In conversation with world-renowned surf photojournalist and coffee lover, Alan van Gysen
Over the last 20 years, Alan Van Gysen has spear-headed surf travel and adventure in Africa, becoming the certified “Africa-expert” in everyone’s contact list. We sat down with him for a delicious Aeropress and chatted, digging deep into his love for travelling, Africa and where it all began.
What do you do & what have you been up to lately?
“I wear a number of different hats: from being a surf photographer to picking up journalism, to becoming a photojournalist. Interestingly enough, Instagram’s algorithm is now calling me a producer, which is what I’ve become in the last few years.
Africa became my speciality because I’m so in love with the place. I’ve spent the last 20 years travelling the continent, not knowing that as I was doing so, the relationships I was building would become so valuable. From the bread maker in the streets of Dakar to the guy with the colourful taxi, it’s the people that count.”
Where did your love for Africa start?
“The very first year I came out of school, I had a handmade water housing and these two French windsurfers called me up to ask if I would take them on a trip to Namibia. I had an uncle there, so I knew a little bit about it but I was pretty much just going into the deep end. That was my first trip in 1999. I took the guys there and that was my first taste of travelling in Africa. As a photographer, you really look at things. You notice little details that you never saw before, and you really see the people. Africa is just so incredibly diverse and after that first trip, I wanted to see more of it. I’d go on trips with friends, searching for waves in Africa and we would find incredible waves, but I walked away having built these beautiful relationships that meant a lot more. I still have the memories of the waves, but it’s the people that I stay in touch with that are really valuable.
One trip would lead to another. For years I had this burning sensation to go to Equatorial Guinea and everybody said it’d be too difficult and too hard to get visas. Eventually, I met this guy in the airport in Johannesburg. I just happened to mention that I was hoping to do a trip to Equatorial Guinea and it turned out that he worked there as a scientist, on the island of Malabo, which is exactly where I wanted to go. He was the key to me getting there, and before I knew it, I was there, staying with scientists on the beach. That’s just one example of how things work out in life when and how they’re meant to.”
Your photos convey this sense of immersion. How do you really immerse yourself on a trip?
“If you just stay on a boat, or in a car, you don’t feel a place. In order to really feel like I’m in a place I always put myself out there. I’ll go around the corner, down an alley or up a tree to see a different perspective. Perspective is everything, in the physical sense as a photographer, but also emotionally and spiritually. If you get a different perspective, it allows you to see things differently, to really immerse yourself and engage.
I’ve climbed random trees in G-Land to get a shot that no one’s seen before. I climbed up this cell phone mast in Ghana recently to get a perspective on this wave. It’s amazing what you can see when you look at things differently.”
You’re busy with an exciting project at the moment. Do you want to tell us about it?
“I’m working on the AfroSurf book with MamiWata, and it really could not come at a better time – it feels like there’s really a focus on Africa right now. For a long time there was a little bit of influence from Europe into Morocco and you had Southern Africa, but the rest of Africa was mostly unknown. For the last few years our trips have shed a little bit of light here and there, but now we have a book where we have the opportunity to talk about authentic surf culture in all these different communities.
AfroSurf is going to talk a lot about people, characters, communities. There are no stories in there that have to do with any outside influence. I had a beautiful interview with Mikey February and he observed that one of the reasons why everyone is so excited about Africa is because these places that weren’t influenced by the Western world look so raw and authentic. There are pockets of people and places that have never been influenced. The stuff that people do in Lagos, Nigeria is incredible. It’s been so separate from the world that musically, artistically, surf-wise, it’s evolved in such a unique way. How they surf and what they surf there, it’s just mind-blowing. The book is really a look at surf culture in Africa, and how it differs from everywhere else in the world.”
What’s one strange story you’ve experienced on your journeys?
“In Madagascar, we went up to the extremely remote North-East part of Madagascar by boat to scout some set-ups. We pulled into this one bay that had a setup like Macaronis, and the locals were all waving from the beach, and a whole bunch of very aggressive men came and stood in front of the village, refusing to let us come on to shore. We got someone to translate for us, and it turned out that they thought we were child smugglers, because human traffickers come up and down Madagascar stealing children. We had to explain what surfing was, and they stood and watched and realised that we were just there to play on the waves. They ended up welcoming us with open arms and held a feast for us the following day.“
So, you’re a coffee guy. Tell us about the weirdest place that you’ve had a coffee?
“Equatorial Guinea was the wildest place I’ve had a coffee. We were on the edge of the African jungle, in the armpit of Africa, as far away from civilisation as you can get. I was staying in a tent on the beach, and there I was, with my Aeropress and my beans, making coffee on the beach, right next to leatherback turtles laying their eggs, with a perfect wave breaking in front of me. There was no one else around. Had I not brought a surfer with me, I would have been the only surfer there.
My funniest coffee moment was when I was on an Ethiopian Airlines flight. I can’t handle bad coffee, so I asked to go to the back and make my own. I had my AeroPress with me, but no filter, so I borrowed a napkin and cut it into the right shape. Before I knew it, all the air hostesses were watching me and we proceeded to make an amazing cup of coffee. They were blown away by how good it was!”
So you’re a member of the mile-high Aeropress club! If you had a choice between instant coffee or tea, which would you go for?
“Rooibos tea for sure! I don’t do bad coffee.”
What’s the greatest lengths you’ve gone to to get coffee?
“The most fascinating place I had coffee was about 6 years ago in Skeleton Bay. It was the biggest swell that ever hit Namibia. You can imagine the fog in the morning, the rumble of the waves – swimming out it felt like 10-12ft Teahupoo. It was cold and the conditions were relentless. The crazy thing about the wave is that once you’re in, whether you’re surfing or not, the wave just takes you down all the way to the bottom and you have to walk 2kms back up. Six hours later it’s midday and I’m daydreaming, thinking, “Man I would love a cup of coffee”. As I get to the top of the point, this set roles though and I see this sign board in the sand that reads “Slow down for coffee”. I got goosebumps, it was the most surreal thing ever. There was this lady from Swakopmund in her camper car and she made me the most amazing cup of coffee, right there on the beach, in the fog, in the middle of nowhere.”
Can you share an enriching life motto with us ?
“Something I just can’t get away from is Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.” It’s not everyone’s worldview, but it couldn’t be more apt and important for me. As a freelancer, I finish every year off grateful for the year that happened and the work I was able to do, but I always get this little bit of anxiety and I have to rely on the Lord to provide work in the new year. Every year, he proves himself. It’s just so beautiful how his provision and his timing is perfect and I’m slowly learning to have more and more faith when it comes to this kind of stuff as a freelancer. I literally live by that because I know my worries and concerns go out the window when I live by the scripture. He’s got it, and he’s proven himself time and time again.”