Combat and surf photographer Guillermo Cervera exists between two worlds—one horrifying, the other beautiful, both dangerous
This feature appeared in the March 2012 issue of SURFER.
Guillermo Cervera uses a wave to describe the fear of combat—a heavy patch of reef in the Atlantic and a pair of broken ribs to explain the doubts that arise when your profession requires you to risk your life. “I was swimming at a spot called El Quemao in the Canary Islands,” says the 43-year-old Spanish press photographer. “I was taking pictures and I was in the wrong place and the wave hit me and bounced me off the reef. I was held under for three or four waves. It took my flippers and broke my camera housing. I almost died. Nobody noticed. There were only two guys in the water. After that, I wondered, ‘Should I keep doing this? Is it worth it to get a picture?’”
Cervera has asked himself similar questions several times during the course of his 15-plus-year press career. Covering conflicts in places like Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Libya, and working in crisis zones like Cuba, Egypt, and Venezuela, he’s intimately familiar with the physical risks and mental tolls of his work. And in this respect, he’s not unlike any other responsible frontline correspondent. His stress-coping mechanism, however, has led him to the ocean, and instead of rotating back to a desk between warzones, Cervera turns to professional surf photography, balancing his sanity and his career by maxing out on the horrors of one subject until he requires the beauty of the other. “Sometimes,” he says, “I need to get into the water to clean myself of all the craziness I’ve seen.”
The son of a windsurfing mother and a father who served in the Spanish Navy and then became an arms dealer, Cervera has been around the ocean, photography, and the military for most of his life. He first rode a wave as a toddler during a family vacation to the coast, began taking photos of “everything” as a teen, and was introduced to combat photography at 24 during the Bosnian civil war. “I had just returned to Europe after studying in the U.S.,” he says of his first professional assignment. “And an old friend of mine asked if I wanted to come with him to Bosnia. I thought he was joking, but he was for real. It happened really, really fast.”
Cervera says his initial exposure to warfare was jarring, but he had an eye for the subject matter despite its graphic nature. He also had the ability to stay calm in intense situations. Both traits fueled his emerging career, and he made two trips to Bosnia within months. “I saw grenades falling, snipers shooting each other and killing kids, bombings, people crying,” he says.
He moved on to Africa next, traveling with another friend of his, a journalist, to document the Rwandan civil war and genocide, which killed an estimated 800,000 people. He was only able to stomach the assignment for about a week. Disturbed by what he describes as “mountains of dead bodies,” Cervera realized he’d already burned out on combat and crisis-zone photography and returned to Spain. He’d been in the trade for less than a year.
“At the beginning I surprised myself,” he says, “because while these things affected me, I wanted to do my best. I was only really thinking of how to make the picture, and how to not get killed. I didn’t really think too deeply about what was going on. So afterward, it was kind of difficult. I was trying to digest everything, and when I got back to Spain, I made a decision to not do this anymore. It was too much for me.”
In the three years that followed, Cervera focused on commercial photography, living and working in Barcelona. But he also turned to drugs and alcohol as he struggled to cope with his experiences. He was surfing sporadically, but after eventually going to rehab and getting clean, he rededicated himself completely to the ocean.
“I decided I needed something like surfing,” he says, explaining how he relocated to the Canary Islands in the early 2000s for waves. “I went just to take a vacation and surf. But I stayed for seven years. And that’s where I started to take pictures of surfing. Because, ever since I was like 17 years old, wherever I went, I was taking pictures. When I went to the U.S.—even though I didn’t go to school for photography—I was taking photos. When I went to war, I was taking pictures of the war. And when I was surfing, photography was just a natural part of that. I’m always with my camera.”
For the next seven years, Cervera focused on riding and photographing waves. He says press photography—particularly work documenting combat and crises zones—was something he still felt drawn to, but he held back from recommitting himself. He was concerned about his reaction to new traumatic experiences, and the consequences of relapsing into addiction as a result.
“Recovery is a long process,” he says. “It takes years. You have to be careful. I always wanted to keep doing my press photography, but [my counselors] told me not to, because it was really bad for me. They said I was in danger of falling back into drinking and drugs. So it took me years before I thought I was ready. But then I started again. I went to Sri Lanka.”
Known for its long points and long-running civil war, Cervera chose the country because he says he was looking for places where he could blend press and surf photography. He visited Cuba around this time for similar reasons, documenting its political and surf scenes. In the four years since, he’s spent stretches in conflict-zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Chad, moving deeper into press photography at times, then returning to surf assignments (and riding waves) when he feels like he’s seen enough.
His work, both in the water and out, is characterized by a handful of similarities. Focusing on the experiences of locals—whether they’re chargers in the Canaries or Afghan militants—is a main theme. It’s also an aspect of his approach that, according to Cervera, has been a crucial factor in his ability to come home both alive and with a unique perspective.
“You have to find the right guide and learn how to get along with the real people who are living in a place,” he says while discussing a portrait he shot of a Taliban fighter that ran on the cover of Newsweek. “You need to learn how to understand them. When Newsweek wanted to know how I got into a Taliban site, I told them I did it the same way I get into big waves: You go, you smile, and the people welcome you. It’s like when you go to a localized surf spot. If you get along with the guys in the water, they will open the door. That can be one of the most difficult things to learn, but if you can figure it out—in surf or in press photography—80 percent of your work is done.”
Other connections between Cervera’s surf and combat photos are their representations of danger and rapid movement. “I’ve often described conflict photography in terms of surfing,” says Cervera’s Newsweek editor James Wellford. “Riding the wave. Exposing yourself to imminent danger as the wave explodes parallels the presence of Guillermo and others who inhabit and photograph war and dangerous and violent places. His capacity to immerse himself in these circumstances, to understand the ebb and flow of chaos, is a remarkable and creative gift.”
“Many people have told me that my pictures are always moving,” Cervera says of his photos. “I think I learned that from surfing. When you are in combat, you have to be aware of everything that is going on around you. You are in a constant state of awareness, which is like when you enter the water and the waves are really big. You never know if there’s a big set coming, so you are waiting, and trying to position yourself all the time to take the shot. You don’t know what’s going to happen, which is like being in combat. If you lose your head, and you don’t follow your instincts, you are dead.”
Repeatedly, Cervera has been witness to the consequences of his profession. In November, he was hit with a gas grenade while covering the elections and protests in Egypt, which left him with a shoulder injury that’s just beginning to heal. And in April 2011, he was with photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros during a mortar attack in the Libyan city of Misrata. Both Hetherington (best known for his Academy Award-nominated documentary, Restrepo) and Hondros were killed. Cervera stayed with both men as they bled to death in the aftermath of the incident.
“It could have been me,” he says, “because we were all together. It wasn’t just a matter of good luck. It really could have happened to me.”
Part of what drives him to continue with his work, Cervera says, is that he feels compelled to tell impactful stories through his imagery, and to document history in progress. But he also says another part of his motivation runs deeper—which leads him back to El Quemao, his broken ribs, and near drowning while shooting surf. “After two weeks,” he says, “when my ribs started to heal, I saw the waves and I felt like I had to be there. I had to get back into the ocean. And I think the same thing has happened after the situation with Tim and Chris. I just have to keep taking pictures.”