It was at the end of a sunny afternoon that I stopped by September Surf Cafe to chat with Alexandra Côté-Durrer, a talented photographer that got my attention through Instagram.
It is easy to find people that have an endless passion for the surf lifestyle and everything it evokes, but when I find someone as driven and inspired here, in Quebec, I get inspired too. We’re all aware that the surf culture in Montreal is suddenly becoming a “thing”, a growing spirit that constantly grow in the citizen’s mind, and there’s nothing to do about it except to go along the ride. Quickly jumping into a conversation that seems infinite with Alexandra, I go get my iced coffee before I forget about it and then, we’re back at it again.
From a background in fashion photography, Alexandra is one of the few that stands out in the city because of her huge impact on the surf culture. We would think that anyone with an interest in fashion would not necessarily think about photographing the wilderness that surrounds us and surfers that constantly walk around, but it is with surprise that we discover a 21-year-old girl grounded to Earth, pursuing her passion without limits and breaking any walls facing her. Our conversation got me hooked even more about the future of surfing in Montreal, but especially, motivated for what’s next. Alexandra may be young, but she definitely knows where she’s going, and she has the talent to do so!
Here’s a glimpse of our conversation, just to get you as inspired as me.
I’ve been reading a bit about you around the internet and I was wondering, when did you start taking photos?
It all started when my dad bought me a camera, when I was 16 years old. I’ve always been an artist. My dad bought me the camera when we went to our chalet one summer, and I started taking heaps of pictures. I then fell in love. At first, I wanted to go into theatre, but I wasn’t quite sure. I went to CEGEP in the Theatre Department, I did my first semester to realize that I was weird, but not as intense as this. It wasn’t me at all! I had just moved to Montreal and was quite undecided.
Oh, you aren’t from Montreal? Where are you from?
I am originally from Ontario. I wasn't ready for University, so I decided to move to Quebec visit my mom and enroll in CEGEP. I did the first semester, then only the basic classes, but I was failing everything because of the language barrier. At the same time, I met my boyfriend while snowboarding, so one day I called him and told him to pick me up. I was in my philosophy class and decided to just leave. I didn’t even empty my locker [laughs]!
I knew at that point that I wanted to do photography, so I started studying at College Marsan, which is a photography school. I went there, and every day since I thank my mentor, Michel Proulx, as he is the one that pushed me and inspired me to continue along that path.
From theatre to photography, definitely two different worlds [laughs]. Is this where you learned all your knowledges or you knew some stuff already about photography?
I taught myself some things through books and by practicing, but I felt like I had to be more technical and I needed to know how to work in studios as well. During 14 months, I was getting the minimum grade I needed in my tests and homework because all I wanted was to work on my portfolio.
You used to be focused on fashion photography before, which is surprising as you are now into nature/surfing photography. What happened?
Fashion was such a stressful universe that got me into a huge depression. I was working, building my portfolios and I had contracts, but everything just got really stressful. I respect people that work in this environment, but for me, it was too much, especially that I had anxiety problems and it was getting my health worst. I’ve quitted photography for a while as I needed to remember why I was doing it in the first place - because I was passionate about it. I always liked to go hiking, be in the nature and the ocean always touched me. I thought of being a marine biologist before, but it wasn’t something possible with my school grades!
What made you realize your love of the ocean, then?
My dad is an airplane pilot and my mom is a flight attendant, so I travelled a lot and the ocean always captivated me. The surfing industry in general did, but I never had the chance to surf at that time. That’s when I told myself, “alright, I need to go on a surf trip”! I left 10 days with a few of my friends with Voyage Grand V. The first day we went into the sea with a surfboard, I cried. I realized how much I needed this in my life, that this is what inspires me. I still do lifestyle photography, but I would love to become a surf/fashion photographer for a brand like Billabong, it is not stressful and allow you to capture the true side of people in their own universe.
Have you ever thought of moving somewhere else to accomplish this goal? I mean, the surf culture in Quebec is good for you to stand out as it is quite small still, but you could have more opportunities somewhere else maybe.
[Laughs] It is in my plans! I am thinking of moving to Tofino in a couple of years, I am working on this project at the moment. My boyfriend is at school so we need to wait until he’s done with it. I am only trying to contact people right now, so I can stay in Montreal most of the year, then go travelling in a new country to work with other artists. Hopefully they could host me and work with me while I pay for all the rest.
We never know, the generosity of people nowadays is really surprising!
Yes, and I am not ready to leave Montreal. As we said, the industry here is just starting. There are a lot of people, like Mitch from Shaper Studios, that inspires me a lot. I am not done learning from people like him. It is like a small family, seriously! For someone that moved a lot in her life, it means a lot.
You are not only shooting surfing, but also yoga, isn’t?
I do a lot of branding, it is more commercial work for people that are starting their business. I’ve just shot a yoga brands from Montreal, Kallula Apparel, in the same style than Lululemon. I really like the vibes with yoga brands, even though I know I need to focus myself more on nature photos as it is my main direction. The best would be to become like Chris Burkard, he is my idol and to become one of his prodigy with my own style would be perfect.
Do you have any other inspiration except Burkard? He is a legend, but there are so many people around that are also interesting in their own style.
So many! Ashley Barker is one of them, I met her in Whistler a few years back and I even went to see her, just to say how much I liked her [laughs]! She’s one of my favourite artists, she inspired me to go into the surf/snowboarding industry. My Instagram account is full of inspiring people. I believe that inspiring myself from other photographers will help me evolve. We should not think that it is competition, we are all artists and all different in our own way. It happens sometimes to look at someone’s photographs and think “shit, they’re way better than me”, but it is totally normal. It is normal to criticize ourselves, we’re all human, but we need to remember that sometimes the person has way more experience, or has a whole different style.
So now, you’re 100% freelance photographer? Was it a scary step to take?
I’ve dropped my job about four months ago. I was working at Lululemon, but I didn’t have any time to work on my photography. My boyfriend inspired me to leave as he told me I was working too much right now and if I don’t do it now, I will never do it. I told him I was scared money wise, we live in an expensive country and I need to pay the rent, you know! He told me everything was alright and that I should quit. So I did.
That must have been a relief for sure! Sometimes you just gotta jump into it, even if it is scary.
If you know in your heart that you want to quit, you just need to do it. It is really scary and the day I asked for my resignation, I was really nervous, but I felt so much better afterwards and knew I was on the right track. When you actually leave the job that was holding you back, you’re fully committed to what you want to do, to what you’re passionate about. You are going to work ten times as hard to make a living out of it, but it is going to come. I was constantly thinking: would I get any contracts? I am not getting that many contracts right now, am I going to be able to do this? Well, I am.
How does it work now for you, do you get plenty of contracts?
Of course I don’t have that many, I am still struggling a bit, but I have so much support from my boyfriend, my friends, my family… They’re pushing me to go further every day. You will lose a lot of contracts as you will win a lot, you just need to respect yourself as an artist. I want to focus on contracts that I connect with. To quit Lululemon was one of the best decision, and everyone should do something similar. Fear sometimes gets in the way, but you need to forget about it, then you will be so much more happier.
The next few months for Alexandra are fulfilled of secrets and mysterious things, so the only thing I could say is to keep an eye out for her and see her take the world by storms. Our conversation never really ended, and her skills will never either. I am excited for anything future coming along for her, and you should be too, but most especially, be proud that an artist from here work hard to get what she wants! If it isn’t enough to inspire you, I don’t know what is.