Photographer Sergio Villalba is describing a memory from childhood. Growing up by the sea, he conjures up images of a young boy – maybe five or six – playing in the surf near his family home on the island of Tenerife. A relationship with the outdoors – and the sea in particular – that he would later express through an obsessive desire to capture all those precious moments experienced out on the water.
“I was 14 years old and decided photography was the way to do this. But when I think about it now, I still find that a little strange. My parents had a Pentax point-and-shoot they used for snaps of Christmas and family holidays but that was it. I didn’t grow up in a particularly artistic environment and I wasn’t trying to be creative with my first photographs. I just wanted to document the waves my friends and I were surfing.”
Purchasing a couple of Kodacolor rolls whenever funds allowed, Sergio now recognises that despite not showing the resultant images to anyone, the seeds for his future professional path were sown.
“But then, when I was 18, my parents got divorced and the situation for myself and my sister was unbearable. Longing to escape, I sat down with my mum and told her I was planning on moving to Barcelona. A few months later I left the island where I’d grown up.”
Suddenly thrown into an urban environment and knowing no one, Sergio started to reach out and build a new set of friends. One of these acquaintances was a graphic designer who worked with several music venues in the city including the jazz club Jamboree. Sergio’s interest in photography led to a job offer shooting cover images for the club flyers. With digital photography in its infancy, he had to quickly master the art of capturing fast moving subjects in low light and smoky conditions—Sergio relishing the creative freedom until the appeal of city life began to wane and a return to the island of his birth.
“The ocean was still my passion and I got it into my head to build a career through surfing photography—setting myself the goal of making a living from photography within a year of returning to Tenerife. It was around 2005 and luckily a golden era for surfing with budgets big enough to make a photographer’s wildest dreams come true.”
Over the next few years until the 2009 recession began to bite, Sergio founded a creative agency with another two photographers and travelled the world. With two bags permanently packed – one for cold weather and a second for warmer climes – each year saw eight or nine months on the road. An enviable position for any photographer seeking to build a reputation but eventually costing Sergio his relationship.
“My girlfriend ended up admitting she was used to being alone at home and felt uncomfortable when I was around. By that time, the recession was killing off surfing brands with consumers not willing to pay 40 euros for a tee when fast fashion enabled you to only pay five and get a new one every two months. The dream was over.”
With the hard reset of a recession, Sergio’s photographic style evolved to embrace a more varied range of brands—selling rather than storytelling now the main focus for his strong and visually appealing imagery.
“Even though you’re shooting a product range, you can still be playful and enjoy the process of creating beautiful images. And like everyone else, I love sunrise and sunset. Who doesn’t? But I must admit that the harsh midday light is also very appealing. If you know how to use it, you can deliver some great results and I especially love it for portraits of sweaty athletes or for playing with architecture and projected shadows. With a little bit of imagination you can get the best out of any situation.”
“What I plan is not always what I get and one thing’s for certain: you learn from everything—even from your mistakes. And I’ve gradually grown to understand that I get attached to certain images not because of the photograph itself but the process of making it—how difficult it was to get it or the risk I took to achieve it. But that’s a mistake, I know. Whoever’s viewing your work takes what they’re seeing at face value. So a photograph must speak for itself and – in the best case scenario – tell a story.”
With a self-declared obsession with what he describes as believable images, Sergio is cryptically referencing the professional period that followed his surfing days. Working on tourism campaigns and shoots for luxury hotels, Sergio explains why none of this content was ever posted on social media or displayed on his website.
“Was it good money? Yes. Did it help me through a commercially slow period of my life? Yes. But I got this weird feeling of doing something wrong after every shoot. So I promised myself I wouldn’t do this type of job anymore and that I’d put all my efforts into getting back to what I like the most. And for me, that means documenting a life lived outdoors.”
Describing himself as the quiet guy behind the camera, on a shoot Sergio is happy to let the models do their own thing—an approach he believes pays dividends in the resulting images.
“If you over direct someone you´ll drive him or her crazy and kill any naturalness in their actions. Other times there’s no choice—you have to make it happen so you can get the shot. But as soon as everything is working, I take a step back and become the quiet guy again. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the connection of working with other creatives. Photography can be a very lonely profession when you’re doing backups after the shoot and everyone else is drinking beers. So I enjoy working with my own team of trusty professionals who are first and foremost my friends. But it’s also good to maintain my freelance status. As we say in Spain, juntos pero no revueltos. Which in English translates as together but not in each other’s pocket.”
“Sometimes it’s a question of balance and work has been so intense in these post-Covid times that I need a rest from looking at everything through a viewfinder. I love documenting my own life but you need the freedom to touch more, see more, smell more. And though younger people may hate me for saying this, I think travelling is a little overrated nowadays. I’ve seen so many places go from having a stable, traditional life to being overdeveloped in a very short time span. People stop farming and fishing and try to get easier money from the tourists. And though we seek out places like modern day Robinson Crusoes, unless it’s completely frozen or full of malaria then it’s already swamped with digital nomads and content creators living their best life.”
Finding he now appreciates home more than ever and happy to travel less, Sergio recognises how the rise of mass tourism inevitably means it’s not the same place as where he grew up. A situation that prompts collaborations with organisations and individuals campaigning to protect the sensitive socioeconomic balance of the Canary Islands.
“I live a very simple life that I love. I’m the father of two boys and partner of the greatest woman I ever met. I have my gravel bike and live within walking distance of the sea. If you scroll through my Instagram feed you´ll recognize many places that I use over and over again. The little rocky harbour in my hometown, the waves that wrap around the shoreline where we surf, the Teide National Park. Together with my family, all these places are part of my daily life. I couldn’t be a fashion or architecture photographer because that’s not how I live. I have a peaceful, outdoorsy life and that’s what I try to project in my work.”
All photography with kind permission of Sergio Villalba / sergiovillalba.com