Bryan Derballa

Bright eyeD

& WiDe
photographer. In fact, he’s

Bryan Derballa is not a surfing not even a surfer. But in the spring of 2008, photographing surfing—or, more precisely, surfers—is exactly what he was doing on a beach in Israel during a period of heightened Palestinian-Israeli aggression.
By Jared Smith

A member of a socialist mission holds a flag at a proChávez rally in Caracas, Venezuela. In February of 2009, President Hugo Chávez won a referendum that abolished term limits for the Venezuelan president.

Derballa was shooting still images in support of the documentary film God Went Surfing With the Devil, the brainchild of writer/director and college friend Alexander Klein. The film follows the journey of Klein and a group of others—under the auspices of Israeli non-profit Surfing 4 Peace—as they attempt to smuggle 23 surfboards across a stringently regulated pedestrian and cargo terminal into the Gaza Strip to a ragtag group of perpetually stoked Palestinian surfers. “I learned so much about the conflict that I never knew before,” says Derballa, whose Arabic surname actually prohibited him from crossing the border into Gaza. “From what I did witness, it was regular people and families that were really affected. People that [are] just trying to live normal lives are usually the ones affected by zealots and war machines.” Although sequestered in Israel for the entire two months of the trip, Derballa was able to travel throughout the country and experienced the horror of armed conflict firsthand while in Sderot during a spate of rocket attacks. “The sirens go off 15 seconds before the rocket hits,” he says. “We were at a playground at the time and the sirens sounded. Mothers grabbed their children and ran crying to one of three bomb shelters. It was hysteria, and at the time it was happening a few times a day, everyday.” Yet, sensationalizing this struggle was not the objective of Klein and company; according to Derballa, they wanted to provide “a different angle to understand the conflict—not necessarily in political or religious terms, but human terms.” The images Derballa captured from Israel do exactly that, portraying something as apolitical as

Mouhmed, a young Israeli-Arab surfer, dances to music in a market after surfing Jaffa beach, just south of Tel Aviv.

surfing in such a way that it speaks to our shared humanity. And, surprisingly, Derballa says, “None of us that worked on the film were surfers.” In truth, Derballa and the others are much more comfortable with surfing’s urban permutation. “We are all skateboarders,” he says. “The subculture is very much the same, even if the sport is slightly different. As skateboarders we all understand its ability to transcend all barriers of race, religion, nationality, class—everything. All that matters is that you skate.” Not only has it helped bridge social/ cultural gaps, but skateboarding, as it were, also provided Derballa an introduction to photography. Famous for its do-ityourself ethos, skateboarding, throughout its counter-culture history, has embraced a sort of beatnik sensibility—self-denying and fiercely independent. And the documentation of skateboarding, it seems, follows suit. Back in 2001, after years of poring over photo essays in Slap magazine,

Derballa picked up a Yashica T4 and began documenting skate sessions among his friends. As with his previous pursuits, he immersed himself in shooting, clinging to his newfound hobby with “completely obsessed and somewhat neurotic” devotion. This obsession quickly bled into other aspects of life; it wasn’t long before Derballa—and friends who had also taken up photography—was no longer capturing images of merely skating, but of anything and everything he could. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 2004, Derballa and his circle of photo converts began traveling extensively, and with that, shooting exhaustively. He decided they needed a forum through which to share their postbaccalaureate experiences visually, while maintaining a creative base. In 2006, Lovebryan was born. Founded and curated by our hero, Lovebryan is a collective photo blog that, over the years, has grown into something more than just a few friends indulgently chronicling the at times fascinating and insipid moments of their lives. Aside from garnering considerable buzz on the Internet and in print, Lovebryan has acted as a “workshop” of constructive criticism, allowing its contributors to learn from and push one another as photographers. With the inception of Lovebryan, Derballa had successfully parlayed a communal skateboarding methodology into an amateur photography collective. One particular contributor, Mike Belleme, has been “climbing the rungs of the ladder with [Derballa] at the same time.” Derballa likens their photographic maturaA child rests after helping his family harvest green onions in Berlín, Colombia.

Campesinos enjoy a Coca-Cola after a day’s work in Berlín, Colombia. Berlín is small town off the highway between Bogotá and Bucaramanga, and it thrives off growing green onions.

tion to the friendly skateboarding oneupmanship of their adolescence. “When we were 16/17 years old, we were doing the same tricks at the same time and learning everything right at the same level,” he says. “With photography, he got into it a little bit earlier, and I saw what he was doing and decided to try and catch up.” It is this type of competitive and cooperative experimentation that has allowed Derballa to develop his craft quickly. To some extent, his photo education came through the Web site A Photo A Day (, which, as the name implies, seeks to present and critique one photo per day among a community of contributing members. Derballa also credits photographer and San Francisco-based photojournalist Victor J. Blue as having been especially transformative to his development in that genre. And, in the end, it was Lovebryan that landed him and other contributors a first assignment, catching, in Derballa’s case, the eye of Wired magazine. Since those early days, Derballa, who is based in Brooklyn and now shoots primarily on assignment for The Wall Street Journal, has contributed to The FADER, Wired, Financial Times, Nike, EXPN, Mother

Jones, The National, Emerica Footwear and a number of European publications. Despite such an impressive litany of photo credits, Derballa maintains that he has “not taken a great photograph yet,” adding, “my merit as a photographer is based more on my potential than what I’ve already created.” This may seem unnecessarily selfcritical, but Derballa views his art as both a projection and reflection of self, and as such, seeks to create images with sensitivity, awareness and purpose. “What I often do in taking pictures and editing takes is try to reflect the person that I strive to be. When I do it right, my pictures can be empathetic, subtle and sophisticated, or alternately: dynamic, youthful and loose. We all have our shortcomings and personal ideals. I like to address mine in the style of my work.” Yet Derballa addresses more than just his own shortcomings and ideals in his work, and he does so with much more than merely form. In the collection The Onion Patch, he portrays, with great delicacy and reverence, the hardworking people of Berlín, a quiet onion-farming village in rural Colombia; while in the collection Chavismo, he captures the political turmoil surrounding Venezuela’s constitutional

vote on the February 2009 referendum to eliminate presidential term limits (which passed, allowing President Hugo Chavez to run for a third consecutive term). It seems, in his images, that Derballa searches for a more perfect world, but shies away from admitting one exists. Still, he remains earnest and resolutely optimistic, reminiscing fondly on the happenstance of encountering such a Colombian pastoral in Berlín: “I just jumped off the bus in that situation, to be honest. I was just looking out the window and saw this place looking beautiful and like nothing I’d ever encountered. I yelled at the bus driver, ‘¡Pare, por favor!’ and he kind of looked at me bewildered because I don’t think most gringos jump off in the middle of a route.” Despite admitting that the story itself lacked newsworthy elements, Derballa says, “I learned a lot from shooting there. I learned about how to enter a community and how to establish a contact—to make my presence known, but without intimidating or upsetting anyone.” Newsworthy or not, ultimately, Derballa, as a photojournalist and artist, wants to “make something that looks unique and visually engaging,” and, as he says, “informed by the person I am.” And what informs him is a curiosity for all things unfamiliar and an unselfish perception that he alone is not the center of the universe. “I sometimes

Khalid Latif, 27, ties his turban before delivering a Friday sermon at New York University’s Islamic Center located in the basement of a Catholic church. No formal training is required from an imam—just a dedication to the Koran and the community.

feel hyper-aware—culturally and situationally,” he says, “and I’m okay with that.” This heightened awareness is, of course, invaluable when on assignment abroad, but its significance cannot be overstated for domestic projects either. One such collection, American Imam, about a young Muslim chaplain for New York University and the NYPD named Khalid Latif, had a special resonance with Derballa, whose father is Arab Egyptian and formerly Muslim: “There was this part of my heritage that I never really knew about, and then I got to photograph this guy and learn so much about the religion and the culture … from someone who is deeply sensitive to it and really open.” Derballa says Amer-

ica Imam “was a fantastic project,” and he hopes to tell the story of the bright young chaplain over an extended timeline. This penchant for storytelling comes naturally to Derballa, who, having majored in English, consciously constructs dense visual narratives with his pictures: “A lot of times when I’m taking pictures I’m thinking about figurative language—metaphor, symbolism, even things like hyperbole—and I want my pictures to try and say something that’s more than just what’s there.” With acclaimed photojournalist James Nachtwey as his exemplar, Derballa seeks to locate the visual metaphors we often unwittingly encounter in life. In one photo from American Imam, Latif is on stage during an NYPD gradua-

tion ceremony, standing diminutively in a row of leggy officers while the foregrounded audience salutes. “The way that literature communicates is beautiful, and it can be adapted to photography in so many different ways,” says Derballa. “Studying English made me very aware of it.” Derballa also taps inspiration from the influential storytelling models he identifies in music, marveling at the way in which a musician like Bruce Springsteen relates stories that are at once relevant and filled with great pathos. “I often think to myself, ‘How can I craft a photo like Springsteen makes a song?’ The storytelling on Springsteen’s Nebraska record is so powerful, but oftentimes simple, and he has this ability to narrow in on details that really bring to life the characters that he’s talking about, with such beauty and delicacy,” Derballa says. “If I could make something as powerful as Nebraska in a photo essay, that would be my ultimate dream.” Characterized as music or fiction, Derballa’s photography is clearly not of the pop or pulp kind. Inherent in his work is a deliberate marriage of substance and style that Derballa says is a conscious decision on his part. He explains, “As a young photographer, I need to bring a fresh pair of eyes, a fresh vision to this thing. I have to be doing this in a differKhalid Latif, far left, stands with other officers at an NYPD graduation ceremony. As the Muslim chaplain for the NYPD, Latif delivered a nondenominational benediction.

Young Arab-Israeli surfers jump off the docks at Jaffa beach when there are no waves to surf.

ent way. And I think that goes for a lot of the people in my close circle of photographer friends. They’re all coming at it with this next level vision that has a lot to do with being young and being aware, being culturally informed and artistically informed.” While an acute emotional, cultural, and circumstantial sensitivity is what imbues Derballa’s work with meaning and impact, it is his overall compassion that his next level photographic vision is predicated on. The simple truth is that beneath the gritty skateboarding history and compelling anecdotes from abroad, he cares. He cares about photography’s transcendent capabilities; he cares about injustices around the world and those who live in conflict zones; and he cares

deeply about his subjects and their stories. From his time spent in Israel working on God Went Surfing With the Devil, he remembers fondly a group of kids he befriended in Jaffa. These Arab-Israeli surfers frequently walked all the way to the ocean to get their fix of waves, sharing only two boards between them. “That was a wonderful project and really distilled my favorite things about working as a photographer,” he says. What’s more, his experience in Israel provided an illuminating moment of clarity: “I remember one night, after a full day of shooting, I walked down to the sea. There was no one there, and I just walked out into the water and floated on my back staring at the moon. I had this wonderful sense that this is exactly what I should be doing right now: working with friends on a project I

A young man rides a horse on the beach in Jaffa, the Arab neighborhood just south of Tel Aviv in sharp contrast to its crowded beaches and waterfront hotels.

believe in, telling a story I care about regardless of any financial gain. All the distraction I carried from New York City and anxiety about a career and success washed away. It was a very clarifying moment.” Whether at home or abroad, Derballa plans to continue pushing his next level vision. “I want to go and be the photojournalist I’ve always dreamed of being,” he says. Based on what he’s already seen and accomplished, such a dream isn’t far off. He intends to keep traveling, jumping off buses mid-route, and going into conflict zones to find a story that is worth telling—a story that he cares about. “There’s a little bit of romance to it and a little bit of naiveté,” he admits, “but I think it’s worth a try.” To see more of Bryan Derballa’s work, go to View the Lovebryan photo blog at www.lovebryan. com. To learn more about the film God Went Surfing With the Devil, visit www.
Jared Smith is the senior editor for Rangefinder and AfterCapture magazines.

Bryan Derballa’s Camera Bag:
Cameras: Canon 5D Mark II and Canon EOS 5D Lenses: Canon 35mm f/1.4L, Canon 50mm f/1.4, Canon 24mm f/1.4L, and Canon 85mm f/1.8 Lights: Canon 580EX II, Canon STE2 wireless transmitter Software: Photo Mechanic and Lightroom

Reproduction with permission from the Rangefinder October 2010 issue.

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