The 2020 Summer Olympics, to be held in Tokyo, are the first games to include surfing as an official sport. When Hawaiian Airlines inflight magazine Hana Hou! was preparing a piece on surfing in anticipation of the event, photo editor Matt Mallam contacted Nagoya, Japan-based photographer Ben Weller to capture the images to accompany it.
Surf culture is not a new phenomenon in Japan. Ironically, you have to go back to 1964, the last time Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics, to trace the roots of surfing in Japan. American soldiers stationed there at the time first introduced the Japanese to the sport. Surfing was their way of relaxing during their time off, and they ended up teaching curious locals how to surf and shape boards.
Decades later, the sport’s popularity in Japan has skyrocketed. With increased media coverage and a good showing at the 2020 games, that trend should continue.
Having lived in east Asia for 15 years, Ben has spent the last few years learning about Japanese surf culture and photographing the individuals that make such a challenging sport look effortless.
My wife is from Shonan, a coastal region of Japan about 50 km southwest of Tokyo that is famous in Japan for its surf culture. I had been hanging out at the beaches and shooting surfing whenever I had the chance for a few years, with an idea in mind of doing a story at some point.
Though the Olympic surfing competition will take place at Shidashita Beach, Ben traveled all over the country for this project.
I spent five or six days shooting in different parts of Japan for this story. I ended up submitting over 200 images. The client had a reasonable budget to get this completed, and they were really great to work with — they were clear about what they wanted but also trusted me to get the story shot right.
One thing that stands out about Ben’s work is how it intersperses the quiet moments of surfing with the visceral action shots. For every shot of a surfer riding a wave, there is another of a surfer enjoying the tranquility that comes from being near the water.
I tried to shoot a good mix of wide, medium, close, and environmental portraits, which is my usual approach to visual storytelling. I did minimal editing, just trying to get those RAW images looking as clear and vibrant as they looked to my eye.
Surfing is an intimate sport for many reasons. Surfers often get up early in the morning to hit the beach. Once there, they spend hours alone with their thoughts as they forge a connection with the ocean. In turn, this lifestyle is right in line with the way Ben operates.
I was shooting solo. Driving a lot, waking up early to get to the beach for good light. This is usually how I work. I work by myself when I can and with very few lights, if any. I love to explore and find real people doing their thing.
Japan is known for infusing its cultural ethos into its passions and pastimes, and surfing is no different. In this country, surfing is more than a sport. It’s also about how you live your life. Ben made it a priority to capture this sentiment in his work. Based on the feedback he’s received, he nailed it.
All around I’ve got a lot of great feedback from the editors and writer and, most importantly for me, from the surfers. I want to continue working on this subject, so getting the story right and showing what the surf scene here really looks like was important to me. From the feedback I got, I think we achieved that with this story.
Client: Hawaiian Airlines
Photo Editor: Matt Mallam
See more of Ben Weller at benweller.photoshelter.com!
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