Need A Day At The Beach? Tag Along With Big Wave Photographer Sachi Cunningham

Jul 7, 2020
Originally published on July 7, 2020 7:38 pm

On an unusually sunny morning at Ocean Beach on the west side of San Francisco, photographer Sachi Cunningham is putting on her wetsuit, and getting her camera gear ready. A sign in the parking lot warns: "Danger: People have drowned. Enter at your own risk.'

Some photographers train by running with rocks on the bottom of the ocean. Cunningham has been lifting weights since she was 10 and swam competitively for 20 years.
Adriana Cargill for NPR

Huge waves, deadly rip currents and sharks have not stopped Cunningham, one of the first women shooting big waves in a male-dominated profession. I talked with her before she swam out with João De Macedo, a Portuguese big wave surfer.

"If you don't know what you're doing, it's really big and dangerous surf," Cunningham says.

"This is the entrance into the bay ... so the currents are really, really strong, " De Macedo explains.

You won't find turtles, coral or fish in Cunningham's images — she's part of a genre of ocean photography that only shoots waves and people who ride them.

To do this work, you need to be able to read the ocean: its winds, tides, waves — and you need to be strong. Taking photos where the waves break is like being in a washing machine. Your body is flipped around while you try to lift the camera and its waterproof housing — which is like a 25-pound dumbbell.

Some photographers train by running with rocks on the bottom of the ocean. Cunningham has been lifting weights since she was 10 and swam competitively for 20 years. She still works with a trainer and has taken a course that trained her to hold her breath for four minutes.

João De Macedo is a Portuguese big wave surfer.
Sachi Cunningham

She's photographed enormous waves, up to 60 feet tall in California and Hawaii. And it was in Hawaii where Cunningham shot the first-ever big wave women's surf competition in 2016.

"To see this mass of women, to see two heats of women, that were out on the biggest day, on the same day the men were out, to me, it was monumental," she says. "Just to be there, they had won before they even started."

Cunningham shot this image of Paige Alms during a free surf in Maui on Jan. 12, 2018
Sachi Cunningham

When Cunningham started photographing surfers two decades ago, there were very few women in the field. "I wanted to take photos of women because I had never seen photos of women," she says.

Surfer Andy Olive is the unoffical "mayor" of Ocean Beach.
Sachi Cunningham

Surfer Magazine executive editor Ashtyn Douglas Rosa says Cunningham has changed the narrative in big wave surf photography. Previously, there was a sense that "women didn't belong in these waves or they weren't strong enough, they weren't capable of it or they weren't ready to compete in these waves," Douglas Rosa says. But Cunningham was there documenting it.

"Can't be what you can't see," Cunningham says.

Surfing has long been a bro culture, but more photos of women surfing have encouraged more women to get in the water. Some have become photographers — lighter, more affordable cameras and the explosion of social media have helped women get their work seen.

João De Macedo surfs near Ocean Beach.
Sachi Cunningham

Back at Ocean Beach, Cunningham and De Macedo return to shore agreeing that it wasn't the best surf day. "We were hopeful we were gonna get a cover for Surfer Magazine, but ..." De Macedo laughs.

" ... Maybe not today," says Cunningham.

Cunningham has yet to get the cover — but she's got her sights set on something bigger anyway. Her goal is to continue shattering stereotypes and creating more possibilities for women on both sides of the lens.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Here's a dangerous recipe for a photographer. Start with huge waves. Add some deadly rip currents and a dash of sharks. Those perils have not stopped Sachi Cunningham. The San Francisco-based photographer is one of the first women shooting big waves in a male-dominated profession. Reporter Adriana Cargill has her story.

ADRIANA CARGILL, BYLINE: It's an unusually sunny morning in Ocean Beach on the west side of San Francisco. Sachi Cunningham is putting on her wetsuit, getting her camera gear ready. There's a warning sign in the parking lot that says, danger - people have drowned. Enter at your own risk.

SACHI CUNNINGHAM: If you don't know what you're doing, it's really big surf - really big and dangerous surf. And, you know, I think people panic. It's cold water.

CARGILL: She's swimming out today with Joao De Macedo. He's a Portuguese big wave surfer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURFBOARD WAXING)

JOAO DE MACEDO: 'Cause this is the entrance into the bay - San Francisco Bay - so the currents are really, really strong.

CARGILL: Sachi's part a genre of ocean photography that only shoots waves and the people who ride them.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

CARGILL: There are no turtles, coral or fish in her images. To do this work, you need to be able to read the ocean - its winds, tides, waves, et cetera. And you need to be strong. Sachi works with a trainer. She shows me her biceps.

CUNNINGHAM: But to get to these (laughter) - these guns are not necessarily just from that. I mean, really, this is from 20 years of competitive swimming and lifting weights since I was 10 years old.

CARGILL: Taking photos where the waves break is like being in a washing machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)

CARGILL: Your body's flipped around while you try and lift the camera and its waterproof housing, which is like a 25-pound dumbbell. Some photographers train by running with rocks on the bottom of the ocean. Sachi took a course where she learned to hold her breath for four minutes. She's photographed enormous waves up to 60 feet tall in California and Hawaii. In Hawaii, she shot the first-ever big wave women's surf competition in 2016.

CUNNINGHAM: To see this mass of women, you know, to see a whole two heats of women that were out on the biggest day, on the same day the men were out, to me, it was monumental. Just to be there was - they had won before they even started.

CARGILL: When Sachi started shooting two decades ago, there were very few women photographers. Ashtyn Douglas Rosa is Surfer Magazine's executive editor.

ASHTYN DOUGLAS ROSA: One of her biggest contributions to big wave surf photography is just helping to change the narrative that said that women didn't belong in these waves or they weren't strong enough, they weren't capable of it, or they weren't ready to compete in these waves. Like, she was there documenting and going, like, hey, look at all these women who are charging these waves and are ready to compete.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I want to take photos of women 'cause I had never seen photos of women.

CARGILL: Surfing has long been a bro culture. But more photos of women surfing have encouraged more women to get in the water.

CUNNINGHAM: Can't be what you can't see.

CARGILL: Some of them have become photographers. Lighter, more affordable cameras and the explosion of social media have helped women get their work seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

CARGILL: Back at Ocean Beach, Sachi and Joao have returned to the shore.

CUNNINGHAM: It was honestly not the best surf out there, but yeah, you know.

DE MACEDO: We were hopeful we were going to get a cover for Surfer Magazine, but (laughter)...

CUNNINGHAM: Maybe not today.

DE MACEDO: Maybe not today.

CARGILL: Sachi Cunningham has yet to get the cover, but she's got her sights set on something bigger. Her goal is to continue shattering stereotypes and creating more possibilities for women on both sides of the lens.

For NPR News, I'm Adriana Cargill.

(SOUNDBITE OF FKJ SONG, "BETTER GIVE U UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.