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

11 hours ago
Originally published on July 7, 2020 5:38 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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Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, George Floyd - all Black men who died at the hands of police. But are there names missing from our collective memories, names of Black women who suffered the same fate - Michelle Cusseaux, Kayla Moore, Breonna Taylor? Remembering those names, too, that is part of the message behind the Say Her Name campaign, which was started by the African American Policy Forum. Kimberle Crenshaw is co-founder and executive director of the forum. She joins us now.

Professor Crenshaw, welcome.

KIMBERLE CRENSHAW: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So that last name I read there, Breonna Taylor, has been front and center in the racial justice protests over these last several weeks. But in general, you would argue women have been largely missing from our national conversation about race and police.

CRENSHAW: Oh, absolutely. Black women have been killed in many of the same circumstances as their brothers, fathers and sons. They've been killed driving while Black, being in their homes while Black, having mental crises while Black. And their losses just haven't registered in the same way. So Say Her Name is trying to raise awareness by insisting that we say their names because if we can say their names, we can know more about their stories.

KELLY: And I want to stress it's obviously not just names. It's the people who bore those names. People might be less familiar with the other two names that I mentioned. Remind us just briefly, if you would, who Michelle Cusseaux was and Kayla Moore.

CRENSHAW: So Michelle Cusseaux was an African American woman who was killed in her home when the police were called on a mental health pickup order. And rather than the police de-escalating the situation, one officer decided that he was going to breach the perimeter of her home. He encountered her inner vestibule while reportedly she was changing her locks. He said he saw a hammer in her hand, and the look in her eyes made him fear for his life, so he shot her through the heart within less than a few seconds of encountering her.

KELLY: And what about Kayla Moore?

CRENSHAW: Kayla Moore was a black transgender woman in Berkeley who was having a mental health crisis. Her roommate called 911 - this is the problem - expecting help. What often comes when you call 911, though, is the police. The police saw Kayla, ran a warrant check on her rather than escorting her to find help. She knew that there was no warrant against her and refused to go, which then prompted a whole range of actions, including swarming her, so the police bodily constrained her. So she ended up being killed in much the same way that we saw George Floyd.

KELLY: So how has the Say Her Name movement - tell me a little bit more about how it has been playing and moving forward in this moment where another movement, Black Lives Matter, has been so very front and center.

CRENSHAW: Well, Say Her Name sees itself as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. What we are very much hoping Say Her Name does is to broaden the conceptualization of what vulnerability to anti-Black police violence looks like. The typical stories, the things that people think happen, are conflicts largely between men. So it's like - it's a typical kind of Black man walking down the street. He looks suspicious even though he isn't, and the police encounter him. That's what we're learning to see. That's what George Floyd's case generates for people.

What we want to do is say that's a risk factor. But also when a Black woman is driving a car and a police officer doesn't like her response, and so he threatens to Taser her and that escalates into that person being dead, these are also moments of anti-Black police violence. But they happen in different spaces than we imagine. They happen to different bodies than we can see. And so we want to insert awareness of these other moments so that the movements and the reforms can actually be more inclusive and, we hope, more productive.

KELLY: You have helped found this movement, Say Her Name, which in an ideal world wouldn't need to exist because we wouldn't have Black women being killed at the hands of police. In this moment where there's been so much focus on racial justice, do you feel hopeful?

CRENSHAW: I always feel hopeful as long as there's breath in my body and the bodies of others around us to raise awareness and to express our refusal to accept either the terms of life in the society that we live in or the terms of the movements against those discriminations. So I am both hopeful because there is a refusal at this point to accept the status quo. I'm vigilant in this point because I know not always does that refusal include all of us who are subject to many of the crises that we are articulating demands against.

KELLY: That is Kimberle Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia University and UCLA and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum.

Thank you so much.

CRENSHAW: Thanks for having me.

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