Saskia Koerner took her Hasselblad to the beach at Batu Bolong and found peace among a singular group of surfers.
Hi Saskia. From the sound of your voice you’re from South Africa . . . were you born and bred there?
Yes I was born and raised in the city bowl of Cape Town. My father lives in Hamburg so I’ve spent quite a few years in the northern hemisphere too.
What was it like growing up in South Africa?
Being able to compare it to Germany in the early ’80s, South Africa was very sheltered from the world under apartheid, so childhood was more innocent there I thnk. It was all ‘Kiss Catch’ and ‘Cops & Robbers’ . . . not Kim Wilde and Nina Hagen at age eight.
Is it really as dangerous as people say, or has it changed for the better?
Dangerous, yes, unfortunately, but the country is going through its process after the regime suppression and even if it will take a while thankfully that era is over and progress and unity stands a chance. I prefer to look at the positive effects since Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid. I love seeing the youth all mixed up and together. It was so different when I grew up – I could never get my head around why we were separated at school. I also love seeing all the creativity and talent emerging out of South Africa. It’s a vibrant country with many complex layers. I love the homeland.
We understand you got into photography through fashion . . . how did that work?
I started with shooting at age 17, doing model tests in Cape Town and assisting Bruce Granville Matthews in his cool Long Street Studio back in the day when he let the street kids all sleep in his big old Bentley car. I was also making custom clothes out of old army vests and quickly started enjoying the creative lifestyle of a designer-traveller living between London’s Portobello Market and Green Market Square in Cape Town. So I gave up on shooting and just made clothes. Only when I moved back to Bali in 2008 did I rediscover my love for photography. I decided to fulfill my original dream and went for a BA in Fine Arts in Photography at Brooks Institute in California.
After graduation I went on a five-day trip to NYC and fell in love with the creative buzz of the city and decided after three days there to stay and make it happen. I applied for internships with all the big favorites from Annie Leibovitz to Craig McDean and Marc Seliger. I ended up having a few choices and decided on a part-time internship with the legendary Mary Ellen Mark. It was a dream-come-true. Just being able to hear her stories every day and experience her approach to her research for assignments as well as working in her beautiful archive was a treasured time; I was in awe every moment. RIP MEM.
I also worked at the big studio Pier 59 which showed me the commercial high-end world of photography. I moved to Kenneth Willardt’s studio as studio assistant and manager, working on his shows while also producing shows for Picture Farm Gallery in Williamsburg. I worked at Nan Goldin’s Studio for a month too, which gave me an awesome insight into the fine art world of photography. NYC was an incredible experience, the best of the best. I love the directness and professional level one deals with there. It’s a magical city . . . but the waves were calling me and I came back to Bali.
When did you first experience the island?
I first came here in the late ’90s but it wasn’t until 2008 that I moved and started clothing production here. I disappeared to the States for a few years in between and recently just moved back and am loving it. I surfed the first five months. Just surfed. All day. And just shot palm trees. Now I’m shooting and surfing.
When did you realise there was such an interesting group of women surfers here?
I’ve been surfing Batu Bolong since 2008 and love the friends I’ve made there and the waves we’ve shared. Especially the women. There are so many amazing women that live, work and surf here. They are all doing incredible things but one of their main focuses is to meet up at sunrise to surf some waves every day. I wanted to document all the women dedicated to their single fin surfing.
Long boarding is such a special culture. What makes these shots special for you?
I love that single fin surfing has got such a big momentum again and I think it suits the female style of long boarding so well. The gliding and dancing on the board is so elegant. Single fin surfing really helps you find your own style. You have to move around a lot on the board and it results in a mesmerizing dance on the water.
The women in these shots are literally of all shapes and sizes, with different races and different cultures all thrown into the mix.
Yes, I love that about Batu Bolong. I meet amazing people from all over the world here every morning. It’s a great crew.
Do you think a guy could have shot these images?
Yes of course, but we all enjoy sharing the feminine spirit, celebrating our love for the waves. And I do think there is a different energy that comes across in the portraits with just women involved in the project. I see it when I am shooting fashion, beauty or nudes. Some girls are more comfortable with showing their bodies . . . or they just exude a different sense of sensuality and femininity.
There’s something about just having these women staring into the lens … it’s empowering.
Yes. It’s nice to be a part of.
You chose to shoot the portraits on film and digital, why was that?
It started out as a fun project with my expired film collection so I was doing digital back ups just in case there was nothing on the film. I collected boxes of old film in NYC and lugged it over to Bali. I love the digitals too. I want to continue shooting various formats on this project. Large format, polaroid . . . it’s a journey.
Selamat jalan then! And thanks so much for your time. We’ll see you on the beach.
Thank you for your encouragement and support.