From the Emmys to Big-Wave Photography

An interview with Sachi Cunningham

From the moment she saw colossal waves like this one,     award-winning filmmaker Sachi Cunningham was hooked. Photo: Cunningham
From the moment she saw colossal waves like this one, award-winning filmmaker Sachi Cunningham was hooked. Photo: Cunningham

Sachi Cunningham does it all. She’s a professor of journalism at San Francisco State, a documentary filmmaker, and a critically-acclaimed multimedia journalist. She’s won a handful of Emmy awards for her work for FRONTLINE along with a nomination for her most recent project, “The Rise of ISIS: An in-depth look at the miscalculations and mistakes behind the group’s brutal ascent”. Her documentary for the LA Times, Chasing the Swell, won the Associated Press Sports Editors Multimedia Award, along with countless other acclamations. On top of all of her notoriety, she’s one of the best big-wave surf photographers around.

Between raising her two-year-old, and planning a surf trip to Mentawais with 10 other women, Sachi sat down with us to talk about how, in between earning awards and accolades, she found her passion in surf photography.

How did you first get into surf photography?

I grew up in Pittsburgh, but I fell in love with the ocean when I’d visit my family’s beach house in Capistrano Beach during the summers. After college when I was teaching English in Japan, I bought a Canon EOS1N RS film camera and my first underwater housing and I apprenticed with a Japanese water photographer who took me to contests and taught me everything he knew. I then saved up enough money to travel to Indonesia when there happened to be a huge swell, and I became totally hooked. When I came back to the states, I was determined to make a living as a water photographer. Of course I had no money, and my parents thought I was crazy.

Tell me about your relationship with Bianca Valenti.

I don’t think I could have done any of this without Bianca. I knew I found my niche the minute I saw big-wave surfing, but I didn’t think I could swim in those size waves. When you see another woman do something extraordinary, you start to believe that it’s possible for yourself. I really wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it weren’t for Bianca.

Valenti, a regular in heavywater lineups along the California coast. Photo: Cunningham
Valenti, a regular in heavywater lineups along the California coast. Photo: Cunningham

Swimming around in big waves with a 10-15 pound camera is no easy feat.

When you’re so concentrated on surviving, the ‘what-ifs’ are the last thing on your mind. I’m often shooting empty waves by myself out there, so if I ever feel spooked, I’ll just get out for a bit. I’ve been in situations where I’m gripping the sand on the bottom and still had a wave pick me up from the back and toss me up and into it. That always takes a lot of energy out of you, especially at a place like Ocean Beach where you’re swimming all the time. I don’t want to be afraid of the ocean; I love it too much. I just need to remind myself that it’s a force to be reckoned with and we’re never going to be more powerful. But I’m pretty conservative—I have no interest in knowing what it’s like to be pounded by a monster wave.

So what’s the heaviest swell you’ve witnessed and shot?

January 23rd, 2015 at Ocean Beach was the biggest swell I paddled out for. On that day, I didn’t really realize how big it was until I saw the photos. I’m out there all the time, and it just seemed like an overgrown version of what I had seen before. You kind of adjust your sense of reality when you’re out there.

What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?

My male friends have supported and taught me things just as much as my female friends have. But I think getting jobs is more difficult as a woman. In terms of equality, there is only one XXL award for women, and there are a handful for the guys. They used to call it the ‘Girl’s Performance Award’ and call the other the ‘Men’s Performance Award’. I was invited to be on the voting committee one year so I said, “What’s up with calling it the Girl’s Performance Award? Would you call it the ‘The Boy’s Award’? No!” I think now it’s called the ‘Women’s Performance Award’, which is good. And the men earn significantly more in prize money than the women do. That needs to change.

San Fransisco-based big-wave charger, Johnny Bowling. Photo: Cunningham
San Fransisco-based big-wave charger, Johnny Bowling. Photo: Cunningham

Any advice for other aspiring female surf photographers?

Just do it— persevere and be persistent. Even though surf photography was not what I was always doing professionally, it makes perfect sense to me that this is what is getting me the most attention now. It’s the one thing that I’ve always known that I loved the most. If you feel that joy for something that you can share with the world, you just have to trust your gut and just go for it.