Interview By Eric Greene, Photography by Alan Van Gysen
AVG is an African dude who is so pleasant, keen, and professional, that he’s like the antithesis to everyone else on the not-getting-shit-done program. You know those other people who suck to work with, but you’re totally dependent on them? It’s awful. Alan ain’t like that at all.
He’s a bonafide hustla and one hell of an artist behind the camera lens. He’s also a family man, a lifelong waterman, and a man a faith. He’s basically all kinds of man and the easiest person you’d ever have the pleasure of working with. We actually made this whole article in seven minutes, from opposite sides of the planet. AVG is from the very bottom corner of the alluring and mysterious Africa, in a place called Cape Town. His work takes you on a visual joyride through the real Africa—a place you’ll never truly know if you aren’t from there. You will always be an outsider, looking through the portal of Alan’s photos at a cryptic reality of bright scenic beauty and large intimidating animals. Such mystique! Such diversity! And you thought the neighborhoods of Philadelphia existed in contrast. Here are some words from the humble optimist, AVG, and some of his African imagery.
Were you born and raised in Cape Town? Have you ever lived anywhere else?
Yes and no. I was born in Zululand just south of the Mozambican border in rural South Africa and lived there for the first two years of my life while my dad did his medical training. We moved down to Cape Town after, where I was raised and have lived all my life.
What are some transitions you’ve seen your city and country go through in your life?
I’d say the biggest transition has been toward equality and freedom. When I grew up, the beaches were still designated for either black or white people. You couldn’t just surf and hang out at the beach of your choice. Fast-forward two or three decades and my kids don’t identify people by their colour. Their whole generation looks at life differently. The beaches are for everyone now. As Nelson Mandela said, we live in a “Rainbow Nation.” It’s still not perfect, and I don’t think it ever will be, but we’ve come a long way in a short time. People are genuinely making a difference—being the change. I’m proud of South Africans and proud to be one.
Would you ever consider living somewhere else?
Not ever. This is paradise on Earth for me. Africa is my home. South Africa is my home. Cape Town is my home.
What’s the biggest misconception you think people have about South Africa if they haven’t been there?
That it’s too sharky to surf, or that we have lions, zebra and elephants roaming the streets. Or that I should be black just because I’m South African [laughs]. It’s amazing the things people have said to me over the years when I’ve traveled.
Aren’t you a raw food guy? Doesn’t everyone live off BBQ in South Africa?
A raw food guy? You mean like raw meat [laughs]? No, I’m just health conscious. I try to eat a balanced diet of raw goods, homegrown vegetables, superfoods, and yes, of course good South African meat, like boerewors, biltong, droewors, and fish. We sure do love our braais, or BBQ’s.
How did you get into photography?
I was given every opportunity by my parents to do music, art, and sport in school, which I did and loved. Water polo, swimming, and lifesaving got me into surfing, and art, music, and cultural got me into photography. From there it was an obvious progression to photographing my friends surfing and hanging out at the beach, and that led to wanting to get published in our local core surf publication, Zigzag.
You also surf better than decent, right?
Thanks. I’m competent enough. I grew up surfing bigger waves around Cape Town and barreling beach breaks, so you won’t see me doing airs or fancy moves. I enjoy surfing almost any craft from shortboards to longboards, bodysurfing to SUP’s, Alaias to paddle boards, as long as I’m being moved by the waves.
Doesn’t it suck sometimes to take photos of perfect waves rather than surf them?
No, it doesn’t bother me. I surf more than I shoot when I’m at home and South Africa is without a doubt one of the most consistent surf zones in the world. So when I travel to shoot, it’s all about getting the best possible photographs and putting all my energy into it. Plus, if I’m going to be away from my family, it needs to be productive and a good use of time. A well-captured photograph can bring so many other people happiness and inspiration. That’s more important to me.
Tell us some shark stories. You must have dozens of them.
Well, Jordy [Smith] paddled in just the other day in Cape Town after a large shadow skimmed below his feet. He very decently told us all before heading in, but the waves were too good and since the shock wasn’t ours we carried on with a watchful eye. It was a classic day of hard offshore preceded by a hard onshore the day before, so the sea was brown and murky with loads of sediment and other fish activity. I’ve had a few encounters. Probably my most ominous was at the same spot where Jordy saw his shark the other day. It’s probably South Africa’s premier beach break in Cape Town, just a long walk down from where I live. Anyway, it was murky, greeny-brown water, but 8-to-10 feet and hollow. Just a few core surfers were out and I pulled through a big wave—one of my first after the swim out, only to have a very large, perfectly outlined giant swim beneath me. It was big enough to create a vacuum-like vortex of water below my feet and I was pulled down ever so slightly and felt my flippers comes to rest on its back. Needless to say, I headed in. It’s interesting, though, that after some 20 years of shooting and surfing I have only had a handful of experiences in a region which is one of the world’s biggest Great White breeding grounds.
Have you ever witnessed a shark attack?
No, not first hand, thank The Lord.
Have any of your friends been bitten?
Not close friends, no, but acquaintances. The surf community in Cape Town is relatively small, so everyone knows everyone.
So you often shoot from the water in some eerie spots around Cape Town, known for big biteys. How do you deal with doing your job, mentally, in that environment?
I must admit I just put it completely out of mind or push it way down in my mental psyche. We just wouldn’t be able to surf or work in the ocean in South Africa if you didn’t.
Who are your favorite surfers to shoot?
Humble, talented, and genuine surfers. Surfers who appreciate the art of surfing and photography, and who truly love what they do. I’ve worked with a lot of surfers over the years and there are many whom I’d gladly work with any day it’s on.
Do you feel like South Africa is disconnected from the mainstream surf world?
No, not in the media sense anyway. We may not have as many surfers in the limelight, but we live in a globalized world and there’s access to mainstream surfing whenever you want. Perhaps the one area we’re lacking is in the competitive sphere. We just don’t have enough events for our guys to get the exposure, points, or profiles they desperately need to make it. Not unless you’re freakishly talented like Jordy, Twiggy [Grant Baker], or Brendon Gibbens. They’re our top three surfers right now, by far, excluding Ando [Craig Anderson]. He was born and raised in South Africa.
Do you have to work harder as a photographer to crack into the international audience because of where you’re based?
That’s a good question. Interestingly, the answer is no. People love Africa and for good reason. Thanks to the connectivity I have with the world via the Internet, and the uniqueness and novelty of Africa, I’m in a very good position for my line of work. I love that I get to do what I do internationally and still live in one of the smallest suburbs in South Africa, in a village of 900 homes on the tip of Africa. That’s globalization for you. That’s the convenience of the Internet and being connected.
You’re known as the guy to call when pros visit the whole southern region of Africa. Who are some notable people you’ve toured around and where have you taken them?
I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to work with some amazing people and it’s always great to receive a call or email from a respected member of our industry. Working with Craig Anderson and Beren Hall in Namibia during Slow Dance was unforgettable. So was working on Strange Rumblings this year with Joe G and the Globe crew. All amazing people. All amazing surfers. It stoked me out to be able to show them this zone.
How was the Mozambique trip for Strange Rumblings?
The best ever [laughs]. No, seriously, we lucked into one of the best cyclones to hit that particular stretch we were targeting. A very rare and unique direction of swell lit up the sand spit known as the African Kirra. Even Jordy, who happened to be there, was claiming the best waves of his life!
What does the travel aspect mean to you in terms of your job?
If I didn’t travel, I wouldn’t be relevant. Sure, people would still like to see Dungeons and a few Cape Town moments, but it’s the travel aspect of Africa and the waves that make it work for me.
Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
The Lakshadweep Islands in India. It’s pristine and so different from anything I’ve ever seen.
What’s the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen?
The Zambezi River wave and Namibia’s Donkey Bay. Anomalies, both. Perfect. To stand on the Earth in front of those waves changes your perception. Nothing will prepare you for that feeling and energy.
Where’s the shittiest place you’ve ever traveled to?
Literally or figuratively? Literally, Madagascar. I spent two weeks watching locals from the village I was in take their daily morning constitutional on the beach at the high tide line. Sometimes the tide would take it away, but most of the time the pigs would be right behind to gobble it up. I think the locals ate those same pigs. The circle of life, I guess. Figuratively, Luanda, Angola’s capital. It’s the world’s most expensive city. Such a divide between the ridiculously wealthy and destitute poor. But I seldom see experiences as good or bad. Every experience is an experience and I do my best to keep it positive and learn from it.
What’s the gnarliest or most awful thing you’ve ever seen?
Flesh-eating bacteria in remote Indonesia. Still to this day it’s the single most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen up close. We stopped over on a remote island after 24 hours of motoring in the Spice Islands between Philippines and Indonesia to refuel. I jumped ashore to explore and asked some locals about possible waves on the exposed side of the island. While we chatted, a group started to form around us, inquisitive neighbours and friends, and with them an old, bald man. He came up to listen in and was smiling, but when I turned to smile back, that’s when I saw it—the skeletal remains of only half a face. An exposed jaw, teeth, and eyeball. It took all my strength to remain calm and polite, and not turn and run. I later learned it was a flesh-eating bacteria and they were trying to treat it with a chewed up mixture of herbs and plant matter.
Sounds lovely. Where’s somewhere you want to visit that you haven’t been to yet?
Kerguelen Islands in the Indian Ocean, also known as Desolation Islands. That would be a wild adventure.
What’s been your biggest break in your photography career?
Meeting John S. Callahan. He single-handedly gave me the key to my future and opened the door to international exposure and opportunity.
What’s been your biggest letdown?
A letdown for me is just another opportunity to do something positive. In the words of Winston Churchill, “A pessimist sees the difficult in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
How do you think you differ from other photographers?
I’m no different from anyone else. I’ve just been exceptionally blessed and fortunate to have been sucked into the void there was in South Africa at the start of my career, having met the people I’ve met, and having Africa as my backyard. I’m just living the dream and hoping to help others out on the road.
What makes a great photo?
Perspective and realism. And the elements of a good story in a single frame.