Linus Chen is a Swede. He lived in Fontainebleau in France for a while and had the time of his life. He graduated in 2012, after three years of journalism and media production education. Straight after graduating, Linus started working as a reporter at a local newspaper and since 2013, he’s worked as a freelance journalist and photojournalist with Taipei as home base. His focus is on Swedish magazines and newspapers but also pays attention internationally. He has worked with the likes of Outside, Res, Expressen, Centered on Taipei and many more.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m 52 this year, which seems ancient but isn’t really that old!
I was born in South Carolina, USA, and my sister was born in France a year or so earlier. My mother had a good story about how I was conceived in the French countryside in September 1960, after a picnic when “your father got frisky.” Conception stories are always more interesting than “where were you born?”
We lived in Japan, in Okinawa, for four years when I was very young as my father was an officer in the United States Air Force and was serving two tours in Vietnam. We moved to Hawaii in 1969, where my mother had lived for ten years before my parents were married and that’s where I lived for most of the next 30 years.
Tell me about Singapore.
Around the end of the millenium, my wife and I became convinced we should leave Hawaii for a number of reasons. The only question was where to go. I had visited Singapore several times, but I didn’t know that much about it. A research effort made it clear the Singapore government was very accommodating to qualified foreigners who wished to live and work in Singapore, so we decided to give it a try. On paper, it’s not that different from Hawaii – hot, Asian and relatively expensive. In practice, it is very different. The Singapore government really does make an effort to shape an English-speaking global city with excellent infrastructure, great transportation links and a favorable climate for business under the rule of law with minimal tax burdens and almost no corruption.
After 12 years in Singapore, the locals can be annoying but unlike Hawaii they are not violent, not particularly racist, not on drugs and it is almost impossible to get a gun for any reason in Singapore. Wifey and I are happy we made the move, and c0nsider it the best thing we have ever done.
What drew you to photography?
I had a few cameras before high school and always liked the process of visualizing an image, then seeing it in a print. I had several photo classes in high school. Developing the film and making prints in a darkroom were both interesting and fun. I didn’t like mixing the chemicals, but it was very interesting to be able to manipulate the image to get a desired outcome.
How did you start photographing surfers?
After I graduated from UCLA, I assisted for several established photographers in the Los Angeles area learning more about technique, equipment and the imaging business. I have been surfing since small-kid days in Hawaii. I surfed a lot in university, mostly at Topanga in the winter and Malibu in the summer as these two spots were closest to the UCLA campus in Westwood.
From Malibu, I got to know two prominent LA surfers in Allen Sarlo and Jamie Brisick and they said we should do a shoot. I was also in touch with Larry Moore at Surfing Magazine and he gave me a few rolls of film and a list of things to look for and a few things not to shoot also. The magazines are always interested in good watershots, so in addition to lineup and wave images, Larry told me to get out there and swim and sent a nice new 4/3 wetsuit from Rip Curl to make that easier. Southern California isn’t that cold by world standards, but I was a skinny haole boy from Hawaii so I was always cold.
What has molded you into the photographer you are today?
I think I have developed a distinctive viewpoint – something that is increasingly valuable in the digital age. My images don’t look like anyone else’s unless they have deliberately set out to duplicate something I have already done. I look at a lot of other people’s images, sure, but I have always tried to do something different, something unique and that perspective has value in the image marketplace.
What makes a great image?
It can be many things – composition, emotion, color, subject, there’s a long list of what to think about when you have a camera in your hand. With camera phones, many people have a powerful camera in their hands 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Notice I said to think first before pushing the button, as photography happens in the brain of the photographer first before it becomes an image. Henri Cartier-Bresson would walk the street of Paris for hours with his 35mm Leica loaded with high ISO black and white film, and on many days, he did not expose a single frame. When he did see a situation that could produce “the decisive moment” he was looking for, it was because he knew what he wanted after giving the concept an obsessive amount of thought before he produced any images at all.
What’s your relationship with technology?
I like it. Digital imaging is fantastic. With good software and a decent computer, things can be done with images that were impossible or very difficult with film. I don’t miss film at all in that context.
I regard the “Film Forever” retro movement with a certain degree of disdain. Either these people don’t know what they are doing with digital images or they have a certain fear of technology that forces them backward to utilize comparatively primitive methods and materials to produce an nostalgic result. There isn’t anything that can be done with analog materials that cannot be done digitally, so it’s really a complete waste of time.
What are you most inspired by right now?
With our surfEXPLORE group, we are inspired to take culturally-aware surf travel to a new level. New places, new waves, new experiences to document via a variety of veiwpoints and techniques. It’s a big world out there and while instant dissemination of images and text worldwide has made the world a smaller place, it has also focused people on their own areas. We want to broaden the field considerably as we think it is not only interesting and fun to do these kind of projects, cross-cultural understanding is vital to making a better world.
What do you take away from these kind of experiences, emotionally?
This kind of travel is the antithesis of the all-inclusive resort plan. In fact, it’s the “total immersion with no plan” other than to be in the right place at the right time to get the best waves available in the area. As one is in contact with many Africans on a daily basis, there are many interactions, most of them positive. I’m usually busy with cameras, but for Emiliano Cataldi, Erwan Simon, Sam Bleakley and our numerous guest surfers, the interactions with Africans on our surfEXPLORE projects have been some of the highlights of their travels anywhere in the world.
How do you view the surf scene in Africa?
It’s growing. While surfing is long established in South Africa, Senegal and Morocco, new areas like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Algeria and Moçambique are coming up fast with more surf travelers and a growing local scene.
In Liberia, Sean Brody at Kwepunha Retreat in Robertsport has a good program to accommodate visiting surfers and train and integrate local surfers into the program to earn a living from visitors and protect their resource, the series of world-class left points in the Robertsport area.
In Sierra Leone, the Bureh Beach Surf Club has a similar program, to integrate local surfers into a program that accommodates a growing number of surfing visitors while increasing awareness of local resources.
A lot of your work is shot in more remote locations. What inspired you to explore the unknown?
There are many surf photographers who stake out a territory in Hawaii, Tahiti, Indonesia or elsewhere and then vigorously defend it against all newcomers. There are many locations where this kind of thing takes place and these photographers tend to produce the same images with slight variations, over and over again. That’s not what I want to do.
I think it also has to do with being from Hawaii, which is a small and isolated place, a collection of tiny islands scattered in the vast expanse of the North Pacific Ocean, the most isolated inhabited islands anywhere in the world. My goal was to get out of Hawaii and explore the world, not stay in the same place and do the same thing, over and over again.
In addition to Larry Moore, were there other figures that were very inspiring and mentoring for you?
Yes, there were a few – Art Brewer and Jeff Divine, two legends of surfing photography whom have been very generous with their advice and experience. Takahiro Tsuchiya from Japan and Sebastian Rojas and Tony Fleury from Brazil were instrumental in my establishing good relations with Japanese and Brazilian publishers.
It’s a competitive game and, in the last ten years or so, media outlets have increased with the proliferation of surf websites but opportunities to actually sell images have decreased with many print magazines ceasing publication due to declining advertising revenue and increased costs of publication and distribution. Added to the collapse in market value of the biggest surfing companies like Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl, the opportunities to earn money from selling surfing images for editorial or advertising use are actually fewer now than they were a decade ago.
No one is giving out free $20,000 equipment packages, so when you see an overview image from Pipeline in Hawaii with 40 photographers in the water with housings and cameras, each valued at $6,000 to $8,000 dollars and another 50 to 60 photographers on the beach with equipment valued at $10 to $15 thousand dollars, all of them trying to get an image of John John Florence they can sell for advertising or editorial use; it is clear that for many of these photographers they are not making money, much less earning a decent living. It’s an expensive hobby.