Bastien Soleil is a French born photographer and freediver, who traveled the world before he felt the ‘call of the sea’. After establishing himself successfully in the graphic design and advertising world, Bastien felt a lack in his life. He sold all of his personal belongings and with a backpack and a one-way ticket to Asia, he set out to find his purpose. While it took many challenging years of trying on dreams, Bastien found solace in teaching freediving and composing his otherworldly images.
Bastien’s work feels like a dive into his personal diary. This is a snapshot of his journey and psyche through the medium of mythology and storytelling. Through crafting the elements, he transports you into the beauty of his environs and expands the possibilities of underwater photography. As aptly quoted by Jacques Cousteau on Bastien’s website, “The sea, once it has cast its spell, holds one forever in its net of wonder.” Through his lens, we see the fluidity of reality and an experience of the Mediterranean from a whimsical perspective.
There is an inherent dose of humanity in trekking to the sea, we crave its tranquilizing
relief from the heat, the sunset palette over the horizon, the ASMR break of waves over shore, and an overwhelming sense of awe and belonging. Between inspirations such as Cousteau and ‘Le Grand Bleu’, the Mediterranean has long been a destination for deep sea exploration. The Mediterranean brings in roughly 232 million tourists a year, clambering for a spot on the rocks to swim.
While we’re all quite acquainted with the view of vast stretches of aquamarine sea, few get to experience the Mediterranean on its more profound vertical axis. For Freedivers, the depths are their playground. they are voyaging anywhere from 10 to 214m without the use of any breathing apparatus. Not only do they challenge the limits of the physical body, but the fortitude of the mind that comes from witnessing the weightless silence of Earth without land.
At Ichtus Magazine we are fascinated by his dedication to teaching skeptics they too can dive into the calm and silence of the sea, and in so doing, return to the essence of their being.
Tell us a bit about your professional path.
I was born in the middle of France, in a town called Volvic, quite famous for its mineral water. At 18, I moved to Lyon to study art, graphic design, and a general approach to arts in a business sense. After many years as a freelance graphic designer, I finished 10 years later with a large advertising company. It was a nice business, but unfortunately, I was unhappy.
So, I sold everything I own- my company, my car, my shoes, my Swiss watch and my Italian suit. Then I just bought a backpack and took a one-way ticket to Asia. I started in Thailand, where I learned how to do Thai massage.
Then I moved to Lebanon where I worked as a massage therapist, and after Hong Kong. I met a girl and fell in love, so I went with her to India where I learned Yoga. And then to Nepal where I did some retreats. Then I went to China to learn Tai Chi. These experiences were great, but they weren’t me. They were the dreams of other people, not mine.
So finally, after 5 years, traveling the world, I was still unhappy. No money, and unhappy.
How did you find your way to freediving and photography?
I was in Bangkok at this time and basically had a “call of the sea.” In fact, I went to Koh Tao to do a one-week freediving course. I was not crazy great at it or super comfortable, but I love myself in the water. For the first time ever in my life, I felt good in my mind, body and surroundings. I stayed in Koh Tao for five years where I became an instructor and fell in love with teaching.
As for photography, I was in India for the Kumbh Mela Hindu festival. What I was witnessing was so beautiful in terms of energy and images, that I felt inspired to buy a proper camera. I wanted to learn how to capture what I was seeing on my dives as well, so I started to shoot underwater.
The first lockdown arrived and with no work and nothing to do, I began to ask people to do shoots underwater to start pushing the style and the ideas further each time.
There’s something very cinematic about your images, with many references to mythology,
where do you get your inspiration from?
I don’t follow anyone doing underwater images. What I am looking at is sculpture, Italian renaissance, Caravaggio, baroque period- for me it’s very close to what you can do underwater in terms of composition because there is a freedom of space that you cannot have on the ground.
When I shot my short film Tang’o in the cenotes of Mexico, that was the first time I started to think about the image as a painter would do.
My point is I want to create art, not underwater photos. I have a strong vision of what I want to create in my head.
What you can achieve in your work is quite remarkable, how do you coordinate all the elements of water, light, props, breath hold, currents, and the model to capture the desired images?
For example, the series I did, Icarus was six days of work. You must hold all the data in your head to build the picture. Luckily, I have a logical mind- how to build things, how to organize it. For Icarus, which was one of the most challenging shoots, I had three assistants. Two people to hold the wings and the other person for safety. First day we practice it on dry land, second day in a wetsuit, and third day is action. Then you must consider the clouds moving over the sky in Mexico, the temperature, the density of the water, whether its fresh or salt water.
Diving gives one such a different perspective than what we see in our daily life. How do you find that connects you to the Earth or the Mediterranean in a unique way?
I will answer with one word: Gravity. It’s hard being a human being on earth. Dealing with the body in gravity is terrible, its pain.
The more you want to fight the elements, the more you suffer. But with diving, the best part for me is not even the free fall, but when you reach the weightless point where there is nothing to exist anymore. I don’t even feel my body underwater. For me the key to freediving is this crazy calm.
If you can harmonize your mind and your body with this feeling, that’s where silence arrives. Outside and within. In French we say La Mer, it’s like going back to the womb of the mother. “Le retour dans le ventre de la mère.” I like this idea that it’s where everything starts and it’s important to go back to this point. There could be waves on the surface, but if you go down to 10m there is complete calm. Same with the mind, if you feel the mind with all these waves and you go down to your 10m and observe what’s going on, you can find this ease.
Freediving is not only a physical sport, but there is an inherent meditative quality to it. Do you
connect to spirituality in your dives or your photography?
For me it’s a very heightened spiritual journey to teach free diving.
When you take someone who thinks they can’t do it, and in two hours they can, it’s a revelation that your mind has lied to you. The first step of the spiritual journey is to start to observe your mind. If you can start to look at your mind and see that it’s saying bullshit, maybe you can start to walk a bit freer of it.
I’m Bastien, so what, what does it mean? Right here, right now, it means nothing.
Freediving brings you to this point where you can start to observe your mind. When you start to work with your breath, relaxing your breath, and dive by holding your breath, it gives you a huge vision into your distracted mind which is thinking about what you will eat for lunch, your boyfriend, your cat, your dog, your things.
When you’re underwater, and you need to focus a lot, you start to realize those thoughts have nothing to do with what you’re living right now.
You can go around the world to find silence, but maybe you could just start to find it within, and all the world outside will start to feel peaceful.
Bastien’s favorite spots in Villefranche-sur-Mer :
- Baie de l’Espalmador. A beautiful scenic beach.
- Saint Jean Cap Ferrat. A peninsula that extends out from Villefranche-Sur-Mer. Cap Ferrat is a village that includes a port, stunning beaches, grand villas and many restaurants.
- Pointe de Crau de Nao is a great spot for swimming and diving on the peninsula.
- Wine Pier. Wine bar situated in front of water, ideal spot to grab a refreshing cocktail or crisp glass of wine after a day on the sea. In the same location, you can also stay at the Welcome Hotel. A charming and lavish hotel perfectly situated in town.
- Achill’s Bar and Restaurant. Fresh and delicious cuisine. Enjoy a cocktail on the rooftop as you take in the sunset or evening sky.
If you are inspired to expand your physical capabilities and explore the Mediterranean waters,
you can experience the wonders of freediving with Bastien and his team. You can even book an underwater photoshoot: https://www.experiencemediterranee.com