By: Kristen Berg | All photographs by Lea Hahn
Cascading mountains covered in lush foliage plunge into a sapphire ocean. Rivers and waterfalls gush through fertile land surrounded by translucent waters of protected lagoons. Beyond, the majestic Pacific cradles and rocks the island, gifting perfect waves to the culture that grew up in her beauty. Tahiti = paradise, in so many ways.
Teahupo’o is a world class wave of consequence – a beacon for the bravest of surf-obsessed souls. When swell arrives, surfers, bodyboarders, and photographers decend on the “End of the Road.” The human energy is almost as unique as energy of the wave itself. Because she is so deadly, and because there is so much at stake, when Teahupo’o is pumping, she is electrifying.
Within this array of talent is @lh.prod: an Instagram account with nearly 3,500 followers and 237 posts covering the best of the best in Tahitian water sports. Action shots, landscapes, seascapes, and skyscapes that capture the true essence of the Tahitian Mana -- spirit. It became one of my go-to pages when I wanted reconnect with those beautiful islands -- even if just in a daydream. Then one day, the account posted a photo of a lady positioned behind a camera, with a caption of the artist introducing herself… Herself?!
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Yep yep, this is my face ahaha When I opened my instagram account more than two years ago now, I wanted to do a little experiment: Not to reveal my identity on social media to see how people would react when you exercise a passion in a area mainly composed of men. It was so funny to see that for those who didn’t know me directly think that I was a man, I always had a laugh when people called me « hey man », « buddy », « bro », « dude » when we were discussing through message, it was fun to play the game aha It's finally a good proof that we can also impose ourselves in a domain reserved for men !! And I'm always in a good mood when I'm in the water with the boys, they are full of good advice, good energy and we are always sure to laugh aha A HUGE Mauruuru to everyone for the support, to my sponsors @toasurfscreen @flyingcloudswim for following me through my adventures and of course my beloved boyfriend @manea.f for all the good advice and his unconditional love 💙 . . . Photograph @matahoataphoto @manea.f
During the first two years @lh.prod was providing the insta-world with jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring photos of one of nature’s gnarliest waves and most perfect islands, she never posted a self portrait, and never led on that she was indeed “just a girl.”
Certainly not just any girl, Lea Hahn, the genius behind @lh.prod, is a 22-year-old talent born and raised in Tahiti, who is as beautiful as she is creative. Lea and her boyfriend, Manae Fabisch, a 24-year-old bodyboarder and fellow photographer, have created a life of chasing waves (and each other), cameras and fins in tow.
As an aside, female artists publishing under male nom de plumes is nothing new. From full-on pseudonyms like George Sand (a.k.a. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans), Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), to androgynous pen names like J.K. Rowling and Harper Lee… women have been doing this since time immemorial. Historically, many women simply thought this was necessary, knowing that their works in “masculine” fields would be better received if perceived to have been produced by men.
Lea approached her Instagram handle as a social experiment: not revealing her gender to see how people would react, how they would approach her, and what their assumptions would be.
Lea is just a modern, surf world example of this tradition. In this case, Lea approached her Instagram handle as a social experiment: not revealing her gender to see how people would react, how they would approach her, and what their assumptions would be.
I wanted to know more about her. She, in turn, was excited that there was interest in what she was doing. Our conversation went a little like this:
How did you become a surf photographer?
I worked in the audiovisual world for 2 years as an aquatic photographer / videographer.
Nature, the ocean, and surfing fascinate me, and I love adrenaline. After seeing some surf photographers in action on a project in 2017, I knew I wanted to do this. It was a way for me to approach big waves, which I couldn't do at my level of surfing.
On a normal day, when you look around, how many other women are in the water (other photographers, surfers, body boarders)?
On a normal day, I am the only woman photographer. The only time I shot with another female photographer was during a Teahupo'o swell last year. Maria Fernanda (@mariafernandaphoto) came from abroad and it was really nice to share the session with another woman. Generally, there aren’t many women in the water even surfing or bodyboarding. Sometimes I wonder why? There is so much potential, with incredible waves all year long. I hope to see more female riders or photographers, because I believe having a gender mix is really important.
Do you get intimidated? If so, who do you get the most nervous being around?
I have never been intimidated. I am always honored and grateful to take pictures in the water alongside great photographers like Ben Thouard, Domenic Mosqueira, and of course my boyfriend Manea Fabisch! The people don’t make me nervous, but I do get nervous about the boats during the big swells. They put themselves among the aquatic photographers, to get closer to the wave and charge their customers more for the show. But they put us in danger by blocking us in! Plus we need to be careful of the current and watch out for their propellers! That part of it is stressful.
Do you enjoy working with your boyfriend?
I love working with my boyfriend. We are a great team: we laugh a lot and we learn a lot from each other, he’s my best friend too! It’s a great combination.
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Teahupoo 19.10.2018 @manea.f charged the bomb of the day after waiting patiently. He tells us the story : "It had been more than two hours that I was waiting and at that moment, I had lost hope that a bomb would come , it looked like the swell was dropping and the wind had strenghten. Two sets first came but they broke much closer to the reef than the previous waves , and then that wave came out of nowhere. I didn't think twice and made the mistake of paddling towards the wave because it looked like it was going to break further out , that mistake made me be super late on the wave and resulted in me disconnecting from the lip on the take off , I fell and bounced at the bottom , I tried to stick to my line but I just had lost too much speed and got blasted by the foam ball... I stayed under water for a while and came out a bit confused , I'm hoping I can get a better this one on the next swell ! @aquatech_imagingsolutions @riptidemag @movement.magazine @surfline @surfsessionmag @stealtharmy @stealthfins @grandflavour @shakastahiti @teahupoo @reeflexwetsuits @sapinusprone_ @plugbodyboardproshop
Do you feel like there is competition between the two of you?
For me, the word "competition" feels negative. When two people love each other and share the same passion, they help each other. We share our knowledge, our points of view, the things we could improve on, but we are very close and it’s always great when we shoot together.
Who is your inspiration?
Nature. Nature is the most precious gift anyone can have and it’s free. Nature shows us how lucky we are to be alive.
What other passions outside of photography do you have?
I have a lot of passions, a little too many sometimes! I like to sing, dance, play sports. I enjoy the beautiful things in life.
What do you think is the hardest part of being a surf photographer?
The hardest part – but, at the same time, the funnest part – is to find the best angle to bring out the magic of the action, as well as understanding the ocean and of course keeping yourself fit! You need to be a good swimmer and in good condition to practice this sport!
Would you tell us a little about the dangers and challenges of your work?
In surf photography, you need to understand the ocean, treat it with respect, and never turn your back on it. Understand the wave and never underestimate the conditions. For me, the biggest danger is panic, because panicking wastes your energy and the breath you could be using to get out of an uncomfortable place.
What is the best part?
The best part is feeling refreshed after a session. When you have a lot of things on your mind and you go into the water for 3-4 hours, you feel completely calm and soothed.
What keeps you going?
Discovery, learning, sharing, meeting new people, going to new places, having new sensations, and the desire to see more!
Where is your favorite place to shoot?
All around my island, Tahiti. The energy – the Mana—is very strong, nature is very present, and we have the most beautiful waves in the world.
What was your intention for not initially showing your face on your social media accounts?
When I opened my (photography) Instagram account two years ago, I wanted to do a little experiment. I wouldn’t reveal my identity on social media to see how people would react when a woman exercises a passion in an arena mainly composed of men. It was so funny to see that those who didn’t know me would think that I was a man. I always had a laugh when people called me “man,” “buddy,” ”bro,” or “dude” in comments or messages.
How do the guys who are surfing react to you in the water?
It is always a good reaction. Sometimes they are surprised, and impressed because they do not see a woman very often, I guess. Sometimes they ask whether I’m afraid to be in the water during big swells, and sometimes they will even offer me their board to give me a little rest. It’s always good vibes with them.
Some said: "What, you are a woman??! I’ve been following you since the beginning, and I thought you were a guy!”
What were the best reactions you got when you posted your first photo of yourself?
It was a big surprise to read all the reactions: many messages of encouragement, a lot of surprise that I am actually a woman. Some said: said "What, you are a woman??! I’ve been following you since the beginning, and I thought you were a guy!” It warms my heart to read all of those comments, especially the one that said that I was an inspiration to others.
Who are your biggest supporters?
My family, my boyfriend, and my friends are my biggest supporters, love you guys!
What would you tell other women who are wanting to get more into action sport / surf photography?
Go, go, go! Anyone can do it with motivation and training. It’s really important to go step by step, and learn from others – not just because you're a woman. I know there is pressure to conform to traditionally “feminine” stereotypes, and that leads many girls to abandon sports entirely. I think sports can be one of the great drivers of gender equality!
On the environmental front, you are from Tahiti. Are you seeing the effects of climate change and plastic pollution there?
Yes, here in Polynesia we can see the effect of climate change, coral bleaching in particular has dangerously increased. The plastic pollution problem is also serious. Marine animals are trapped in our waste and it’s a significant cause to the mortality of marine mammals, turtles and birds. It's horrible to see the beauty of nature destroyed by our hands.
What would you tell visitors they should do to help maintain Tahiti’s natural beauty?
To keep the Earth clean, there are so many simple, little things to do, such as:
- Bring reusable bags to the grocery store or when shopping for anything, to reduce consumption of disposable bags.
- Make sure your waste goes to the right place.
- Composting reduces the volume of garbage and reduces the chance of some products becoming marine debris.
- Use a natural sunscreen to go surfing, fishing or swimming. I use To’a Natural Surfscreen, it is a local and natural sunscreen that keeps me covered in the water for 4 hours without getting sunburnt.
Everything matters, even if it seems small. If we all work together, we can do this. Māuru’uru Roa
Many thanks Lea. You can follow her (and you should!) at @lh.prod.