People seek extraordinary experiences while traveling, but not everyone gets to have an adventure of a lifetime. When lomographer Stephane Heinz (popularly known as vicuna in the Lomography community) saw the opportunity, he took the chance to travel and live miles away from his hometown in France. He and his wife, Kathi, came back home with a luggage full of valuable experiences and life lessons. Vicuna tells us about his four-year adventure in French Polynesia in this travel special.
I’m a 40-year-old passionate analog photographer who has been shooting with film for almost two decades. I discovered lomography 10 years ago and I can only say that it has changed my life. Since then, my passion for analog photography became vital. I can’t imagine myself not shooting on film, and don’t have any interest in digital photography.
Aside from that, I teach History and Geography in the French secondary school system. Born in Germany, I moved to France during my childhood and lived in Nice for over 20 years. But I never gave up the dream to live somewhere else, and finally this dream became a reality.
The year 2006 was very important. After shooting for three years with a Holga camera yet not knowing what lomography was, I discovered the lomography website and entered a fantastic new world of analog love. I met Kathi the same year and understood what love really meant. She’s the love of my life; my lover, my partner, and my best friend. She’s everything to me.
Kathi had traveled extensively around the world before we met, and didn’t want to settle down in one place for years. I felt the same. I wanted big changes in my life, having spent the last 10 years working in the same school and a bit bored with my routine.
Soon we decided to travel elsewhere and share a new adventure together…but the question was, where?
An adventure on the other side of the world
As a teacher in the French school system, it was possible for me to apply for a position in French schools in other countries and French territories around the world. So in 2008, I took the chance and applied for teaching jobs in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, which are located in the South Pacific. My first application did not yield the response I was hoping for. We were disappointed, but still believed in our dream; if not this year, we’ll try again next year!
The year 2009 came and I finally received a favorable reply from French Polynesia and New Caledonia—at the same time. Since the answer from French Polynesia came first, we declined the Caledonian proposition.
We absolutely have no regrets for choosing French Polynesia.
On the July 23, 2009, we took our flight to French Polynesia, excited about the opportunity to live and work there for four years, as what was stated on our contract. Of course, it wasn’t easy to tell all our friends and family that we were moving to the other side of the world, knowing perfectly that we wouldn’t see them for a long time. Leaving everyone you knew and liked, and moving to an unknown place isn’t as easy as that. But we wanted it, and kind of needed it, too, I think.
As it was still summer, we felt – of course – like tourists when we arrived in Papeete, on Tahiti Island. Even if it was winter there (seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere) it was like a beautiful summer for us with a temperature of almost 30 C°. But in my opinion, Papeete isn’t so nice, and the traffic is horrible. If you’re dreaming of paradise, this city will only disappoint you.
We didn’t intend to stay on Tahiti Island, because the school where I was going to work was on Raiatea Island, about 200 kilometers northwest of Tahiti. I’d never heard of this island before, as Tahiti and Bora Bora are the only known islands to most. Raiatea is just in between these two, and now that I’ve lived there, I consider it as one of the most beautiful ones.
The first day
I still remember the day we arrived on Raiatea Island. It was a Friday, around four o’clock in the afternoon, and the little city of Uturoa—the only city on the island—was totally empty. The sky turned grey and it started to rain. That was not how I envisioned French Polynesia to be, and I had a few moments of anxiety over our decision. What if it doesn’t go well? What if life here isn’t as beautiful as we thought? What if we can’t sustain our life on a small island in the middle of the ocean, far away from Europe? There were many what ifs.
I think it was a normal reaction. You can’t begin something new without a bit of anxiety and the thought that you made a mistake. Thankfully, the anxiety didn’t last.
We soon had an appointment with a real estate agency. The house we saw gave the assurance that we could live well there. We saw several different beautiful houses, with tropical gardens, a great terrace and access to the sea, at very affordable prices. The same kind of houses in Europe would be 10 times more expensive.
What’s a lomographer to do?
As a lomographer, one of my first concerns was to find out if I could have my films processed on the island. I couldn’t imagine slowing down my photographic activity in such a beautiful place.
Luckily, I found out very quickly that there was a photo lab in Uturoa. It actually wasn’t so difficult since the so-called city had only two streets, a few shops, and three general stores. Hallelujah! I went inside and asked if they processed films, and they did! However, they only offered C41 processing. As they sent the films to Tahiti for C41 processing in the only Polynesian lab that processes analog film, there was no chance to find it elsewhere in French Polynesia.
The lack of E6 processing wasn’t such a big deal, as I already cross-process almost all my slide films. However, the lack of black and white processing was a bit difficult to accept. I already had several rolls of black and white film ready for processing, and the only solution was to send them abroad. I found a lab in Hawaii that would do it for a good price, but the shipping costs were really high, and it would take almost a month to get them processed and shipped back to me.
So, I made the decision to begin home processing my black and white film and it was one of the best decisions I made! Finally, I had no problems at all with having my film rolls developed. The people in the photo lab in Uturoa were very happy to see me each time I came in, as they knew that I always had a lot of rolls to process!
I had taken with me only part of my camera collection—most of my lomographic plastic cameras— but left my most prestigious, old cameras in France. I knew that the heat and humidity in Polynesia could affect them and didn’t want that. But, I couldn’t imagine being there without my precious Lomo LC-A+, Horizon Kompakt, Lubitel+, Holga, and Diana F+. I also couldn’t stop buying a few new cameras, and came back with more cameras than when I left. A Spinner 360, Sprocket Rocket, Belair, Horizon Perfekt, LC-Wide, and a Nikonos underwater camera, amongst others, were added to my collection during my four-year stay in French Polynesia. I must say that I used them all very often!
My photographic activity in Polynesia was really important. I had time to shoot in some of the most beautiful and stunning locations and landscapes I could ever see. I think I must have shot around 8,000 to 10,000 pictures in four years. But I couldn’t help it, I was always amazed by the beauty of the place, the people, and of course, all the other trips I made in the South Pacific during these years.
At the beginning, I was amazed by everything; everything I saw was new and fascinating. After a few months, once I had really known the island, a different perspective came: I thought that the beautiful landscapes only allowed me to take “postcard photos;” I felt that I couldn’t shoot only postcard-perfect photos in four years. I was afraid that I’d get bored of the scenery and lost a bit of my inspiration.
Discovering the essence of beauty
I finally understood something very important: the essence of beauty, in the Polynesian sense. That may sound a bit cryptic but it’s something I learned as part of understanding Polynesian culture and its people.
By talking to locals, I began to discover the main aspects of Polynesian culture. I wondered why (as every European/Westerner would) the people seemed to have absolutely no stress or anxiety over anything. To them, life is peaceful and quiet; life is in harmony with nature, and all the tensions, fears, or problems that exist (and there are, of course, problems and tensions in Polynesian society) are resolved by a very simple “philosophy” related to the beauty of nature.
People told me that when a problem arises or something goes wrong, there’s no need to worry, get stressed, or be anxious. Just sit down by the lagoon, look at the sunset, face the sea, and meditate with what nature offers you. The little problems you have are nothing compared to what life and nature offers.
So, the beauty of nature isn’t just an aesthetic. You don’t need to have an intellectual analysis of what beauty is, or what makes something beautiful. For the Polynesian people, the external beauty of something is the same as the beauty within; there’s nothing in between and there’s nothing else to think about. You just have to see it, to feel it within your heart. Everything else doesn’t matter.
The Polynesian people tend to laugh a little about Europeans because Europeans always want to discuss matters, as if there should always be an intellectual interpretation of things. Polynesians don’t think this is necessary; for them, you don’t need to talk about or analyze anything if you can feel it.
After that, I realized that there’s no need for me to question what I shoot, or why. I didn’t need to think whether my pictures look like postcards or not, whether they express something relevant or otherwise. I just captured the beauty of what I saw.
Seeing life in a different way, without a doubt, was the greatest lesson I learned from my stay. There’s no need to act as if you could understand and analyze everything. Life can be simple if you want it to be simple. Don’t create your own problems and stop complaining about what you’re doing. Most importantly, you’re the only one who should decide on the kind of life you want to live.
A full and open heart
What I loved the most about my stay in French Polynesia were the things I learned from other people on human relations. Polynesians are real and honest people; they have a full and open heart. They can give you everything if they trust you and feel that you’re honest and sincere as well. On the contrary, if they feel that you don’t have a “good heart,” they will totally ignore you.
I saw it well in my job as a teacher. In the first couple of months, I was observed by other people, including my students. They all knew who I was (“the new History teacher”) even if I had only begun to get to know them.
At first, it was a bit strange; they were always very polite, but kind of distant towards me and Kathi. After some time, we eventually felt accepted, as we were fully committed to opening ourselves to them. We showed these people that we totally accepted their living norms and traditions. Things got even better after that.
By the end of my fourth year, everyone knew that we would be leaving soon, and a lot of people were concerned, saying that we shouldn’t leave.
A fantastic and heartfelt goodbye
My students told me every day, “you don’t have the right to leave, you can’t leave us alone” and conducted a remarkable albeit dramatic farewell ceremony. They all went together and sang me a song in Tahitian, a song that when translated, said that I was the teacher they’ve been waiting for and that they’ll never forget me.
After that, every student offered me a shell necklace in line with tradition. When someone arrives, you offer him a flower necklace; when he leaves you give him a shell necklace, as the shells will last forever. It was very emotional and of course, everyone was teary-eyed. It was moving and beautiful. When I look at all the necklaces nowadays, I still get a bit emotional.
I can say now that I miss the simple and beautiful life I had on Raiatea. Who wouldn’t? Seeing a beautiful sunrise early in the morning, happily going to work and seeing my students, enjoying an afternoon swim or a diving in the lagoon, admiring the sunset, spending a weekend on another island, and sharing wonderful moments with friends are some of the things that I truly miss. Finding happiness was very simple in that beautiful part of the world.
Visiting the French Polynesian islands is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I would encourage anyone with the opportunity to experience it for himself. The Society Islands, with Raiatea, Huahine, Taha’a, Moorea, or Maupiti, are extraordinary places to visit. The Marquesas Islands are also an exceptional destination, as well as the atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago. Don’t miss the opportunity to tour these lovely destinations if you get the chance.