Over the years there has always been a strong connection between Quebec and Whistler. Years ago, the migration of French Canadians started with shredders like Martin Gallant, Dan Migno, DCP, and JF Pelchat. This list of Quebec riders goes on and on, but the aforementioned shreds were definitely some of the pioneers in the movement west. Naturally, these riders needed a photographer and Phil Tifo was one of the first Quebecois photogs to move out to Whistler to document the early days. Fast forward a decade and Phil is one of the most published backcountry shooters in the game. He strictly shoots only pow, and having placed himself in Squamish, BC, it’s worked out to be the perfect fit for him. Whistler zones are a short drive away and access to interior British Columbia is not too much further. Alaska is also on Phil’s list of mandatory trips every year and time after time, he comes back with a healthy stack of mind blowing imagery. So read up, and see what it takes to get the shot in the backcountry.
– Mike Yoshida
Name: Philippe Thiffault –aka Phil Tifo
Home Mountain: Whistler, baby!
Hometown: Squamish, BC
How long ago did you move out to the Whistler area, and how have you seen it change over the years?
I did the Great French Migration 15 years ago, in 1998. Back then, filming wise, everything was happening on the resort –my first day on Blackcomb I met DCP who was filming a cat track jump, to give you an idea of where it started. Backcountry sled-shredding was at its infancy, with Treetop Films being the crew –in my mind- that pioneered the sled zones and inspired me to want to spend every winter in the mountains. I wasn’t shooting then, just working in a restaurant living the shred bum dream.
Also there were only locals who rode around the area back then; nowadays the entire film industry annually visits what has become the Hollywood of backcountry filming. Not that it’s a bad thing, there’s just more people now. But it forces you to always look for new spots, get away from the old classics and see what’s around the corner to find a fresh jump, a new line.
Who is your favorite French Canadian rider to shoot with?
That would have to be a tie between the Godfather- Martin Gallant, Gaetan Chanut and DCP. Martin tells the funniest stories on Earth and does the best methods, Chanut always does impossible looking shit while DCP just has the most all time style. But a day with all three and you’re guaranteed to get shots and laugh your ass off!
Do you ever get tempted to shoot the street stuff, or is it backcountry only for you? And why?
Well if it’s right in front of me like when we’re traveling for example, I’ll shoot it and enjoy taking a cool jib photo. But when it’s winter and there’s pow, if you give me the choice between driving around a city looking for jibs, while i’d be dressed for snowboarding but not actually going to the mountain versus, eh, sledding in pow with my homies surrounded by unreal landscapes, looking for cool features the backcountry has to offer that day.. It’s an obvious answer for me. I got in this gig to be in the mountains as much as I could… for the good times, ya know?
How did you get introduced to snowboarding, and likewise, photography?
I skied when I was little kid, but then stated to skate pretty early on. I sucked but I was a skater nonetheless. So it didn’t take long before I ditched the skis to go sideways on a snowboard. My first board was a One, with baseless bindings and 32 low-tops. Kinda like a padded converse shoe.
I always had a camera with me, my parents had bought me a Minolta before I moved out West and I was taking photos of the boys in the pipe, on the windlip, just for fun between runs. Then one day I saw an issue of Snowboarder that had an article about the making of Second Wind from Treetop Films. Photographer Curtis Kroy had the best photos at the time, with that article showing how beautiful and cool sledding in the backcountry was. I was faced with either go back to school in Montreal and finish a pointless degree or try to make it in Whistler as a photographer. I went to school for Commercial Photography in Vancouver in 2000 and been at it ever since! Thanks for the inspiration Croy!
Do you recall the first time you went out to shoot in the backcountry?
Yea we hiked behind Backcomb to hit a jump with Kris Wilson, Craig Ballentine and Jesse Fox. I got my ever first published shot from that day in Transworld of Wilson.
My first sled-shooting day was probably with Treetop shooting Dave Basterrachea, Justin Lamoureux and Scott Gaffney. I was getting stuck all day, I was so exhausted. Keep in mind that the sleds sucked back then, you had to work hard not only to keep up to those guys but just to make it out there. I remember not sleeping the nights before I was going shooting because I was so nervous of what the mountains were going to throw at me the next day.
Which of these items has been most valuable to you as a photographer: flash kit, snowmobile, or passport?
Snowmobile followed closely by my passport. I use a flash kit once in a while. But now that I think of it, not once shooting snowboarding this entire winter.
List five things you always bring with you to shoot in the backcountry.
PPS (pieps, probe, shovel), radios, food, hot tea, my trusty NorthFace puffy and a safety kit. Plus a cell phone (on airplane mode).
Kodak or Fuji?
Fuji for slides, Kodak or Ilford for B&W
Which spot has been more pivotal to your career: (list a few notable places the photog has shot)
Whistler because it’s the center of the universe, Alaska because it’s the Mecca of big mountain riding. I love Europe.
What is the most influential trick, image, or session you recall shooting?
When I shot Martin Gallant jumping the double drop on Mt Fee in Whistler as the light was turning all orange at the end of a great day with the Gathering crew back in like 2002 maybe. It felt awesome to capture a perfect moment in snowboarding followed by hi fives and a sick sunset. The photo ended up being my first spread page in Snowboarder. So after that I was like: ok, I’m going head first and this is what I’ll be doing from now on.
What would be your dream crew to work with?
I work with them all the time! The YES crew, Absinthe, I shot a bunch with Standard.. But I’d be stoked to get in on Jeremy’s mountain missions, that shit’s really cool to me. These guys are machines though, I need to get in much better shape to keep up with those dudes!
Other than snowboard photography, what other photography gets you psyched?
I love to shoot rock climbing, kayaking and surfing when I’m too surfed out to surf or its way too big. I find rigging ropes and getting up there to shoot climbing or swimming in the water to shoot surfing is super fun.
You’ve shot with the best of the best, that being said, who are some of the new talent that you are stoked on snapping photo of these days?
Mikey Pederson is super sick, Austen Sweetin is really impressive, Helen Schettini is getting really good, Maria Debari charges down mountains. They are not that, that young but you don’t see too many 16 year olds riding pow for a living.
What is your take on the digital revolution, and how quick it is to learn how to shoot almost anything?
It does cost a lot less to experiment since you’re not spending money on film. You can take a photo with a digital camera and get the exposure right but it’s what’s in front of your lens that matters and obviously how pretty you can make your picture. But it takes a lot to get to the places we go, logistically and financially. It’s not because you bought a fancy new camera that you’ll get banger shots of the right people in the sickest locations. It takes years to get there.
I do miss shooting film, but it’s a hell of a lot easier and quicker with digital to get photos out to mags and clients worldwide when you can just copy and email as opposed to fedexing all your slides in 20 places.
Do you have an opinion on instagram or “iPhonography” in general?
It’s fun; you get to see what your friends or your superheros are up to. It definitely shortened the attention span of looking at photos. 3 to 5 seconds and scroll. It makes people feel artsy and loved, probably blew up sales of tight pants and v-necks, but it’s a good promotion tool and a great creator of F.O.M.O. since you can pretend that you’re killing it when really you’re getting skunked.
I imagine you have quite a bit of downtime in the summer months. Aside from photo editing, what keeps you busy in the off season?
My wife is from Southern California so the past few years I’ve spent a fair amount of time living near the ocean sailing and riding waves when they appear. We’ll be living full time again in Squamish starting this summer so I’ll be enjoying the company of my wife and dog, go climbing, mountain biking, shooting photos, looking at the view around me. Maybe go south to shoot snowboarding at some point.
Do you feel like photography has taken a backseat to video these days?
I think photos still have the same impact visually to “wow” someone when they first see a sick photograph. Videos are cool too but you have to sit and take time to watch it. Takes time… we’re busy, people!
If you had never picked up a camera, what would you see yourself doing?
Probably doing some kind of trade that would allow me to have as much free time as possible. I’d be splitboarding more, climbing and skate after work, that kind of stuff. Still would be good, but I would of missed out on a lot of priceless moments in my life.
What would be some good advice to any of the younger up and coming photogs out there reading this?
Shake the right hands, shoot the right people, put on a great smile. Get ready to eat your socks for dinner.