Guillermo Cervera’s Dangerous Periphery

Heavy reefs, Russian ballerinas, and the incongruous crossovers between surf and combat photography.

Light / Dark

Spanish photographer Guillermo Cervera has documented some of the most violent and chaotic environments on Earth. He shot his first frames as a combat correspondent in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Since then he’s covered conflicts in Chad, Rwanda, and Ukraine, among others, for publications such as The New York Times, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone. Rotations through places like Venezuela, to document gang warfare in Caracas, and Libya and Egypt, to photograph the Arab Spring uprisings, round out a body of work that has flitted across conflict and combat zones for the last two decades.

With a basecamp in the Canary Islands, he is also an avid windsurfer, sailor, and surfer. A deeper sampling of his work clearly reflects these aspects of his personality. He often returns to the ocean and surfers as subject matter, shooting water photography at setups like El Quemao in the Canaries, and lineups in Sri Lanka. He says his surf imagery acts as a sort of salve for his other, more harrowing subjects.

When I caught up with him, it was mid April and unseasonably cold and sleeting in New York City. A number of his worlds were telescoping around a show of his work at the Anastasia Gallery in the Bowery. Cervera was temporarily ensconced in an apartment in Tribeca, on loan from a friend and former photo editor for The New Yorker, who he’d worked with in Ibiza. He had recently finished a maritime photography project traveling on a small sloop, which he sailed across the Atlantic from Europe and throughout the Caribbean. A few days after the gallery opening, he was scheduled to begin the final leg, returning with his boat from North America to the Canaries.

A preview of his upcoming installation revealed about a dozen surf images—mostly intense water angles blown to full scale—juxtaposed against a small, solitary frame of slain combat photographer Tim Hetherington. The latter photo, which Cervera made just after his colleague was mortally wounded in Libya, hung in a quiet, almost private corner at the back of the gallery. “Every day brings us closer to death,” read part of the accompanying inscription. “Thank you, Tim, for trusting me with that moment.”

In conversation, with his accented English, Cervera projected a warm, low frequency baseline that seemed at odds with his chosen profession. We discussed the seemingly incongruous crossovers between surf and combat photography over a fresh loaf of bread, which he had baked using a recipe mastered at sea in his ship’s galley.

AW: I was hoping to start with your surf photography, about how it’s different from some of your combat photography and some of your documentary photography, but also how it’s similar. What do those different subjects do for you as a photographer, and where they come from?

GC: I always tell the story about my mother. She loved the ocean. She was from San Sebastián, and she used to bodysurf when she was six months pregnant with me. And she was always telling me, “I think you will love the ocean because of that.” And I don’t know, for me, even when I was a kid, I needed the water. My life has always been related to it. She was very into windsurfing and when I was four she would take me on the back of the board with her. I eventually became interested in photography and became a war photographer. I was very young. I was like 23 and a buddy of mine—we wanted to be journalists, but we didn’t know how to make that happen. Then we saw that a war was going on in Bosnia and my friend suggested that we just go and document it. You needed provisions, or official status from a magazine or a newspaper to show to the U.N., but we were kids so no magazine gave us a letter. Eventually, we just faked one and sent it to the U.N. and it worked. I remember the first night we were in a city called Mostar, and we found a house to sleep in with a family. We were surrounded by troops and shelling. Everybody was killing each other. And we were looking to each other like, “What the hell are we doing here?” It was a lot to process. But in the end, you get into the rhythm of things. You just forget what is going on and try to do your work. And that was my first contact with journalism—war, which was a shocking experience.

AW: Why was that initially compelling to you as a subject?

GC: It was a story. It was just a way into journalism. On the other hand, my father was also an arms dealer, selling armaments to other countries. I was always curious about what was going on in his profession. I mean, I’d hear him selling mortars, grenades, mines—all kinds of things.

We were in an area full of Tamil Tigers. There were soldiers patrolling everywhere and they kept stopping us, and we just kept telling them we were looking for waves.

AW: As a kid you’d hear him on the phone brokering arms deals?

GC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And he was also always traveling, and I’d hear his stories about something that happened in, for example, Libya. I remember when I was young he went to Libya with a team from Spain to sell weapons to Qaddafi and they got captured because, apparently, the Libyans wanted to buy chemical weapons and my father wouldn’t sell them [chemical weapons]. So they got pissed, and they held my father and his team in a hotel for a number of days. My mother was very scared.

AW: When I asked you about surfing, and whether it related to the other subjects you photograph, you started with the story about your mom bodysurfing. And at the end of the answer, you came to your father and his background as an arms dealer. It seems like the two subjects, and how you’ve focused your work, almost represent the two sides of your parents.

GC: These two things were in my brain from the beginning. My father was also a naval officer and a sailor before he was an arms dealer. We were always on boats, so there’s a connection to the ocean for me through both of them.

AW: What happened after you came home from Bosnia?

GC: A journalist friend invited me to go to Rwanda [where an estimated 500,000 to 1 million people were killed over the course of 100 days in 1994]. And Bosnia was shocking, but Rwanda was something different. Everything was almost finished by the time we arrived and there were mountains of dead bodies. I did my work, but when I got home I decided to take a break. I was living in Barcelona, mostly retouching and printing images. I was also windsurfing. And I was abusing a lot of drugs and alcohol. I decided to go to the Canary Islands for a year and just windsurf and try to recover. And the break lasted for eight years. It was good for me, just being in the water. I got clean. I also started photographing surfers. Then I realized it was time to keep going with my journalism. My brain was willing to see more, willing to photograph again, so I went to Cuba to do a story about surfers. Then I went to Sri Lanka, because I wanted to do a trip that combined war and surfing. The Tamil Tigers controlled a lot of the areas I wanted to visit and the access wasn’t easy. I went to Arugum Bay and I took my water housing with me. I was shooting and I met this Sri Lankan surfer who ended up being my fixer when I went to the war zone. We were up in the north and people would look at us like, “What the fuck are these two surfers doing here?” I remember one day we were in a place full of Tamil Tigers. There were soldiers patrolling everywhere and they kept stopping us, and we just kept telling them we were looking for waves. [Laughs] In the end, we had success in documenting the story because they would give us access to everything and everywhere, because we didn’t look like journalists.

AW: Surfing was your cover.

GC: Exactly.

AW: You were in Libya in 2011, working with [renowned photojournalists] Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros when they were killed. How did that experience affect you?

GC: We took a boat that was delivering humanitarian aid to Misurata, five or six of us—Tim, Chris, Mike Christopher Brown, Katie Orlinsky, and Guy Martin. When you go to these places you can’t split up, because a situation can get very dangerous and you have to be together in a group, with the right people. We were working in Tripoli Street. I always talk about this image I shot of a Pepsi sign. We felt like we were in danger and we were just about to leave. And on the way out, I saw this big Pepsi sign. It looked like the soda was coming out of the bottle and melting with the sky. So I said to myself, “Look, there’s liquid here!” And of course I was fascinated. So I stepped away, just to take a picture of the sign, about 50 meters from the rest of the group. Then I heard a mortar. After it hit, I saw it was right where everyone had been standing. I ran back and Mike was coming toward me, and he was injured. He was with Katie, but she wasn’t hit. Then I went to where all the smoke was and I saw Tim and Chris. Tim died in a car on the way to the hospital. I’ve kind of been looking for different subjects since that moment.

A big set came and smashed me on the reef. I always try to stay calm in the sea, because if you panic you are lost. There was a similar situation in Libya. These guys started firing with a machine gun and we could hear the bullets going past—shoo-shoo-shoo.

AW: Are you still working in conflict zones?

GC: Yeah. But when I went to cover the war in Ukraine, I covered it in a different way. MSNBC did a story with my images, but there were no combat photos. Instead, we focused on the local people and how they are coping and living during the war.

AW: So what other subjects are you focused on?

GC: Anything that can take humans into a state of concentration, or allow them a way to be creative or transcendent. I’ve done a lot of documenting the destructive side of things. Now I prefer the creative. I mean, a lot of photojournalists focus on pain, you know? It shouldn’t be like that. You have to tell the whole story. So I look for people who are engaged with anything that can take them outside of themselves—art, the environment, religion. There are many things. I just finished photographing ballet dancers in Moscow, for example. I’m also still photographing surfers for the same reason.

AW: I came across a quote from you discussing when you were taken hostage by rebels in Chad. You referenced the experience as being the most scared you’ve ever been, in any situation, because you knew you had no control over what was going to happen to you next.

GC: Yes.

AW: Have you ever had a moment like that in the water?

GC: Yeah, completely. I was at El Quemao in the Canaries. There was a lot of current, and a big set came and smashed me against the reef. I broke like five ribs. It also took my camera and ripped off my fins. I was in a lot of pain and I was scared, but I knew I had to stay calm. I always try to do that in the sea, because if you panic you are lost. There was a similar situation in Libya. We were in the desert trying to photograph these rebels. I was with two more photographers—one very famous American photographer, John Moore, and a Spanish photographer. And we were just hanging out taking pictures of the rebels and suddenly we started to hear mortars falling around us. It was Qaddafi’s guys shooting at the rebel position. Then suddenly these guys on the road, on the other side, started firing with a mounted machine gun. And we could hear the bullets going past—shoo-shoo-shoo. And we were pinned down between the machine gun and the mortars. John was lying in front of me, and at one point I looked at him like, “What do we do now?” And the only thing to do was stay on the ground. But the other Spanish photographer got in a panic. He stood up and started running and he almost got killed because he stopped thinking. That’s why I always say to myself, “You have to just calm down, and try to be where you have to be.” I’ve also learned it’s good to be scared. Fear is designed to protect you. I’m more scared of things now, after all I’ve seen, than I used to be. Maybe I’m getting older. I’m about to sail across the Atlantic with my boat, back to the Canaries. I have to cross the ocean and, I don’t know…

AW: You’re thinking twice about it.

GC: Yes. I’m thinking about it. Probably ten years ago I wouldn’t even think about it. I would have just jumped on the boat and gone to sea.

Illustration by Stephanie Von Reiswitz