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Reinventing oneself with photographer Alejo Achaval

Two years ago, I was launching Nouvelle Vague with the hope of feeling closer to my number one passion: surfing. At the same time, a young architect decided to quit his job to leave on a world-trip journey. Two strangers. Two different countries. Two people, both driven by the same thing: their passion for the sea.

It’s quite strange to think how the life of two persons can completely change at the exact same time, in a matter of seconds, all because of an unexpected decision. It’s strange to think that two persons that weren’t meant to be in love with the sea, were, and had to make this love affair official by quitting everything. It makes me smile to think about these people; the brave ones. The ones that suddenly wake up and decide that they had enough, that all they need right now is to follow their guts and go chase their true destiny.  

And that’s when Alejo comes into the picture.

Alejo is the stranger that has decided to take the leap two years ago, quitting his job and his stable routine in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to go live fully. Since then, Alejo isn’t a stranger anymore: he became a surf photographer and is even more in love with the ocean than at the beginning. His travels not only became his learning experience, but he truly immersed himself into photography and found his true calling; a job that makes his heart beat to the rhythm of the waves.

Fascinated by Alejo’s work, which is unique and captivating, as well as his journey, I’ve decided to share with you some of his stories so you can be inspired as much as I am. Maybe you’ll take the leap, too. Or maybe he will make you realize that you need to shake up your routine. Who knows? All I’m sure about, though, is that you’re going to be happy to have discovered this talented photographer.

Now working as a photographer and travelling around the world in search of good waves, it’s crazy to think that everything started only two years ago. Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, can you tell me a bit more about the day you realized you had to change your life?

Going back to the day where it all started is a crazy thing for me, knowing where I’m at today. Sometimes I feel like I have to pinch myself to see if it’s real or not. To be honest, there wasn’t a clear moment or plan for this at all. All I wanted initially was to have an experience of living abroad. It all started with me trying to get an architecture job in California or Australia while still working in Argentina, until the day I realized I was expecting a change in my life from a very comfortable position without taking any risk at all. So, I quit my job and decided to reinvent myself. All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by this feeling of complete freedom where I could do whatever I wanted. So, with photography being one of my biggest passions at the time, I told myself, “why not travel and go on adventures while doing photography full-time?”. And I did. Booked a one-way flight to Portugal and from there, travelled as I pleased, open to take any opportunity that could present itself along the way.

Surrounded by art since your youth, was it always obvious that photography would eventually take such a large part of your life?

Not at all hah. I used to draw a lot as a kid and then transitioned into painting by joining a couple of workshops for several years, but I never even thought about photography. Photography started for me as a way to show my passion for surfing or being outdoors in Patagonia back home. As soon as I had holidays, I would try to plan trips and that’s how photography basically grew in me. It started as a way for me to share these remote and unique places I was travelling to while trying to inspire others to get out there and explore. I’d say that my architectural and painting background definitely influenced my photography and gave me the tools to make this transition in a very organic way.

Nevertheless, during that process of depuration, I realized I had to live in the moment. Shortly after that, the universe started to open doors of opportunity for me. I stopped worrying about a future that wasn’t happening and started focusing more on doing what I wanted to do the most, which was photography. 

What was one of the hardest things about travelling that you came across while trying to transform your passion for photography into a career? 

It was definitely myself and all of the expectations or ideas of success imposed by our society. This concept of playing it safe and not taking risks created a lot of conflict in my head while travelling since I had no idea where I was going to be in 5 days. Nevertheless, during that process of depuration, I realized I had to live in the moment. Shortly after that, the universe started to open doors of opportunity for me. I stopped worrying about a future that wasn’t happening and started focusing more on doing what I wanted to do the most, which was photography. I started approaching people or brands along the way and did exactly the type of photography I wanted. I was going for the stuff that was interesting me and learned in the process.

You’ve mentioned a couple times that your favourite style of surfing is retro-experimental surf. Why’s that?

To me, it seems to be more about enjoying the moment, be grateful and have fun. In Sri Lanka, I got into longboarding and ever since, I’ve been more keen on tiny fun waves than chasing big swells.

At the same time, I see that in the retro movement there’s a lot of experimentation with old and new shapes, taking surfing to other unexplored areas. It seems more of a creative art craft, which distances itself from the process of mass production. I feel that with this movement, there are a lot of people going their own individual way, whether it’s with their surfing or artistic style, making this community more interesting and creative. There’s so much freedom left around for anyone to explore and that’s what makes it exciting to me.

I feel like this movement represents best how I see surfing and how I experience it. I used to live 5 hours away from the sea and because of that, the ocean was a privilege for me. The sole chance or possibility for me to be close to it was received as the biggest gift of all. It’s because of this that every moment I could surf, I’d try to enjoy and have fun. No matter what the conditions were or how good or bad my surfing was that day, as long as I could just feel the ocean and the energy of the waves, I was happy.

I feel like retro-experimental surf shares these values and it’s not about the person who does the most radical tricks or surfs the biggest wave. 

What’s the craziest experience you’ve had while shooting surfing?

Hah I wouldn’t call it crazy because it sounds worse than it actually was, but I’d say it was the day I got hit with a longboard in Sri Lanka. I was shooting photos for my boss at the time and I didn’t see a 9-foot board coming straight to my face, breaking my cheekbone. The funny anecdote for this was that I had to book the cheapest/quickest flight back home which was a 34-hour flight total, switching planes in Europe and Brazil and pretend during checks that my face didn’t actually look like that and that I was totally fine hah. All of this just to avoid being rejected on boarding the plane because of airlines medical regulations. To wrap up the story, the day I landed home was the day my best friend was getting married and I had no intentions of missing that party.

Surfing is a sport notoriously known as hard to capture in photos. What’s the most challenging thing you face when capturing a surfer in action?

As a surf water photographer, I’d have to say rips and shallow reefs plus an environment that’s constantly moving. All of these things make it hard for one to be in the right spot and miss on good shots. Nevertheless, there are moments I’ve managed to pull out different shots with unexpected results to what I was going for initially. Those little accidents are the best thing about shooting in the water, I think. Sometimes, if lucky, you get some beautiful unexpected shots that were not planned.

What about films—how did you get interested in making surf/travel films?

It’s funny because the first camera I bought was to do videos initially and not photography. Somehow that shifted and videography stepped to the background. I wouldn’t call what I do as films though since I see them more as short clips. Whether it is to inspire through an idea or point of view about something, or promotional videos for brands. Nevertheless I am working on new ideas that I want to do sometime this year for personal projects.

During your journey around the globe, you visited Sri Lanka and decided to live there for a year. Can you tell me a bit more about your experience as a local?

It’s definitely one of the biggest highlights of my life. This opportunity basically fell on my lap and I just couldn’t say no. It was a surf & yoga retreat that needed a photographer for a period of 6 months, so I didn’t hesitate and went straight away. After spending 24 days trekking in the Nepalese Himalayas, I just couldn’t wait to be in a warm paradise island shooting surfing to be honest hah.

After those six months, I met my girlfriend and we decided to stay. Life was too good to us to even consider leaving. It was somehow surreal for us. I had the beach as my daily office and being able to grab my camera, fins and jump on my moped driving through the jungle was just an unbeatable feeling. At the same time, the people we met and had around us was the best. Pure loving hearts that made us feel at home straight away. From the local people in the village to the ones we worked and lived with, all of them are going to be in our memories forever. There’s no doubt that a part of me feels like Sri Lanka is my home and I intend to go back as much as I can to keep those connections strong and lasting. Sri Lanka is a country that will always have a place in my heart.

The biggest obstacle is convincing ourselves that we don’t have enough time or that something is impossible. We tend to build these walls disguised as rational thinking but deep inside they are all held by fear.

What would you tell people that are dreaming of the sea but still living the 9 to 5 routine by fear of leaving?

There’s nothing wrong with living the 9 to 5 routines as long as you are not limiting yourself from focusing on your own personal projects or doing what you love most. The biggest obstacle is convincing ourselves that we don’t have enough time or that something is impossible. We tend to build these walls disguised as rational thinking but deep inside they are all held by fear. Fear of what will happen if we change our lives or fear of what other people would say or expect from us. The reality is that all of this is just a trick that your mind plays on you and that the minute you take action and throw that fear away, you start getting clarity on what you want, need, or have to do. For me, a complete new universe opened up after that. If I had to explain this logically and simply, your life is not going to change if you don’t create change yourself. That is where the comfort zone becomes your worst enemy.

I started this trip at the age of 28, quitting my job after 7 years of working there. One thinks that by doing this, you are throwing away everything that you’ve worked so hard for, but that is such a big lie. Not only you already have all that you’ve learned so far, but you’ll also be able to add and complement what you already know with a whole bunch of new experiences. These experiences will definitely separate you, in a positive way, from the vast majority. Everything that you learn and experience will play a role on whatever you choose to do later on. There’s no failure in this if you try. Failure would be not to take action when you could have done something to then look backwards with regret once that door is closed.

What’s next for you? Any creative goals you would like to accomplish within the next year?

After Sri Lanka I felt like it was time for a new challenge so I decided to come to Australia with the hope of settling here. I guess my main goal since I started this journey two years ago was to find my place in the world. Australia seems to tick all the boxes for me and so far I haven’t been mistaken. My girlfriend and I are so happy here, embracing every new challenge that comes with starting over from scratch in a new place.

As per creative goals, my intention this year is to push my art even further, shoot as much as I can, experiment, play and have fun while doing so. Hopefully introduce me into the local surf community here and work with interesting people and brands in the near future.

See more from Alejo:
Website | Instagram | Facebook

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