Alan van Gysen is one of the worlds most respected surf photographers. With an inextinguishable drive and natural flair he has spent the past eighteen years carving his mark into the international scene. His dedication to his craft has seen him capturing the artistry of South Africa’s and the world’s top surfers. Alan’s style is unmistakable. Preferring to shoot from the water he feeds off his subject’s energy, bringing his personal perspective to the moment and creating a tailored fusion of motion, time and space. His photographs exude a clarity and vibrancy that stirs every droplet of water to life, reflecting the very essence of what it means to be a surfer.
In his life and his work Alan maintains an infectious positivity and enviable sense of balance. He is always looking forward and has the ability to constantly see the bigger picture. A meticulous work ethic, down to earth attitude and passion for his life behind the lens has brought him a degree of contentment seldom seen in others his age. A successful career that continues to flourish, an amazing wife, three children, and a wonderful home in the coastal suburb of Kommetjie, nestled in the south peninsula of Cape Town, a stone’s throw away from the beaches he loves to surf.
Intro by Brendon Bosworth
Q. How did you get into photography and what made you do what you love instead of going to route of a normal job (your parents wanted you to be a Dr ect)
A. My photography was basically the culmination of all my school sports, music, art, lifesaving and bodyboarding and surfing all rolled up into one. My mom wisely and thankfully enrolled me into pretty much everything during my formative and impressionable years at junior and high school, which prepared me for, and got me to that critical point where I was – unknowingly at the time anyway, prepared and able to take the unnerving and surprising step to becoming a surf photographer. Unfortunately after all that my mom had put into my upbringing, and her dream of my highly competitive and successful swimming career securing me an American university scholarship, she was shocked when I wanted to “throw it all away” and didn’t speak to me for three months. Thankfully my dad was in support of me following my heart during this time, despite his own wish that I follow him into the medical field, and much to the further anger and disappointment of my mom who felt he wasn’t supporting her. He said he would give me two years to give surf photography a real go, and if it didn’t work out I was to enrol into university. Although they showed their support and love different, both my parents supported me becoming a photographer in the end, and were responsible for making me who I was to become as an independent adult. At the time I didn’t actively choose to avoid a traditional job or career path; photography was just what I felt tremendously drawn to do.
Q. You were editor of the most renown SA mag Zigzag for 6 years? How did that job find you?
A. In 2011, after a little more than 12 years of establishing and working as a professional freelance photographer, I suddenly and personally felt the almost knockout punch of the global economic crisis of 2008, the then newly establish digital era and the heavy influx of many new photographers flooding the industry. Times were tough; the bank balance was permanently in the red, we had our second daughter on the way and I had no prospective freelance work or avenues left to explore. I’ll never forgot the evening my wife (Heather) and I sat in bed in tears not knowing where our next payment was coming from, nor what the next step should be. For more than a decade – my entire adult life, I only new photography and a little journalism. That afternoon I had even phoned her old boss to ask if there was any office admin work available; I was willing to take anything to keep the roof over our heads. Then we prayed – I should have done it more before getting to this point I admit, but I obviously needed to be reminded and appreciative of His provision, and the very next day Our Father sent us a miracle in the form of Will Bendix, his plea to Media 24 and my eventual appointment as assistant and photo editor of the worlds third oldest surf magazine.
Q. What made you leave the Zag and take the risk to go on your own without the security of a steady job/income?
A. As has been every major decision in my life – every new chapter, my leaving Zigzag was guided and the message delivered crystal clearly by The Spirit. My five years at Zigzag were amazing. At the time, the best years of my life, but new exciting avenues were calling loud and clear, and through faith I truly felt secure and safe in the calling to leave a monthly salary and pursue my freelance photojournalism once again. I am still an avid supporter of Zigzag, both as a surfer and as a professional contributor, and I still feel very much part of the family that is South African surfing and Zigzag.
Q. What advice would you give for anyone in a position who is deciding to make the decision between what they have to do and what they really would love to do?
A. Do what you love, every time, because “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart…” – Colossians 3:23 What we do in this life, how we choose to live it and for what reasons will forever determine the quality of our lives and our eternity. And it not only affects you, but those around you. So choose love, and have faith. When you take a big step of faith in anything in life you need to believe, receive and become.
Q. You’re a great example to many people who would love to follow their passion, what does it take to be that person?
A. Wow that is a tough one…I certainly didn’t do anything but follow the path set out before me, and I don’t know any scientific formula, but if I had to look at my own life, and from all I have read about those that have lived great, “successful”/meaningful lives, it’s all about relationships. I’ve always told upcoming photographers that the single strongest asset they or any person can have it’s the ability to create, invest in and maintain genuine, lasting relationships. The photographs or product you produce is secondary. For me personally as a Christian this means an “all-in” relationship with God, Jesus and The Holy Spirit, my family and friends, colleagues, clients, surfers, brands, editors, etcetera. Treat those as you would want to be treated. Love those as you would want to be loved.
Q. What are your goals you have set for yourself moving forward.
A. When you’re young you often have grand dreams and goals for yourself. And it’s easy to focus on yourself. But those self-focused dreams and goals quickly become less important as others and the above-mentioned relationships start entering into your life, and ultimately it becomes less about ourselves and more about others – in my opinion and life anyway. As the famous quote/saying goes by Forest E. Witcraft, “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” For me this could mean a child and anyone else in need. My life goals have shifted toward others; my family, friends and strangers. I have been blessed with every simple, beautiful gift in life, not least of all life itself, and most of all New life; so my goal is to do all I can to serve others and Our Father, and to ultimately bring Him glory and honour.
Q. What has motivated you to keep doing what you love?