Capturing the fearlessness of France’s teen surfers

Braving icy waters and plummeting temperatures, meet the young people hitting the waves long after tourist season

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Paul Rousteau, Canon series 2015
Photography Paul Rousteau

In collaboration with Canon, this winter, three photographers will travel across Europe with their cameras to capture in the low light of the season, a selection of the subcultures bubbling under the surface of some of the continent’s most exciting cities in order to tell the stories behind them

In winter, the last place you might expect to find anyone is, willingly, in the middle of the ocean. However, for French photographer Paul Rousteau that’s just where he found a gang of surf-loving teenagers aged 15-18, at the end of November for a series in collaboration with Canon. Located on the west coast of France, Île de Ré is a small island – about 30 kilometres long and five kilometres wide. For the teens living there, life gravitates around a little-known Ecole de Surf, where the kids flock everyday after school, braving temperatures of around eight degrees celsius in order to get their adrenaline kicks – and a heavy dose of sea water.

Introduced to the club by his 16-year-old cousin, Julie, Rousteau says the surfers prefer the colder months, when the hum of the island’s tourists have disappeared. “In winter time it’s only local people surfing and they’re happy with that because Île de Ré is quite busy and crowded in summer. When a surfer is a tourist, they call them ‘kooks’. It’s because when there’s a beautiful wave, the first to enter has the wave, and sometimes some people – usually ‘kooks’ or tourists – don’t respect the rules, so while they (the surfers) are very helpful, when there is a stranger who doesn’t respect the law then they are not that cool with them.”

“In winter time it’s only local people surfing and they’re happy with that because Île de Ré is quite busy and crowded in summer” – Paul Rousteau

Despite the lure of spending time in front of a screen like most kids their age, Rousteau says Julie has bigger things in mind. “She really likes shopping and computers but the surf comes first – before school too”, he says. “She wants to be a professional so she’s really investing (in surfing), but there are not always good waves.” It’s the island’s not so perfect conditions that makes the teenagers all the more talented. “Biarritz is a place where there’s always perfect waves, it’s where they have contests”, Rousteau explains, referring to the infamous surf spot, about four hours’ drive south from the island, “but in Île de Ré there are not perfect waves – there are always strange waves and it’s always changing. There’s probably four spots on the island where they can surf, and they have to manage between the spots depending on the wind."

With temperatures dropping to single digit degrees in winter, Rousteau explains that this has no impact on their determination to surf. “When they’re on their boards, they don’t think about the cold. They always have fun together – they’re always joking – and I don’t think it’s difficult with the cold”, he says. He adds that it doesn’t dampen their sense of style either, “Even though it’s cold, the teenagers won’t put the wetsuit over their heads because of their hair and their look.”

Keeping a keen eye on the weather reports, the surfers trip around the island together on pushbikes and motorbikes. “They are best friends and it is truly a community. They are special; in the high school, they are the cool ones – they can speak English because they’re always looking on YouTube for new videos, and they’re a bit fashionable, a bit marginal, and not mainstream. They have a passion; they have something more.”

Keep up with the surfers by following them on Instagram: @juliebatisse @turcaudlharicot @malou_poirier @groszeezee @zbovbator.dv.tvrfv @anouktaco @valentinbureau17 @mariushulin @turcaudlharicot and glimpse more European winter photographs by using the hashtags #comeandsee and #CanonWinter

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