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Interview: San Francisco Big Wave Photographer Sachi Cunningham

Sachi Cunningham by Elizabeth Pepin Silva
Sachi Cunningham by Elizabeth Pepin Silva

Most people fear the unknown. Big wave photographer Sachi Cunningham runs directly towards it. The San Francisco-based filmmaker, multimedia journalist, mother and professor, has built an award-winning career exploring topics as diverse as the ocean environment and international conflict for Frontline, LA Times, PBS and more.

It was in recent years, however, that she revisited her most fervent passion—water photography. Inspired by friends like Bianca Valenti and other hard charging female surfers, she began going out in the big waves of her backyard—the gnarly waters of Ocean Beach. Equipped with fins, her camera, incredible stamina and plenty of determination, Cunningham has made it her mission to capture what it looks like to push the ocean’s limits.

Additional photos here.

When someone asks what you do, how do you distill your varied path in one answer?
The best I’ve been able to do is distill it to three words that I use on my IG: filmmaker, educator, water bug.

When/where was the first wave you ever caught?
On an inflatable raft in Capistrano Beach, CA when I was four or five years old. But I really learned to surf at Ocean Beach, which is almost laughable to anyone who knows this break (I suck as a surfer as a result) but what it did give me was a lot of water time getting to know what is known as a very challenging spot. But for me, it’s mostly all I know, so I’m comfortable in it. That familiarity and comfort has given me confidence to go out in even bigger surf. It’s amazing how well Ocean Beach prepares you for any break in the world. I recently shot from the water at Sunset beach in Oahu for the first time. I felt so comfortable out there, even though there were “no swimming” signs lining the beach, as it was so similar to the size and shiftiness of the breaks at Ocean Beach.

You’ve spent decades in the water, but it wasn’t until recently that you began seriously photographing big wave surfing. Why now?
I’ve had a burning desire to do this since I was 23 years old and living in Japan and bought my first camera and water housing. It’s taken me 20 years to figure out how to do this financially (i.e. by not depending on the water photos to pay the bills).

I’ve always been fascinated with big waves, so it was a natural progression for me to want to swim in them. Big wave surfers tend to be older, as the additional years of water experience is helpful. I know the same is true for me and my water photography. The 17 years that I spent as a competitive swimmer growing up certainly gave me the confidence that I began shooting water photography with, but now, with the additional 20 years of ocean time, I am able to shoot at challenging spots like Ocean Beach from an entirely different perspective. Being out in big surf is a lot about a shift in perspective. What once looked terrifying to me now looks normal.

I think seeing guys my age like Shane Dorian and Kelly Slater still at the top of their game also gave me no reason to use age as an excuse. If anything I have a greater sense of urgency to do this than ever before because I am very aware that life is short and that I won’t always have the same physical abilities that I do now.

Jan 17 Kelly Pe'ahi ski

Lots of people photograph surfing, but you seem specifically drawn to big, powerful waves. Why?
One reason is because there are less people there. I can’t imagine having to fight through dozens of others in the lineup shooting the exact same wave. I like (usually) being the only one out there and knowing that I’m capturing a rare and unique perspective.

The other reason is that I feel the most challenged and alive in big surf. It feels like what I was put on this planet to do when I’m out there. There’s nothing like having that amount of energy flow through you. My life has thrown many challenges my way and the mental survival skills that I have developed serve me well in situations like shooting in big surf and working in war zones.

Some people run from the unknown, I seek it out. I’m at my best in the most chaotic, challenging situations, so I am drawn to those environments in which I can thrive and grow. I’m not a good enough surfer to surf in the really big stuff, but I’ve always been drawn to it, so the truth is that shooting is my ticket to access big waves. I’m much more comfortable in big surf with my camera than with a board.

You’ve described big wave surfing as being “equalizing,” can you talk abut this?
This was in reference to watching women surf big waves, once believed to only be the realm of men. Once Sarah Gerhardt surfed Mavericks it was the equivalent of having a woman run for president (hmm … wonder if that will ever happen some day?). You can do the job or you can’t.

Sarah and others after her have proven that gender does not have to prevent you from doing certain jobs or playing in arenas once believed the playground exclusively for men because of their physicality. Women in combat are tackling a similar frontier.

Even if you’re physically prepared to go out when its gnarly at OB or elsewhere, the mind can be a hinderance. How do you talk to yourself through intimidation?
I almost always have a moment when I want to cry and turn around back to the safety of the shore. But then I walk through in my mind how that would actually make me feel, which would be disappointed in myself, and left with this unrequited burning desire in my belly to be taking advantage of, and being out in, the power in the ocean that day. And then I remember practical things, like I only have an hour of child care before I have to get out, or that this is the best the surf has been in a month and I don’t know how long I can keep doing this, and I just keep moving forward with the knowledge that I’ve been here before, and I always have to pass through this stage of fear.

I know how great the rewards are of forging ahead, so that also keeps me going. If I see someone in the lineup before I swim out this also gives me confidence knowing that I’m not alone. If they made it out there I know I can too.

What advice have you gotten from any the incredible water women you know that has resonated?
I learned two valuable lessons on a recent trip that I took to Maui to develop a new doc series called “Unwavering” about the hardest charging female big wave surfers on the planet. The first is that I need to take a page from the big wave surfer’s notebook and learn how to better manage my “amping” when I’m around big surf.

The moon and tides really affect me physically, so I naturally get excited when I’m around big surf. Swimming in the surf is the best way to manage this energy, but I’m often shooting from a ski in the biggest of waves. It’s just not practical to shoot from the water if “getting the shot” is essential, but it’s not nearly as physically demanding to shoot from a ski. As a result, I have a lot of pent up energy before, during and after the swell has come through if I shoot from a ski. My friend, big wave surfer Bianca Valenti checked me on this, because she knows how much energy is wasted by “amping.”

Most big wave surfers are like Zen Buddahs. They are able to harness their energy and apply it when needed. They can’t afford to waste that energy. If I’m going to continue to swim in these big waves I can’t either, whether I’m on a ski or in the water so I need to keep my energy more balanced and focused. I could certainly apply this lesson to all aspects of my life.

The other thing that really moved me was when we interviewed Andrea Möller, the first woman to paddle into a wave at Pe’ahi and the most decorated water woman in the world. She was talking about the sacrifices that her family has made because of her pursuit of big waves, namely the time spent away from her 13-year-old daughter. We all started to tear up (my partner on the “Unwavering” project, Beth O’Rourke is also a surfer and mother of a 13-year-old) when Andrea told us that she’s found peace in knowing that she is being an example to her daughter by staying true to her passions and being the best athlete that she can be. She’s showing her daughter and other girls and boys around the world that you can pursue your passions and pursue excellence even if you’re a woman and mom. I recently read the book “It’s What I Do” by war photographer and mom Linsey Addario, which has a similar message.

This passion of ours is far from normal, but all of us couldn’t imagine doing anything but. We have unique skills and a rare opportunity to pursue them. It’s not easy for our family and friends to always understand this, but the more women are able to pursue their passions without the guilt and pressures of gendered traditions, the better the world will be, right? We’re only beginning to see the results of women doing this in the workforce. Society needs to understand that it’s normal for women and moms to work and be the best at what they do and everyone will ultimately benefit.

Is there any way to verbalize how to read the ocean, in order to feel at peace or comfortable in it?
I think it really just takes time. Time helps you understand how waves break and how to navigate under, over and through them. The more experience you have, the more at ease you are in them.

OB Wave

Many talk about Ocean Beach as being its own beast. What makes it so different to surf there?
There’s nothing breaking the energy of the Pacific at Ocean Beach. So when a swell is carrying the energy of a storm that started in Japan and grows as it travels across the ocean through Hawaii and then to California, there’s a lot of raw power hitting the shore. Puerto Escondido on mainland Mexico is the same. The power forms sand bars that form waves, but these waves are usually bigger than other locations in California, where islands, reefs and the contour of the coast is breaking that energy.

Because it’s a beach break rather than a point or reef break, those sand bars are always changing and there are multiple waves that never break in the same place twice. At a place like Pipeline on the North Shore of Hawaii, you have an equally scary if not more powerful wave, but you can bank on it breaking in approximately the same place each time. As a result, as a water photographer you can safely sit in the “channel” where the water is relatively calm. There are no fixed channels at Ocean Beach, so you can never relax or let your guard down because a beast of a wave can jump in front of you at any time.

The currents at Ocean Beach are also really strong. Those currents make it very difficult to position yourself in a good spot to shoot a surfer on a wave. At worst, those tides can carry you out to sea. I’ve never been at a spot that is so hard to get back to shore on certain tides. I think the cold adds an element of beastliness for most people too. Hawaiians always trip out at how black it is under water. In Hawaii you can see where the reef is, and you can hang out in a little crevice as you watch the wave detonate over you and pass. At Ocean Beach, it’s pitch black and you just follow your instincts and the yellow/brown glows of turbulence to figure out where the surface is.

Can you elaborate on why you say you would “suck as a surfer” after learning at Ocean Beach?
Surfing at OB is often simply about survival. Anyone who surfs OB regularly will win any duck diving and/or paddle competition in the world. But the waves are relatively short, and big and hard to catch, so, once you finally get good enough to catch them and not fall down, the length that you have to ride them on the face is very short compared to a long point break. So the actual time that I have on a board is very little. I’m sure I surfed more in 10 days in the Mentawais than I did all year at OB in terms of actual face time on the wave. That said, because of the treacherous conditions, almost every other wave in the world seems tame and manageable.

For the uninitiated, can you give us a brief overview of what the debate this year was with women competing at Mavericks?
In a nutshell, the Coastal Commission recently voted to add a condition to the contest permit that requires the event organizers to consider the inclusion of women in the contest. The idea is to find a way for women to have equal access to the coast and wave. Currently the permit allows for only one contest per year, and that contest currently has an all male list of competitors. Savannah Shaughnessy was recently invited as an alternate, but the women are pushing for a separate heat or separate event as no other discipline in competitive surfing has men and women competing against each other.

How has the surf community reacted to this - do people agree it’s time or has there been pushback, and if so, why?
You’ll have to watch “Unwavering” to find out! I think there are people on both sides of the issue with interesting perspectives. The inequality of professional opportunities for men vs. women in the sport has been something that has been brewing for a while, but the Coastal Commission ruling was a surprise. It put a timeline to the issue and presented the issue to a wider audience. It brought larger themes of equality, equal rights and equal access to the conversation, which a more mainstream audience can relate to and get behind.

Can you talk about “Unwavering,” and the incredible women you will introduce viewers to?
“Unwavering” is a documentary series profiling the hardest charging female big wave surfers on the planet. We are starting with four that we believe have already proven themselves competitively and that we think have the physical and mental ability to take the sport to the next level a year from now, when there will likely be new opportunities for women on the competitive big wave circuit. The series will plop viewers down into the biggest swells of the season and into the depths of the complex minds and lives of these extraordinary humans. The women are Keala Kennely, Paige Alms, Andrea Möller and Bianca Valenti, all women whose drive and life stories we believe will be an inspiration to unwavering women world wide.

We think their stories can transcend surfing and gender and have the ability to move and entertain all. We hope unwavering women like Savannah Shaughnessy, Sarah Gerhardt, Emi Erickson, Wrenna Delgado, Jamillah Star and Silvia Nabuco to name a few will appear in the series as well. A rising tide lifts all boats as they say. We hope that these stories will elevate the relatively young sport of big wave surfing as a whole. ( | IG/Twitter: @unwaveringstory)

Do you hope we’ll get to a point in surfing—and filmmaking for that matter—where equality won’t have to be part of the conversation?
Sure that would be great! But I don’t want to loose the importance of perspective. Each of us will always have a unique perspective to lend to any story. The real tragedy for surfing and storytelling it that they have both suffered because of the narrow focus of who is being paid to do it and as a result, what stories get out to the world.

You’ve encountered both ISIS, and massive waves first hand—which is more intimidating?
To be clear, I’ve never encountered anyone from ISIS to my knowledge. I worked as a second camera operator on a Frontline that was about “The Rise of ISIS” and filmed in Iraq for a few weeks, but we were mostly talking to important people in suits in guarded buildings. I think what is similar is that both locations provide for unique and rare perspectives and voices that are often not heard. I also think there is a fear associated with the unknown for most people in both locations. Could a car bomb detonate at any time in Iraq? Sure. Could I find myself on a spot in the wave that would result in me drowning? Sure. But I have enough experience to know that there’s no sense in worrying about those things, and I don’t let those things distract me from the work at hand. As I mentioned in an earlier question, the unknown equals fear in many people and paralyzes them. For me, I thrive running towards the unknown. I suppose the water is more intimidating in some ways because I have first hand experience regarding the potential dangers. I fortunately don’t have that experience from war zones, Inshallah.

Through your work, you’ve told the stories of countless highly “successful” people—whether they be artists, surfers, leaders of oppressive regimes, etc. Have you found shared characteristics that run throughout these extraordinary people?
I think the common thing is that all of these people have been unsuccessful and complete failures at some point before achieving their dreams. To push through that and rise above it and transcend what you and others previously thought possible takes a certain type of drive and mind set that I find inspiring.

It was interesting/encouraging to read the captions to your OB photo essay last year on The Inertia. For every woman who was a mother, you noted that. Why was and is it important for you to call this out?
I like to mention it because it’s a source of pride for me personally, and as I touched on earlier, I think it’s important for people to understand that moms work and surf big waves and that’s perfectly normal and acceptable.

I try to point out those details for men as well as women when I think it’s relative to the story. Balancing work with family is something that our generation is increasingly doing regardless of gender. What I definitely don’t point out enough is how much my husband, Zach Slobig, does to enable me to pursue my passions and be a mom. Every time I mention a mom that is doing something that was once the world of men, it usually means that someone—in my case my partner—is picking up the slack. I’m not a super mom who does it all. I have a partner that is keeping our home and family together when I am not.

What have you found helpful for maintaining a work / life balance where you’re able to focus on both your family and your career ambitions?
You don’t fly to Iraq or plop yourself in the middle of the ocean away from your family and try to create a work/life balance. The job requires 100% plus of your attention most of the time. So for me balance comes from time that I try to carve out when I can apply equal focus to my family. I also have tried to manage my expectations. Having a child has actually made this relatively easy. I’m as ambitious as ever, but if my daughter needs me, there’s no question I’ll try to be there. It hasn’t made me frustrated or angry or resentful, because the joy she brings me is worth any sacrifice. Is that joy the same as how I feel after a good day in the ocean? You can’t really compare the two, and this is not to say that I won’t miss a piano recital for a big swell or something like that. Everything is on a case by case basis, weighing the costs and benefits to my family and career. Sometimes one or the other will suffer, but I think if I’m clear on my overall goals: to have a happy family life and successful career, that the bumps along the way will become irrelevant.

In one word, can you describe the following of how you feel on a big day at OB or Mavericks:
1. Before / the anticipation of going out: Amped
2. During / while out in the water: Focused
3. After / how you feel once back on land: Exhilarated