Yassine Ouhilal, otherwise known as 'Yazzy' has become one of the most sought after photographers in the active lifestyle world. He specializes in pioneering and documenting new and unchartered surf destinations. For the past ten years he has photographed dozens of locations around the globe, including several in Arctic regions. From swimming in the Arctic Ocean to capture a surfer in action with a snowcapped background to driving 4000 miles across the Sahara desert in search of unspoiled waves, he will stop at nothing to create images that set themselves apart. The reason? He loves what he does.
Yassine, what's your background, where are you from?
YO: I was born in Casablanca, Morocco. My dad is from Morocco and my mother is Eastern European. When I was 3, my family moved to Canada. I grew up in Montreal, which is a pretty landlocked city. My first experience with the ocean was going down for summer holidays to Cape Cod and bodyboarding in the shorebreak.
And when did you first find your love for surfing and photography?
YO: I was a competitive tennis player growing up. This landed me an NCAA Tennis scholarship in Hawaii. I had never really thought about it, but one of the first things I did when I got there was to walk down to Waikiki Beach. I rented a board from one of the beach boys there and the rest is pretty much history: I quickly traded the tennis racquet for a surfboard, preferring to spend my time in the ocean than on a tennis court.
Photography came at an earlier age. My mom comes from an artistic background. She is a film maker. When I was really young, she always managed to get some cameras in my hands when we went on trips. The cheap and small plastic cameras turned into bigger plastic cameras, which turned into SLR's. I guess you could say I grew up taking pictures. It's something that comes very naturally for me. It's a comfort level you could compare to playing an instrument from a young age. I ended up going to film school just before the digital revolution, where everything was shot on 16mm and painstakingly edited by hand and spliced together. This really cemented my technical knowledge along with my ability to visualize and compose images.
You shoot in the harshest of conditions in some of the most beautiful regions of the world, tell us about your 'locations of choice'…
YO: For me, the surfing dream is alive more than ever. It just got colder. I don't think the locations I frequent are for everybody as there is a great deal of effort, research, patience and luck that is needed going to those places in order to score good surf. I basically invest a lot of time researching locations which are often fickle and cold. Once there, I end up driving a lot looking for surf, or for hints of surf. On a recent trip to Iceland, I ended up driving around the entire island over 3 completely flat days just looking at every single nook and cranny. This detective work of looking at setups and the shapes of rocks, cusps on the shore, swell windows of certain bays is an awful lot of work, but once that "science" has been tapped out, it becomes easier to go back there on a given swell and to score good waves. It's a lot of trial and error and total goose chases. When it's all said and done though, there's no feeling like putting in an incredible amount of effort and surfing a wave that's probably never been surfed before and that might not break again for 6 months. I also don't mind the cold. I think wetsuit technology and colder conditions are a good tradeoff for crowds.
Given the severity of some of the locations you shoot at… Do you prefer to shoot from land or in the water?
YO: I usually try to resist the urge to swim. While I have a tremendous amount of respect for the guys that do, I'm not one of those guys that will swim out at big Pipe to just get a shot. I think the odds of getting a good shot diminish with watershots. That being said, I usually compose my shots based on the backdrops and foregrounds, and often, a water angle will produce some incredible compositions. That is usually the deciding factor. When I go on a trip to shoot photos, I will usually nail down all the different types of shots I need and usually do the water shots for last. I think that it's easy to get addicted to shooting from the water because it's so much fun and involved, and in order to get a bigger range of latitude in my shots, I often resist it until I'm confident I've got everything else captured first. Since I'm used to surfing in Eastern Canada through the winter, the cold doesn't really bother me either. I'd rather swim and freeze in the Arctic somewhere than to swim at crowded Pipe.
As such a well-travelled photographer/surfer, what have been your fondest memories from your travels so far?
YO: I think my fondest memories from my travels, especially on the road less traveled have been the connections I've made with people. I know that might sound cliche, but in many of the colder, obscure corners of the world where surfing is not a mainstream practice, the local surfers have a certain joie de vivre and innocence that has long been gone everywhere else. For me, that captures the soul and stoke of surfing and goes right back to its roots. Many places have already been affected by too many crowds and I think that reflects on the experience of surfing in those places. I've been on a "dream trip" in the Mentawais and couldn't wait to go back to those northern reaches because of that different surfing reality.
One other example is this local surfer in these Islands in the North Atlantic. I was there a few years ago with a couple of surfers and we pretty much pioneered the place. The local people there treated us as heroes for braving and surviving the harsh north atlantic ocean. During this trip, I got the chance to introduce one of the locals to surfing. He caught on pretty quick and got a board of his own, and still surfs to this day. He's still the only surfer in the islands and for me it's great to be able to experience and witness something like that and to see how he reacts to the surfing experience. He was completely oblivious to the realities that plague modern surfers, such as crowds and development. Now that he is on a surf trip in New Zealand, he is beginning to understand how crowds can affect the surfing experience after trying to surf Raglan for the first time. I also think that I romanticize the idea of first looking at a cold spot on the map, researching it, studying weather patterns, geological maps, charts and putting an effort to eventually go there. For me it's extremely rewarding. I guess you could compare it to climbing a mountain, in a way. People don't spend a lot of time at the summit. The summit for me is to score perfect waves against all odds in unlikely places.
You have a really beautiful video feature on your site simply titled "Film"… Tell us more about this…
YO: The current film on my website is just a small edit for a film made by Michel Jakoby on a trip we did together last year. We had the chance to spend some time in the Arctic with Tom Curren and the three of us went on this crazy adventure one day. We basically took a zodiac to this secluded village you could only reach by boat with a population of 1 person. We ended up hiking over a mountain with survival suits and surfboards and reached a secluded bay on the other side with perfect little solitary waves. It was a lot of effort getting there. It was also a magical experience to share that with a guy like Tom. When we came back to the village, the one lady living there had prepared a feast for us. We ended up warming up to some hot tea and food and went on our way. Definitely a day I'll never forget.