Story by The Inertia.
You wouldn't expect that a former Italian Coca-Cola executive would become one of the best surf photographers in the world, but Federico Vanno has done just that. Currently living in Bali, Vanno's irrepressible personality has made him a favorite of Bali's elite surfers. His remarkable swimming skills, honed since youth and augmented by his annual tenures on the North Shore, allow him to stay in the impact zone of Bali's more powerful breaks for entire tide changes. A dedication to the finest photography equipment available helps too.
The hallmark of his tack-sharp photos is his uncanny positioning on a wave and water drop-free images. He achieves this by alternating his hands holding the camera up out of the water as much as possible. This arm burning technique allows him to get into these intimate, inside positions with a completely dry port, as evidenced by these gems of recent secret sessions at a notoriously dangerous East Side semi-slab. Immediately following the session, Federico sat for this interview that covered his motivation, his history, and his heroes.
What made you turn your back on a successful corporate career?
Take a wild guess! The ocean, of course. As a surfer coming from Roma, Italy, I learned that a connection to nature was far more important than a connection to business and the pursuit of status in society and money. I took a long detour away from surfing, I admit, but I woke up one morning and looked in the mirror and made a personal decision. I quit my job, got the love of my life back, married her, and dedicated myself to photographing the sport I loved. Basically, I just began being me again.
Not many photographer's swimming skills are discussed, but everyone you shoot seems to mention this.
I learned to swim before I could walk, but then I took my swimming very seriously when I was eight years old. That is when I asked my parents to get me into swimming courses. Then, at 14, my family moved to Ostia, a district of Rome overlooking the sea. It was there that my passion for ocean swimming became an obsession. It was then that I learned about the powers of the ocean, and that salt water was a living thing that I could become a part of. I was also a sailing racer for many years, which taught me the ocean skills of the winds and the tides and the weather. So when I went surfing, I had such knowledge of the ocean and her behavior. I began to feel that connection. To feel at home in the sea is a type of magic. A type of style. And I loved this style.
How did your family and former bosses take your decision to quit and pursue ocean photography?
My bosses were confused. Probably still are. But my my father always loved the sea and was a big scuba diver. And my mother, she had a brother who was a very famous scuba diver. He unfortunately died from a shark attack, which taught me another important lesson: to become part of the sea, and to enjoy, but to realize that at any moment, she can take you. So strength and awareness of where you are in the ocean is important for both your work and your survival. Still, when she wants you, really wants you, there is not much you can do about that. And you learn to live with this.
How long have you been shooting now?
Fifteen years. I was lucky to get sponsorship from Liquid Eye water housings early on. I have been with them since 2010. Nine years ago, I moved to Bali for a family lifestyle and warm water and absolutely perfect waves. Great place, good people, nice life; for me, Bali is like a paradise. I'm so lucky to live in Bali.
But you are also known for you North Shore work. Particularly at Pipeline on heavy days.
Yes. Pipeline is my favorite big challenge. I feel that I push myself as much as the surfers there. I go there every year for the season. I cannot stay away from all that power. I am used to the geometry of the Indian Ocean, but Hawaii is a very different story. To see all the surfers and photographers move in a big space like that and to be part of it is like a romance. It's like we all share the same DNA even though we all look different. The common thread of the DNA is those wild waves. As much as the North Shore is considered a high pressure place, I think of it as a place for a big, free society with one goal in mind: riding magnificent waves.
What is the most important thing to know about shooting from the water?
Respect the ocean and the fear that it can cause. The other thing is to have self confidence. If in doubt, don't go out. You have to be mentally sure you want it. Because you can train all day, but if you are not mentally there, forget it. I also pay close attention to my entry and exit points so that I am never lost and I can always make it safely back to shore.
Which other photographers are your inspiration?
To me it's all about style, equipment choice and camera settings. I try to learn from studying Bielmann, Gibson, Ord, Bellet and Noyle. It's important to study other photographers' work. Lose your ego and you will learn something. That is another life lesson that the ocean has taught me.
Who is your favorite surfer to shoot?
I like to shoot any surfer who has a dose of madness. It stimulates mine.
Speaking of madness, what was it like shooting this East Side session at home?
Shooting these waves was like being in a bombardment. It almost felt like a crime too, because the Coronavirus has frozen the world but these waves felt like they broke the pandemic's back. Broke the borderlands and got us back to our reality. Like the season here got switched back on. A light turned on in a dark room. Physically, this wave is Hawaiian style. Heavy energy in shallow water and many times I kicked the reef with my fins and I saw many surfers snap their boards or have many injuries like deep cuts, bones broken, or shoulders dislocated. An adrenaline wave. You gotta want it. And I guess I did.
Finally, what three tips would you give a younger brother if he wanted to get into surf photography?
One, have passion or pass. Two, expert ocean swimming skills, including freediving training. Three, get a Liquid Eye water housing, ha! But seriously, you must treat your body and your swimming skills as the most important part of your equipment if you are going to get the shots that you will be remembered for.