Pretty excited to be featured in the Communication Arts Photo Annual for the third year in a row! To check out my other recognitions please check out the AWARD pages on my website. And to learn more about this image find out how it went VIRAL and the pros and cons of going viral.
When Maria Elena emailed me about her new project, it was difficult to say no, even though I knew there was no money to be made. At the time I couldn’t have imagined the magnitude of the tragedy that was about to strike that country and how we were all going to be caught up in it.
Maria Elena Udali, a 28-year-old beauty from La Thuile, Italy, manages a family restaurant during the winter and summer months, and the rest of the year she travels the world in search of waves. While on a surf trip in Ecuador, following an Ecuadorian surfer she had fallen in love with, she was introduced to Renata Verdelli. A fashion designer who started Caramel Clothing, a small Ecuadorian brand run by Renata and her friend Gaby Chang in Guayaquil. Renata and Maria Elena became fast friends and started talking about a new line of swimwear specifically designed for female surfers; something that was practical,yet feminine and sexy, not just a sport suit. Together they created the line, sponsored three female Ecuadorian pro surfers and organized a road trip from Ecuador mainland to the Galápagos Islands to symbolize the evolution of bathing suits, Darwinian style, and the liberation of women surfers. But there was a catch: no one had any money, and Ecuador was about be hit by one of the biggest natural disasters in history.
This is when I came into play. Ten years ago I discovered surfing, and the sport has become a big part of my life. Since then I bought a house in Mexico so I could spend every day of the winter in the water. I became a surfer, not a good one, but, without a doubt, a surfer at heart. When Maria Elena emailed asking me if I was interested in joining their road trip and documenting it with a pay of zero dollars, I had an impossible time saying no. Traveling with six beautiful women, three of them Ecuadorian pro surfers, seemed like a great opportunity to surf in a country I would probably never visit in a better way. I booked a ticket.
Four days before my departure, I was bobbing in the water, waiting for a wave at my local break in Mexico when my friend Tod paddled up to me and said, “Did you hear the news about the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Ecuador?” I ran home and checked the news. At first they reported 100s of deaths, but the death toll kept rising. Maria Elena, already in Ecuador, was MIA. The news kept talking of destruction, thousands of people missing, deaths, entire towns flattened to the ground. Is this just the news sensationalizing what happened or has Ecuador truly fallen under the rumble of the earth? I was about to cancel my flight when I received a message from Maria Elena: “Paolo, we are all OK, everything is OK, we can continue with our project. Come!” At the time I didn’t know Maria Elena is an optimist, everything is “no problem” in her world but indeed we did have problems. Many of them. I boarded my flight while aftershocks rocked Ecuador on a daily bases.
I arrived in Guayaquil after a brutal 20 hour flight and Maria Elena and Renata picked me up. They looked like beautiful sisters from two different countries, both stylishly dressed in summer outfits. I looked down at my flip flops, my already stained shorts, my stretched out T-shirt and wished I had brought better clothes. Immediately after introductions, they told me what to do in case of an earthquake while nervously looking at the exit doors. Stay away from windows, do not go underneath a table, find a hefty couch and lay on the side of it… I just wanted to get the hell out of the airport, and we did. Somehow we managed to shove my surfboard and all my equipment into Renata’s little car and they dropped me off at a hostel for a needed rest. The plan was to leave the following morning for Montañita, a surf town on the southern coast, to meet the surfer girls. I laid down on the bed, listening to a mosquito buzz by my ear realizing I had forgotten mosquito repellent. It was so damn hot, muggy, I would have gladly paid an extra $20 for some AC, but I was too tired to care about any of this. I fell asleep. Not before long, the earth started shaking violently, I woke up in a sweat; foggy and panicked, I sprinted for the door naked, just then realizing I was just having a bad dream. I took a deep breath and put on some shorts, in case I needed to really make a quick escape. In the morning the girls picked me up to start our trip.
Has been fun learning about a new sport. Jai Alai, the fastest game in the world I documented for Red Bulletin. The speed of a Jai Alai ball has been clocked at 188mph. Do you know what it means for a photographer in the middle of a game? Don’t get hit! This was by far the biggest challenge and even though I had a spotter and helmet things happen way too quickly. Without a doubt had a few balls zipping by closer than I wanted. But, once again I survived!