One photographer’s dream assignment comes true—discovering the real island of Tahiti. Here’s a look at what he found.
My first morning ever in Tahiti. My dream assignment. I was barely awake in an over-water bungalow, and I had only one thing on my mind. I walked out the back, pulled open a curtain and stepped off the deck into the Tahitian water — in my boxers. I’d always wanted to do that. After drying off I thought, “Now what?” My goal was to go beyond the trademark sand and palm trees and find how the islands’ beauty weaves into the people’s lives. One problem, though. My guide didn’t show up. So I got in my rental car and drove, eventually landing on a beach and meeting a man named Francis, who offered to show me the main island’s remote places.
We came to this river off an unpaved road, where folks were drinking and listening to music. It’s where they gather, tourist-free. Francis’ wife was walking across these rocks, wearing a stunning sarong.
I saw then and there that Tahiti is beach and ocean, yes, but it’s also a river, mountains, friends down a dirt road and the embodiment of freedom.
One of my wishes was to be invited inside Tahitian lives. But as a photographer lugging gear around, I’m never sure if people will open up to me. So I was just cruising through the countryside one morning when I stopped to photograph a woman drying coconut in her backyard. As I approached the house, I saw this boy sitting on his floor watching TV. There was no door, just a beautiful curtain. All the homes were like that — welcoming and trusting. The boy never even looked up while I took pictures.
The guys with the surfboards appear tough and unapproachable, but when I asked if I could capture this moment at Papenoo Beach, they obliged. The next thing I knew I had a beer in my hand and was hanging out with their families.
It’s a daily ritual: work and play, work and play. Truth is, they have to work hard to play in paradise, as the rugged hand holding the chisel reminded me. This guy is a sculptor, and he uses wood cut from the local forest. But as we shot this, I noticed his grandmother walking through the house. All these tough guys, they’re still little boys at heart.
After a few days I fell into the evening-swim routine. It’s what everyone does — kids, teens, adults. On this night we were in the water as the sun went down over Raiatea, silhouetting the bungalow (it’s a cleaning station from a nonworking pearl farm). From where we were swimming, the scene became more and more beautiful. It struck me as being normal for Tahiti, but it’s a “normal” that nobody takes for granted.
The people really care about their island. What you see on the faces of Brian and Moeata Hansen is genuine. They love living here and working their vanilla farm deep in Tahaa. The passion is even in their feet. It sounds overly romantic, but really, they go barefoot or wear flip-flops to have a physical connection to the land. And they work those vanilla fields hard. Each bean has to be picked one by one, and then they’re literally massaged to make them soft. It made me sweat just hearing about it. But the Hansens can’t picture themselves doing anything else. They aren’t materially wealthy, but loving what they do and where they do it makes them about as rich as any couple I’ve ever met.
Life in Tahiti revolves around the water. The water also revolves around life. Scenes like these were everywhere, and they reminded me of growing up in the Philippines. It was like a homecoming. I’d take a shot and would think, “I hope this never changes.”
The dad with his son on the beach, you’d never guess that his pearl business is so bleak. We were just walking along the beach and, in an impromptu moment, he called his son over to give him a kiss.
The family bond in Tahiti is far stronger than I expected. If families aren’t swimming at dusk, they’re fishing. They catch fish to eat or to sell, not for hobby, yet they thrive on the activity. The kids are fearless with anything water-related.
This boy picked up a marlin head for me, and when he did I nearly lost it. The fish corpse, half eaten by a shark, stank — bad. The kid just laughed, a contented boyish laugh.
My wish now? That the sights and sounds stay this way, reminiscent of my childhood, so I can go back.