If you meet Vincent Bergeron with camera in hand, you might think he’s a man of few words, but athletes like Sensi Graves and Eric Rienstra will tell you otherwise. Most stories about this French Canadian photographer start with anecdotes of Vincent’s entertaining, yet incomplete command of the English language and finish with his unwavering commitment to documenting pure, visceral images of avant-garde kiteboarding.
Vincent attributes his inspiration to other photographers within the industry such as Bryan Elkus, Tracy Kraft Leboe, Toby Bromwich, and Lance Koudele, to name just a few. However, most of his technical knowledge was formed from reading massive amounts of internet tutorials followed by an exhaustive regimen of trial and error. Waiting tables in Montreal, Vincent stumbled onto kiting when he met Liquid Force designer, Julien Fillion, but in recent years he’s photographed some of the most respected athletes of our sport. Eric Rienstra recalls, “When Vinni first started shooting with us, he was working as a waiter and photography was more of a hobby, but his skills have progressed to the point where he is now being hired for product shoots for kite companies.”
When asked about his personal relationship with kites, Vincent admits to teaching himself two years ago, but his dedication to creating stunning action sports imagery ensures that most of his time is spent wandering down desolate beaches (as Vinni says, “going by walk”), and restlessly searching his viewfinder for a different perspective.
We asked Vincent to share some of his favorite photographs and give us some insight into his creative approach.
In my personal experience, there is no single recipe for a good kiteboarding photo; this sport has too many variables at play. The conditions are never the same and it is almost impossible for a rider to repeat the exact maneuver for the camera again. This is also what makes it particularly interesting and never boring. My photographic process starts with the familiar — my camera equipment and the light — both are essential before heading out to shoot. After that, I use an assortment of self-taught techniques to capture kiting, but the key is to be ready because you never know when the magic moment arrives.
For me to want to photograph, I need a good rider. Style is very important; clothing sets the tone as much as the rider’s maneuvers. It’s difficult to take a magazine worthy picture of someone in a seat harness with triple UV protection sunglasses and a Go-Joe attached to their board. Yes, safety will always remain important, but this is not what draws people to this sport; we are attracted to the kite because it is extreme and powerful.
Location is as important as rider and style. When I choose where to shoot, it’s important to keep in mind that a perfect place for kiting is not necessarily the best place to take pictures. The popular spots tend to be crowded and have already been photographed a thousand times, so it’s much better to go explore and find new locations. A view of the sea will always be a point of view of the sea, whether it’s in a Caribbean paradise or just your local beach. Without the right backdrop, you only have the horizon and the water; this makes for boring photos.
Knowing your Kodak (read camera) is very important, and for that you need to take pictures, and then take more pictures, and when you’ve done that, take even more. When we are on location, a true photographer has little time for anything other than photographing, let alone kiting. Whether you’re fine-tuning a new lens or exploring the territory, there are always new techniques to try. I always take pictures before and after the session; the lifestyle of the kiteboarder is as valuable as the action itself. This requires me to keep my Kodak out at all instances; when it’s time for beer or lunch, for the photographer, it’s still time for work. Sometimes, I like to go solo and take long walks to get away from the standard point of view; it offers a broader outlook and often I find a new perspective for the next day.
Commercial photography requires that you attend to all the details. You must arrive at the shoot with fully charged batteries, formatted memory cards, a wetsuit and proper water shoes to move throughout the spot. I always make a checklist for equipment which includes rider’s gear as well; they tend to forget their pump, bar, and backup board. Equipment failure is not uncommon for both the photographer and the rider, so we plan around it. Most importantly, a good photographer has a strategy for what he/she wants to shoot. Part of this is knowing the wind forecast and trying to better anticipate the day. Riders always want to go into the water when the wind starts blowing, but sometimes it’s wiser to wait until the light is best. It is not uncommon that I have to convince a rider to wait before going into the water. Lighting makes all the difference — even when the wind is rotten the images will be better — the famous golden hours are the time for magical photos.
Communication with riders is key. I always start a session with a reminder to keep the kite low, as flush with the water as possible. For a freestyle shot or just general scenic shots, if the kite is too high, it doesn’t look good. The kite is what makes the sport magical, and it’s the photographer’s job to better develop and integrate the kite into their image. To get the kite low and powered, there is no solution other than to constantly beckon riders to think about where they place their kites.
Photographers must be vocal; I shout, laugh, and give feedback. Riders love to hear the photographer; it motivates and maintains the camaraderie in our relationship. The more my vocal cords hurt in the evening, the greater the chance we achieved beautiful images. Riders rarely understand the big picture, as they don’t necessarily know where to load and pop. It’s my job to tell them what to do, and maybe more importantly, what not to do. It’s my job to search for a better point of view; bend down, elevate, change the lens, rig up a flash, go in the water — and I’m always on the run because I can’t lose a single moment.
The most technical maneuvers are not necessarily ideal for a good photo. Again it is a question of style and ease. It’s better to encourage the rider to do what they know best rather than to attempt a triple pass for the first time. A simple grab integrated into a rotation generally trumps passing the bar, and it is the photographer who has to determine what makes the best image from the Kodak’s point of view. Sometimes you have to make the rider do the same maneuver 10 times over in order to get one good shot. I try to push the limits of each kiter, but each rider requires a different approach. I find myself adapting to the rider and encouraging them according to their strengths. If I ask someone to do a handlepass and they don’t have it mastered, then it is a waste of time. I focus riders on what they can do and use my skills to make it work visually. To be entirely honest, sometimes I lie to riders and I tell them the photos are awesome when this is not true; that way the morale stays high and they actively continue to kite. Sometimes it’s the total opposite and I tell the hard truth about an athlete who doesn’t do the right things; I can be really cruel when I feel it’s a waste of time.
Stopping to look at the images is essential, but difficult when you’re taking 2000 images in one hour. Is my focus good? Is my camera setting ideal? Am I better to move? I have to stay focused at all times, not only in terms of photography, but also in terms of my mental state. I always try to get away from people; even if a pretty girl talks to me about my big lens I try to dodge the conversation to better concentrate on work. While photographing, it is virtually impossible to stay focused with someone at my side. By being antisocial, I can maintain a bubble and a centered state of mind.
One of the biggest practical challenges while shooting action is fighting exhaustion; the best time of day is often at the end when the rider is tired and burnt. I try to find ways to prevent an athlete from fading on the late session. I bring lunch, snacks and water in my photo pack, and never hesitate to offer these to the riders. Sometimes a little boost of energy can stretch a session and land the best shot of the day under the last ray of sunshine.
When the day on the water is done, the work has only just begun. I spend long hours at the computer selecting photos. The best formula is to show only a little but show only the best. What seemed to work in the viewfinder of the Kodak can be disappointing at the computer. Sometimes a picture is perfect even without a single touch-up, but the opposite is also true when a flat image becomes sublime with a bit of color correction. Generally, I try to make a first selection with the riders sitting in front of the computer. It motivates them and helps illustrate what to do and what not to do. If the rider is disappointed with the results, sometimes they will pay more attention to my direction when I tell them what to do and where to do it. This collaboration as well as the rider’s reaction often inspires me to work harder the next day.
The last step in the photographic process is deciding which photos to submit to the magazines and kiteboarding companies. It is a long process that requires a lot of discussion and a good methodology. My criteria for a good photograph starts with style. No matter what, if the action is not powerful and committed, it doesn’t deserve to be printed. Secondly, the shot needs to be sharp. As professional photographers, we are supposed to consistently deliver the best of the best. Photos with soft focus should not be in a magazine. Finally, I believe an image should speak for itself. If you need to quote Gandhi, the Dalai Lama or Chuck Norris to make it work for a publication it’s probably because the image is not powerful enough.
To part with what I’ve learned in recent years, new photographers just need to play around. Stop thinking so much and just go out and shoot photos; don’t be lazy — explore each location. All those expensive DSLRs need to be used. If you have athletes in front of your camera and less than 60 gigabytes of images at the end of the day, then you aren’t trying hard enough. When you look at your work, it’s important to be critical of what you show. There are millions of images in the world; ask yourself why some are more interesting than others and always try to focus on the emotion and technique that suits your own creativity.
Intro by Brendan Richards
Words and Photos by Vincent Bergeron
In addition to massive portfolio of action images, Vincent has a growing list of action videos you can check out at www.vimeo.com/vincentbergeron