Exclusive: Leroy Bellet And The Story Behind THAT Michel Bourez Teahupoo Photo
Could it be the best surf photo of all time?
A few days back, Surfing World Magazine published an image of their new cover shot on Instagram.
It featured Michel Bourez standing tall in an extended Teahupo’o tunnel, with Tahiti’s unmistakeable mountains in the background and an afternoon light forcing its way through the thick, semi-translucent wall.
Immediately the comments started pouring in, from surfers and photographers alike, claiming how much the image had impacted them.
@mfanno: Love this pic!
@mikypikon: best surf shot ever
@toddglaser: Mental photo!!!
@benthouard: crazy good
@grantellis: epic cover
@taibuddha: 10/10 photo! Glad it made the cover of the mag and wasn’t just double-tapped alone on the gram.
The image was taken by Leroy Bellet, a 20-year-old from Australia’s craggly east coast (though he was just 18 when the Teahupo’o shot came to be), who became famous a few years back for taking behind-the-surfer photos in tubes of severe consequence.
Leroy has been sitting on this bohemian masterpiece for a year and a half, as part of a film project he’s been working on with Red Bull. After a few days of badgering, we got Leroy on the phone to talk about the image (which you can find above) and about what it takes to pull in deeper than the pros and take a guaranteed beating on the world’s heaviest waves.
All for a photo.
Leroy, who is uncommonly wise for his age, gave us a cool 36 minutes and spared no detail of his most perilous occupation. Come get to know the kid who might’ve nailed “The Best Surf Photo… Ever” below.
Despite the weight of his achievements and the wisdom in his words, Leroy Bellet is truly just a kid.
Stab: Leroy, first of all, just congrats. I think everybody’s pretty blown away with that image.
Leroy Bellet: Yeah, thank you.
How does that feel? I mean, I know that you’ve had similar responses to some of your earlier work, but yeah, I guess we haven’t really seen much from you recently because you’ve been working on this project. Does it kind of feel validating to get that response to that image?
It’s funny. Because this project has been so long I’ve been looking at the shot so much, and for so long that they’ve… not worn off to me, but yeah, I’ve just looked at it so much that it’s- You know, when I first shot it on the day and everything I was so stoked, I was just blown away looking back at it. It’s funny seeing it fresh for everyone else and how stoked they are, so that’s pretty cool.
Yeah, but it is that good. The image is fucking amazing. When was it that you got this shot?
Not last May, but the one before I think it was? Yeah, May 2017 I’m pretty sure.
Is the Red Bull deal the reason you waited so long?
Yeah, for sure. We wanted to make sure that when we put it out we did it justice with the whole behind the scenes and the backstory and the whole adventure, and plus it’s not the only shot or scene that was in it. There was some other filming that went on around it. I’m glad we waited and got this cover and got this one shot out to get everyone talking, I can’t wait to see how everyone enjoys the rest of it.
Right. What can you tell us about the film, when is it coming out, does it have a title?
So it’s part of a series that Red Bull have been doing called “Chasing the Shot” – it’s just a behind the scenes story of how action shots come to be. Specifically, it’s the photographers and the length they go to get photos, so we’ve got a bit of a longer-length one than the other ones they’ve done so far. I think in total we’re going to have twenty minutes of footage so it’s just like that, the shot and a sort of web documentary. And it should be coming out in the next month.
Is your episode just from the Teahupo’o trip, or is there also footage from Australia and beyond?
Yes, there are a few different places involved. The first thing we did for the project was collaborating with Chris Brian and his Phantom camera. We got some results from that which we call our showcase and that was just in Oz with local guys. The next thing we did was we went to Sout Oz with Mark Matthews and tried to do it there, but we didn’t really have much luck. We came and we tried at another spot at [redacted], which ended up resulting in Mark’s knee injury. That was a whole other aspect of it, but I believe Mark is working on something different with that footage, which is going to be cool to see as well.
Before Teahupo’o, Leroy brought his inside-out perspective all over Australia.
I was wondering what you were using for the Michel shot. Is that a frame-grab or a still image?
That’s a still image off my Nikon D5 using a 16mm fisheye lens. There was actually no generic water housing that we could use to do it in Chopes so we got our tech to pull apart and redesign the elite housing for the D5 camera so I could surf with it on my backhand and I could use it without a wrist strap, and it could pop up and it wouldn’t hurt me. There was a lot of design work that went into getting that camera setup specifically for Chopes, but then we also do have footage from Chopes to come from both my perspective and behind-the-scenes stuff from in the channel.
I think I remember you saying, I guess this would have been a few years back now, that the one wave you always wanted to do this go-behind thing was at Chopes. Obviously we see the fruits of your vision with this image, but after pulling it off, does Teahupo’o still seem like the ultimate wave to do that sort of imagery?
Yes and no. It’s such a good wave, Chopes, and I always wanted to go there and do it. I’m still glad that was the spot we used for this project. There’s a lot of things to consider with it both image-wise and practicality-wise – like safety-wise. Just in terms of the image, I’m stoked with how perfect it looked at Chopes, and we got to capture that whole atmosphere and natural amphitheater they’ve got at the bottom of the big lush green mountains, with all the boats in the channel, and the beautiful crystal-clear water. I think on a visual level Chopes is so perfect, so it made a lot of sense for this shot.
Right. I’m just looking at it now, and it’s still so breath-taking. In regards to the actual logistics of this shot, you said you were shooting a fisheye, so how close are you to Michel in the barrel? Three-to-five feet behind him, pretty much?
Yeah, right about that. Probably one-to-two meters. I almost would’ve liked to be a little deeper if anything, just to get a little more pulled back perspective, but we did get several waves and several other shots. I won’t give away too much of what happens in the documentary.
Right. Just looking at the wave itself, for those of us who haven’t surfed Teahupo’o, when you see a wave bending like that it just looks like a closeout. But does Michel make this wave? Is that actually makeable?
I hadn’t surfed Chopes either before I went there, which was something else that made it even more challenging. I didn’t know what I was in for. You can watch all the footage you want, but it’s only going to help so much when you get there and you’re actually facing the prospect of riding one of these waves and trying to pull this off. That specific wave with Michel was a little more west than we wanted, or not more west than we wanted but just more west than what was easily makeable.
Michel didn’t ride out of that one. I think the fact that the wave was a bit of a closeout, or pretty unmakeable, sort of added to the power of the image. We were committed at that point, he just threw his hands up in the air in front of me and we made sure that we enjoyed that split second and got the shot. I feel like that adds another element to that image which makes it exciting to look at, that feeling of “Is it possible to ride out of this wave?”
Once more, just because.
The other side of the equation is that, for what you’re trying to achieve photo-wise, you almost don’t want to make the wave yourself, right?
Yeah, that’s sort of the attitude that we tried to have when we were planning this shot. I’m not the only one that makes the decision, I discussed it with a whole bunch of people before we decided to go there and do it. We definitely look at the wave and think that most likely I’m not going to make any waves, and we just plan around the fact that I’m not going to make any waves, and is it going to be possible to do it safely if I’m falling off on every wave.
We’re trying to focus on the worst-case scenario and plan for that, but if I get spat out of one, that’s sick. In terms of actually shot, it’s true that I’ve almost got to be too deep [to make it] to get the perfect shot. There’s not many that I’ve ridden out of that produced a great image.
When you’re getting towed into one of these waves, obviously you have to be so committed to doing everything right from a filming standpoint, so what’s your thought process? Are you just focused on making sure that your camera is aimed correctly, and you peripherally try to stay on a good line with your surfboard?
Maybe the opposite actually. I’m more trying to focus on the surfing and watching the guy in front – focusing on my balance, watching what’s happening with the wave – and then peripherally I’m trying to have this second nature where I’m pulling the trigger at the right time and I’m holding my camera in the right spot, and I’m trying to dodge the water droplets that might be splashing up in front of me, that sort of thing. It’s hard for me because you’re trying to pay so much attention, so much is going on, and there’s the guy in front, there’s the camera in your hand, and there are the normal challenges of surfing like having your board under your feet and riding the wave. Then as soon as you wipe out you’ve got to do that thing where you might as well switch off, relax, and help your body. If you’re super tense you’re underwater and you’re freaking out, it just makes it twice as bad, so it’s this weird juxtaposition where you have to transition from one to the other really quickly. I think the fact that we’ve practiced it so much and do so many wipeouts is the only reason that I can do that when I go to somewhere new like Chopes.
And what is your falling protocol? How do you protect yourself and hold onto the camera?
Usually I try to dive forward on my left shoulder. I don’t know why, but instinctually I just roll to the left like I was diving over a trial line in football. Typically I hug the camera tight to my chest and dive onto my left shoulder, and I’m always looking for that spot to wipeout when I’m riding. It’s a balance between staying up long enough to shoot and riding too long where I lose the ability to fall how I want.
Does that typically work out?
Yeah, for the most part. On that wave with Michel it didn’t. I probably tried to be greedy and stand up for too long, and then a wave like Chopes has so much power that in a split second you can go from feeling like you’re in control of your board and where you’re going, and then the next second you’re just flipping in any direction that it wants to put you in, and it’s pitch black and you can’t see. For the most part, it’s surprisingly controllable and safe. I don’t think most people think about controlling their wipeouts because when you’re in that situation, you’re always trying to think about making the wave, and wiping out is a second priority. But when wiping out becomes the first priority it’s different. It’s interesting how you think about it differently.
I assume you’re wearing a helmet, and then are you also wearing a full suit and booties and stuff to protect you from the reef?
I was wearing an impact vest, which has foam padding inside of a spring suit, and then a regular Gath helmet with a little foam padding and plastic. I didn’t have booties or gloves – I think just a springy over the top of my impact vest.
Did you end up hitting the reef?
Yeah, but not as bad as I thought I was going to. The first wave we got from the whole session was the worst time that I hit the reef, and it was really sharp, but I just kicked it with my foot. It made a good slice, but at the same time I felt like I’d only just nicked the reef, so I wasn’t looking forward to getting properly slammed on my stomach or face or anything like that. But with the extra padding I have a little more buoyancy, so even if there’s only a foot of water where I fall, I don’t really sink into it, I just get rolled around.
With Chopes though, it’s so sharp and shallow. When I was surfing on the days leading up to the swell, I was like, “Oh, this is really shallow. This could end up bad.” I thought I might only have one wave and I’d get sliced up and that would be it. I’m actually surprised when it got to that size and we started towing, I don’t know if I just got lucky, but I didn’t hit the reef too bad. I got held under for a lot longer than I was expecting to. I thought I was going to hit the bottom, get cut up, and bounce back up, but it ended up being more of a hold down. I guess after you pop back up, it’s better than getting super sliced up.
Leroy makes a living from being too deep.
How many waves did you end up getting with the tow session?
In total we got four waves – we didn’t want to get too greedy. We had people paddling in and stuff, so we’re wary of that as well. We got four waves total and we spread them out throughout the day. I’m glad we did because all of the shots have turned out pretty differently, and we got each wave with a different person and a different style of surfing, which adds a whole different element to it. I think everyone is going to be surprised with how different the four waves we got looked, but the shots turned out really sick on three of them which I’m stoked about.
I don’t even know which one is my favorite, to be honest. Everyone is so stoked on the Michel shot, but I can’t pick between them. I think everyone is going to be stoked when they see it all.
Are you running a GoPro or some sort of video along with the photo camera?
Yes, I’ve got a GoPro on the helmet shooting, I think 4k at 60 fps? That’s all turned out pretty good too, which I’m stoked with because that’s our other element. It really heightens the impact of the documentary, and the whole footage with the sound, you can hear us talking to each other and hear the camera firing and stuff, I’m stoked with how all of the content came together. We’ve had so many different attempts at doing this at different waves that just haven’t worked out, but I’m so glad we got to Chopes and it was so perfect and it all came together.
Red Bull obviously hired you for this job because of how successful you’ve been with your other go-behind work. But how old are you, remind me?
I just turned 20, but when we started this project I think I was about to turn 17.
Wow, I’m surprised they could legally do that.
Yeah, I think we had to get some signatures from my parents at some point [laughs]. I’m so glad that they did take the risk and backed me with it, because I wanted to do it so bad, and it was something that I was always going to do whether I was getting paid to be there or not. I’m so glad that Red Bull appreciated that and took the risk, and that it’s paid off.
Yeah, absolutely. Back to how this started for you… were you just getting into surfing bigger, heavier waves as a teenager, and then someone handed you a camera?
I actually surfed until I was 12, and then from 13-15 I was on a bodyboard trying to keep up with my older brother, who was into surfing heavy waves. Then at the same time, I was getting into shooting these slabs as another way to be out there and enjoy the water, capture it, and share it with my mates and my brothers. Some of the older guys from the area started inviting me on trips to come and shoot with them, and then it all sort of happened naturally. It was funny, I’d never even tow-surfed by myself before we did first double-tow. The first time that I ever towed behind a jet-ski on a surfboard I was getting whipped into a wave with my mates going in front of me.
Did they have to convince you to try that?
We were all pretty keen on the idea. We have a local wave that’s pretty good for go-behinds, and if it had been that bad the first time and I didn’t like it, it would never have been a thing. We just thought we’d have a go at it one morning when the conditions were good, and I was like, “I’ve actually never towed on a jet-ski before,” and they were like, “oh, you’ll be alright!”
I was wobbly trying to stand up, but then it was the most fun thing ever. Standing in a barrel and riding behind someone else is a super cool experience. Especially a proper barrel where you can look around and hear the person in front yelling and it echoes through the barrel. I enjoy doing that more than I enjoy getting barreled by myself for sure.
Do you ever make the barrels?
I don’t make them very often, but every time I do it’s a smile from ear to ear. We’re both laughing our heads off. It’s good fun and I think the enjoyment out of it is how it ended up progressing to this point. It was never something that we were trying to force to happen. It wasn’t even necessarily about trying to get the shot – the shot was just a byproduct of doing something fun and different with your mates. It’s interesting to look back at the start and see how it progressed to here.
Yes, (some) photographers train too.
Just that you’re so young still is pretty mindblowing to me, and I guess with that in mind, do you think this is a sustainable thing for you to keep doing? It seems so inherently dangerous.
I think about that a lot. It’s definitely not something that I want to be forcing myself to do or feel like I have to do, and it never has been at any point. There’s been days where we’ve got film crew out there and I’m just not feeling it, it’s not looking good or whatever, and I’m like “No, it’s not happening today. Another time.”
I’m not suicidal. I’m not going to keep doing it forever, because it’s definitely dangerous. I don’t want to play down the risks or anything. I have been hurt, and every time I fall off I feel it. In terms of long-term sustainability for a career, I’m not planning to rely on it. I’ve just started university this year, actually.
The whole time I’ve been doing this and traveling I’ve still been going to high school on the side of it. My plan is to set myself up so that I’ve got a degree and an education and other work skills. I don’t even like trying to make money out of doing the go-behinds if that makes sense, just because it was never about that when I got into it and I feel like it’s not a good idea to go down that route with it. In terms of sustainability, I’m just going to do it whenever I feel like it. There are still lots of places I want to go and try it out, but I’m never pushing it too far beyond what I think is necessary. If there is ever a point where I think it’s too much, then I’m just going to say no.
That’s really noble, especially for someone so young. What are you studying?
I’m studying computer science. Every person I say that to is like, “Huh. Wouldn’t have picked that.”
But I never didn’t like school. I wasn’t some super rebellious surfing teenager – my attendance rate wasn’t great in the last few years of high school, but every second when I’m there I’m just trying to make the most of it, enjoy it, and actually take something out of it. I figured that with university I would just pick whatever I thought I wanted to do in relation to surf photography, but then something that will also allow me the flexibility or freedom in my life to be able to start my own company or whatever so that I can take days off, travel, and do all the things I love on the side. I think I’m pretty happy with what I’ve chosen to study and where I am headed with my education and career, and how surfing and photography are going to fit into that.
I know that you said that you don’t even love the idea of attaching a dollar sign to what you do, and that’s super respectable, but I hope that Red Bull coughed up the big bucks for this one, because it’s truly revolutionary.
Yeah, I’m really grateful for the whole way Red Bull went about the whole thing. It was never a money-making thing for them, I don’t even know if they’re going to make any money out of it. I don’t know what their process is, but the whole time they just listened to me and respected everything I had to say even though I’m young. Safety has always been a big concern, and any time I’ve felt like there might be something that we need to buy or do in order to make this safer or just to logistically pull it off they’re always supportive of everything, and they have never tried to prioritize a dollar over my life.
Back to the sustainability of this, what are some of the worst injuries you’ve suffered doing this sort of thing?
I feel like I’ve gotten off lucky. There’s been a lot of training and planning and stuff that goes into it, but I’ve split my head twice – once from the camera, once from the guy in front’s surfboard fin. I’ve gotten some nice scars and stitches on the back of my head, and I’ve torn the MCL ligaments in both of my knees when the shockwave has blasted into my board and ripped it at an awkward angle. I’ve definitely had a lot of bruises and cuts, but in terms of breaking bones, nothing like that. Nothing too extreme.
I don’t want to downplay it, I’ve had some rough wipeouts, I’ve popped up with blood coming out of places and feeling like shit. That pain that’s so strong that you’re throwing up, and you’re dizzy, I’ve had that too. There have been times where I’ve popped up and said, “That’s it for the day,” or “I need to take a break from this end and recover and have a think about it, or not do whatever I just did again.” It’s definitely been a learning process with safety, but I think that so far, considering the risks, it’s turned out pretty well.
I’d say. A lot of people are calling the Michel image the best surf photo ever. How does that feel?
It feels pretty cool. It’s funny, when strangers start saying that sort of thing on the internet I don’t really put too much thought to it. I just hope people like it and get some enjoyment out of it. It’s not like a competitive thing where I’m trying to be the best, or that I’m trying to compete to begin with. There’s no competition surrounding it, it’s a fun artistic way to reflect on something I like doing. It is cool to see that people are getting all hyped and stoked about it, and I hope it connects with people that don’t surf as well and they can see it and appreciate it and get a feel for it. I feel like surfers as a whole get a bad rep for being bums or not having the same priorities as the rest of society, but I feel like if everyone just got in the water and surfed a bit more, they would probably be a lot happier.
I’m glad that people are liking it, but I’m not comparing it to anything.
You can find (and buy!) more of Leroy’s work here.
Once more, for good measure.
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