I meet Filip in Upper Engadine. It’s mid-April and the region in south-eastern Switzerland is still snow-covered and surprisingly wintery for the time of year. 37-year-old Filip lives in Silvaplana. We’re sitting at his kitchen table while his daughter Ella is sat on the floor, happily playing with her building blocks. The room smells of freshly brewed coffee. It’s Friday, but there’s a lazy Sunday atmosphere. The kind of atmosphere you want to last forever. But time is ticking on.
«The helicopter’s taking off in 45 minutes. You’d better get on your way.»
Filip tells me about meeting surf icon Robby Naish for a shoot a few years ago. He says: «You’ve got to give luck a chance. Always look ahead and be ready for that special moment. Ready for luck.» For him as a photographer that means having fully charged camera batteries at all times and equipment that is in «ready to shoot» mode. I want to learn more and dig a little deeper.
How did the photo shoot with Robby Naish come about?
«There was this stand-up paddle (SUP) event in St. Moritz and Robby Naish was as a guest. He was doing a promotional tour for his inflatable SUPs. A friend of mine who was organising the event at the time was in touch with Robby Naish’s management. As you can imagine, I was begging him to organise a photo shoot for me. But the whole thing dragged on forever and was really complicated, so I was sure it was never going to happen. There were just two days left until the event and I still hadn’t heard back from my friend.»
And then the phone rang?
«Spot on. It was ten in the morning, I was in the office, my friend on the other end of the line: 'Hi Filip, Robby’s here. He wants to go stand up paddling. The helicopter’s taking off in 45 minutes'. I broke into a sweat. But hey, «always ready to shoot» is my motto, right? I grabbed my equipment and headed out of the door. That was such a cool day. Something I’ll never forget.»
A smile creeps across his face. And so it happened that surf legend Robby Naish from Hawaii went stand up paddling on a mountain lake in Upper Engadine.
Filip Zuan studied graphic design in Barcelona. He calls Catalonia’s capital his home for six years. Barcelona was and is a hotspot for skateboarders – just another reason for Filip to move to Spain in 2003. And it’s in Barcelona that he discovers photography, or was it the other way round? He studies, skates and documents his skating on camera. After completing his three-year course, he works and plays in Barcelona until 2009. During this time, the Barcelona-based man from the Swiss Alps earns his daily bread as a graphic designer for a Spanish snowboard magazine.
«As a photographer, the Engadine is paradise. The landscape and light are unique.»
Today, Filip lives and works back in his hometown Silvaplana, together with his wife and daughter. As a sports photographer, the region of St. Moritz provides the perfect working environment both summer and winter. In recent years, Engadine has also become a mekka for mountain bikers and is riddled with trails. One of them is the legendary route 673 from Pontresina to Poschiavo, also known as the «Bernina Express». Some bikers claim it’s the most beautiful trail in the world.
Filip is smack-bang in the middle of the action and recently launched a magazine. «Currently Bike Movement» covers the scene on roughly 100 pages. The second edition has just come out. We’re sipping away at our second cup of coffee and Ella’s still deep in play with her blocks.
What role do your Engadine roots play?
«The Engadine is my home. It’s where I belong.»
How does this show in your photos?
«I plan my shoots very carefully. I know this place inside out, which makes planning a lot easier. And I think it shows in my work. Shooting in an unfamiliar place also has its appeal but comes with a lot of unpredictable elements.»
What do you mean?
«In the studio, you can stage a photo from A to Z – something you can only do to a certain extent when you’re outdoors. Many things remain a matter of chance. Careful planning, my experience and an intuition for the weather, the light etc. are extremely helpful. I don’t have any of that when I’m in an unfamiliar environment. An element that could make me miss that magic moment.»
Filip describes himself as lucky. But he emphasises that you have to be ready to roll out the red carpet for luck. His philosophy: Meticulous preparation to enable luck. According to Filip, you need experience, spontaneity and a reliable gut instinct as things can happen really quickly.
Can you give me an example?
«For my bike magazine, I did a story about the Kesch cabin – a mountain cabin tucked away in a side valley of the Upper Engadine. Organising the shoot turned out to be very tricky. It took me practically the entire summer of 2016 to find a date that worked for me and all riders involved. There were dates I couldn’t make, others one of the riders couldn’t and sometimes we found a date but the weather forecast didn’t play along. In other words, at some stage I was forced to pick a date and stick to it. The weather forecast was terrible and it rained the entire morning.
What was the atmosphere like?
«Like the weather (he laughs). But all of a sudden, it turned and we were able to shoot for the rest of the day. By the time we arrived at the Kesch cabin in the evening, the sky was cloudy again. We were all exhausted and enjoying a nice cup of tea indoors when I looked outside and knew what was going to happen next. There was no time to waste. I told everyone to get back outside and on their bikes immediately. That move definitely did not make me mister popular. But once we were outside, the sun broke through the clouds for a few minutes and our cover photo was born. I’d still be angry at myself today if I’d missed that moment.»
Fortunately, he didn’t miss it. I ask Filip Zuan about his attitude towards post editing his material and want to know how much Photoshop is in his photos. He tells me he’s a puritan and only adjusts the colours and contrast. This is because he started out with analogue photography and aims to capture everything «in-camera». Plus, he says he’s not a big fan of post manipulation and touch-ups.
«Bike shoots are extremely demanding.»
For bike shoots, Filip Zuan only takes very little equipment. A body, three lenses: 24/70, telephoto lens, wide angle, that’s it. After all, he’s also biking the routes and has to carry all those extra kilos on his back. Then there’s a lot of concentrating, the constant search for the perfect light and perfect angle. Those kind of shoots leave him happy but also totally exhausted, he says.
Towards the end of the interview, I ask him which equipment he thinks is best. Nikon, Canon, Sony or a different brand? Filip Zuan rolls his eyes and says:
«I couldn’t care less about this whole discussion regarding equipment. I really don’t want to be part of it as I find it totally unnecessary. What I’m interested in are the photos.»
I couldn’t agree more.
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