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|| News Item: Posted 2009-07-27

Sports Shooter Destination: Bali Hai: Traveling To Tahiti
By David Honl

Photo by David Honl

Photo by David Honl
I made a super-lightweight trip to Tahiti this past weekend, so light in fact, that for once in my life airport security questioned why I had so little luggage. A couple pairs of shorts, t-shirts, toothbrush, a D700, D90, 2 speedlights, a light stand, a Bogen Justin Clamp, a grid, a gobo, some gels, a video camera, and a laptop. I set out to shoot traditional Tahitian dancers, by sort of re-tracing my steps from my first trip to Tahiti some 10 years ago. Back then I was using the newfangled Nikon Coolpix 950 at a whopping 2.1 megapixels and a shutter lag comparable to a dying turtle. Ten years have changed a lot for photography, as well as the islands.

Tahiti is an 8 hour flight flight from Los Angeles, just shy of New Zealand. Tahiti itself is actually the largest island in French Polynesia, with Moorea, Bora Bora, and Raiatea some of the most popular tourist destinations in the group. Made famous in the 1700's for expeditions by Fletcher Christian and Captain Cook, the islands have also been the setting for numerous film versions of Mutiny On The Bounty.

When Marlon Brando filmed the 1962 version, he loved the islands and people so much, he bought the small island group of Tetiaroa, and took a Tahitian wife. French painter Paul Gauguin's paintings are synonymous with Tahitian life and he made Tahiti his home until his death in 1903. Is it any wonder? The shades of ocean blue, the green, the sky, the sunsets all make for stunning paintings and photographs. Not to mention fish practically jumping into your boat, the smiles and warmth of the locals, and an absolutely perfect climate. Heck, just the poisson cru, or Tahitian marinated fish in coconut milk is enough for me to go back.

My fondness for all things Polynesia started when I was about 5, downing cans of Tahitian Treat, a sort of carbonated Hawaiian Punch (a real craze in the early 70's). In an apparent foreshadowing my grandparents managed an apartment complex in the middle of the snow called Polynesian Village, complete with fake tikis and palm trees in the pool area, and the constant smell of saunas. A bit later in life, I was struck by an old LIFE Magazine issue from the 60's featuring 3 guys from Newport Beach, California that packed up and left for Tahiti and started what became the "Bali Hai" lifestyle- a sort of Hugh Hefner meets the South Pacific.

Last time I stayed at the original Hotel Bali Hai, and heard stories from Muk McCallum, one of those 3 remaining guys at the time. The hotel had such a great character to it, and Muk, like clockwork, would meet each and every guest for breakfast, then end the night with happy hour with all the same guests. That LIFE issue was December 1962, and was photographed by famed photographer Carl Mydans.

Photo by David Honl

Photo by David Honl
Muk told me that Mydans stopped by for 2 days and ended up staying 3 weeks, with the pictorial ending up as the cover story. What a treat to get the back-story on a pictorial that influenced me so early on in my life. I stopped by the Hotel Bali Hai on this trip --- it's since been sold, bulldozed, and re-purposed into the Moorea Pearl Resort and Spa. No recognizable part of the old hotel and grounds left, and not even a placard commemorating what the Bali Hai Boys had started on that spot back in the day. What a wakeup call to document every bit of history we experience, and thank goodness for LIFE Magazine in the '60s!

One thing that remains a constant on Moorea is the Tiki Village, a place of old-style huts filled with local craftsman, and a theater that gives nighttime fire and dance shows. Since I needed a Tahitian model for some portraits I figured this would be the best place to look so I paid a visit to owner Olivier Briac. Not only did he help with a model, he offered up his village for a photo shoot with one of his dancers, on a Sunday no less, when most of the island shuts down.

When I arrived the next day, a very kind man named Jean-Michel greeted me and helped me immensely with translating to French with my Tahitian model Kahea. Turns out Jean-Michel is my age, and we have quite a lot in common so we became very quick friends. He pulled out his Leica R9 and we talked of film, travel, politics, and people. In all my travels, it never surprises me how I find the most like-minded friends in such tiny corners of the world.

The shoot was actually quite simple: For a main light, I used a Nikon SB800 Speedlight with a Speed Snoot (in the reflector position) on a compact stand. In some of the setups I used another SB-800 with a Speed Grid to lighten up the dark areas of backgrounds. The main light was triggered by a Pocket Wizard and I set the background light on "remote" so it fired as a slave. Talk about freedom of movement --- have AA batteries, will travel!

Jean-Michel, full of picture ideas, suggested we take an outrigger canoe into the water. So, knee-deep in warm water, with fish nibbling at my toes, I photographed Kahea in all natural light, paddling away. As I edit this shoot, I'll be picking several to convert to black and white, inspired by those old LIFE Magazine pictures.

And heck, I was even inspired by Jean-Michel's R9, so maybe I'll pull out a camera and roll of film this month, just for the fun of it, and do some documenting of my local history before it's bulldozed.

(David Honl is a Los Angeles based photographer and founder of the HonlPhoto Speed System. His personal website is

Related Links:
Honl's member page

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