.
What inspired you to begin shooting images?
First, looking at the work of W. Eugene Smith, Bruce Davidson, Edward Weston and others, and that it just felt like the right thing to do.
What do you look for in a photograph?
Timelessness. And is it memorable? It’s easy to take a nice picture, but not to make it timeless and knowing what makes it memorable.
Tell us about your new film The Still Point.
The Still Point started in my head years ago. I was spending all my free weekends in Geuthary, France and got to know Miki Dora. One day, he invited me to a dinner meeting he had with Stacy Peralta and Agi Orsi, who just made Dogtown and Z-Boys. They wanted to make a movie about Miki. He kept saying that a movie about him shouldn’t be a surfer movie— there was or he had another story to tell. Later, I said, if I ever made a film about surfing, I wouldn’t want any surfing in it. Miki was really sick and knew he was dying; the movie never got made. I did take a portrait of him for Vogue just after. I think he liked that and wanted to leave something behind.
That idea of a surf film to show a true meaning of surf without showing surfing stuck in my mind and I set off to shoot Polaroids, super 8, 16mm and record audio in California, Hawaii and, later, Australia. The name The Still Point comes from some lines in the T.S. Eliot poem “Burnt Norton”:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
It described my feeling of surfing. I began to understand from the incredible people I met that the true spirit of surfing was the water … the ocean. I began to ask the question, “Is the ocean alive?” It lead me to setting up the film the way it is—like a poem, a film about everything and nothing, a film about water, the ocean and life as seen though the eyes of some very insightful surfing personalities. There is very little surfing in the film, but we really feel it.
Of all the places you have traveled to, what place in particular stands out? And why?
I think I have traveled to too many places, so that’s a hard question. But I can say places like Pushkar in India, Namche Bazaar in Nepal, Luang Prabang in Laos and Patmos in Greece have all had very calming effects, helping me to see life more simply. Not sure what those places are like now; that was years ago—probably touristy now. No surf spots in that list because I really remember the waves more then the places, so I don’t count them.
Who or what inspires you?
Artists and people who live life without fear. It’s not easy to live life without fear of something as fear blocks so much in life. I was also very inspired by many of the people I met shooting this film, people like Ricky Grigg. He has an incredible surfing history, worked in the ocean and has a lightning quick intellect that understands and grasps so much of what is going on around and in us. I have also been very inspired lately by the work of the oceanographer Sylvia Earl.
What is the greatest thing you have learned in your life?
“Instant Karma” and that I still have much to learn. Seriously, I guess that everything I do is connected to something that is connected to something else. So, it is very important to do things and live not just for yourself, but for the whole of life that you are connecting to.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Yes, that I knew earlier what I just said above.
What are you most proud of?
The first thing I think of is the most cliché answer: my two kids and my family. But I’m pretty proud of my first over two meter wave and doing this film with no backing, doing it all myself.
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Surfing has changed my life from the beginning. It has shown me my connection with where I really live, brought me in tune with nature and has shown me how fragile we really are. Not only that, but it lead me to see that all life on this planet is connected to the ocean that we surf in. I have seen how we are destroying that ocean, therefore our planet, and hurting ourselves, all other life and our children. I am ashamed, but I have hope. I’ll do what I can.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
Simple things—my family, a moment feeling the nature around me, floating on a surfboard during the sunset when the water is all golden, a nice ride on any size of a wave on that golden sunset water.
Who are some of the people you feel are shaping the path for surfing today?
I think it would be the free surfers who are not attaching themselves to the marketing of surfing, but to ocean causes. David Rastovich comes to mind even though I have not met him. I like what Tom Wegener is doing as well.
What is your favorite board? Your favorite surf spot?
My favorite board is a 10 foot Downing Hawaii, made by George Downing, that just cuts though big Geuthary waves. Geuthary is a spot I like a lot. My two other spots I love the most are Witches Rock in Costa Rica and a little hotel with one wave in front of it in the south of Sri Lanka.
What’s your favorite meal?
Quinoa with mixed organic vegetables.
What are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I don’t listen much to iPods, but if you want to know what CD feeds the four amplifiers that power my high resolution active speakers, I can tell you today that little CD pile included Shakti with John McLaughlin, Angus and Julia Stone, The XX and Bardi Johannsson, who did the music for this film.
What are you most grateful for?
My little family and to be able to teach them respect for the ocean before it’s too late.
What’s next for Taki Bibelas?
I am currently working on a book project of portraits of surfers called Surfing is My Religion. I have about 20 so far, but would like to have about 50 more. All the pictures are done as 19th century religious paintings, but the temple is the shoreline. They are very set up in the way they are lit and posed. I need more surfers to get involved, but I love what I have so far. I don’t want to show it until it’s done.
I would also like to start another film that reaches deeper into the ocean’s problems, but I would want to do it again in an artistic, poetic way.