Cristina Gareau relocated to Tofino six years ago from Québec. Since then, she has woven herself into the very fabric that makes Tofino so special. Her passion for seeking out and exploring the beauty of her surroundings is evident in her images that creatively capture the purity and presence of the ocean, the surf lifestyle, as well as sustainable brands carried by the local Tofino shop, Merge.
Beka Shane Denter: The move west to British Columbia was a big departure from your life back east in Québec. Can you explain how? Was it an ‘aha’ kind of moment or more of a gradual decision to move your life west?
Cristina Gareau: I would say it was a gradual decision. I had been imagining how it would be to live out west for a long time. Many of my friends growing up had moved there. For a lot of us who love the outdoors, it was like hearing about Neverland.
BSD: You hold a Ph.D. in cancer research and shared how passionate you were about the work you did in that field. How did the experience of doing research and detail-oriented work prepare you for being a photographer?
CG: I never thought that by doing these studies it would prepare me for anything else than what they were meant for. Life has a funny way to prepare you for incredible U-turns without you even noticing.
I think cancer research really helped me learn about photography with a unique approach. I was trained in a scientific way… understand the problem, hypothesize a solution, test and then re-test three times, and note every observation in a notebook. I was very curious and attracted to photography but also very intimidated by it. I decided to approach photography the way I had been taught for 11 years. I had a notebook and recorded all my observations about the light I was shooting in. I find a lot of pleasure learning about things that way.
BSD: You began your life out west as a ski patroller in Revelstoke in southeastern British Columbia. What was it like to move from a mountain-minded community to the beach-focused community of Tofino on Vancouver Island?
CG: It was a new world and a new kind of adventure but the people I met by the coast had the same deep love for the outdoors, and the same passion for living a simple life, which is what attracted me to move out west in the first place.
BSD: Can you remember the first time you picked up a camera? Did you have the feeling of ‘I’m totally in my element and this is what I’m meant to do?’
CG: Oh yes! I remember I was so scared and had no idea what I was doing. I bought my first camera, a used Canon 60D. I remember the girl telling me to give it a try and I was so embarrassed and shy as I had no idea what to do. There were so many buttons!
BSD: Was there a connection between learning to surf and photography for you?
CG: I started surfing my first summer in Tofino. It was 2013. I instantly fell in love. A couple of years before, I had injured my neck while ski patrolling and had a hard time doing any kind of activity. The doctors recommended swimming. I had just picked up my first camera and was playing with it on the beach when one of my friends suggested I try shooting in the water. I could then do the activity that was recommended by the doctors and still enjoy the ocean and time with my friends. A talented photographer from Tofino was moving on to a new adventure in the city of Victoria and sold me his water camera for a very good price. Thank you, Robert!
BSD: What was your first epic shot? The image that helped you believe that photography was your calling.
CG: I don’t think there is a time that you think to yourself, “this is it!” I think it’s more of a slow, unconscious process. But I do remember a shot that brought me to tears and made me reflect on this crazy life journey.
I was with an older friend of mine who is a wildlife photographer from Tofino. He offered one evening to take me on his little boat to go see some of the eagles he watches in the inlet. I wasn’t ready, my camera wasn’t set, and out of nowhere, this eagle came to catch a fish right in front of me. In a rush, I pointed towards it and pressed the shutter. This picture is definitely far from perfect, but its imperfection is what actually gives it motion and some sort of beautiful emotion and feeling to it. This capture remains one of my favorite photos because it reminds me that no matter how hard we try to prepare for everything we can never be ready as much as we would want to be. We just have to go for it.
BSD: You’ve become an integral part of the fabric that makes up Tofino in both your personal and professional life. How do the two intersect? I imagine in a small community, it’s essential to be open to new opportunities. It sounds like a very welcoming community – one where people support each other. Is this true?
CG: Yes definitely, I think this town is truly what it is because of its unique community. There are a lot of creative people here and the support for each other is huge. I’m not sure if it’s that Tofino is so far away at the end of the road, why it brings people with the same mentality, values, and interests. But it all works beautifully. This is something I had never experienced before – to feel surrounded and supported by people who inspire me in the direction that I want to go. So yes, the personal and the professional intersect.
My work is my passion, and in a small community when we work with each other on things we love, we all benefit from each other’s efforts. My work helps a local shop, and, their work helps their employees, and together we all benefit.
BSD: You mention that it’s important to be open. To be curious. What does this mean for you? As a photographer? As a person? And how has this approach to life helped shape your current state of mind, both professionally and personally?
CG: I always had an interest in photography but somehow never gave it a chance. Photography is my biggest passion. It fuels me in so many ways. When I think about it, I realize that photography was there the whole time, waiting for me to give it a try. That’s why I tell people to give in to your curiosity because who knows what could happen. We’re always one decision away from changing our entire path.
BSD: Let’s talk about the People’s Choice award you received in the 2019 Rip Curl Nationals photo competition. What was the image of? How did that feel?
CG: This was a very overwhelming moment. I really didn’t think this was going to happen. At first, when the organizer approached me to participate, I wasn’t really into it. I was so intimidated by the event and telling myself that I had no barrel shots or interesting action photos to submit. But he somehow convinced me, and I went with an image that meant something to me – an early calm morning paddle out with my friend Jordanna to one of my favorite surf spots.
BSD: We talked extensively about your connection with Merge, a Tofino lifestyle shop. How has this relationship helped shape your current professional and personal situation?
CG: Honestly, I don’t think I would be where I am today in my career if it wasn’t for Laurie at Merge. She gave me a chance to photograph some of the products from her shop when I had no portfolio to show. From then on, we became really close friends and creative partners. We have similar tastes and share a passion for beautiful design. We fuel each other’s ideas and projects. A day of brainstorming with Laurie is always a fun day.