In Conversation with Sachi Cunningham

Sachi Cunningham, 44, is a documentary filmmaker, photographer and Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at San Francisco State University. Her award winning films have screened at festivals worldwide and appeared in publications such as the Surfer Magazine, Newsweek and PBS FRONTLINE. When she’s not filming or teaching journalism, Sachi is in the ocean documenting the world’s leading big wave women surfers. In 2016, Sachi discovered she was at high risk for cancer and opted to have a double mastectomy and hysterectomy. Despite the preventive surgeries, she was later diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy. The mother of a 4-year-old, Sachi’s motto is passion and perseverance.

Emi Erickson charges down the face of a 30-foot wave during the 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge, the first World Surfing League contest for women, in Maui, HI, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2017. Photo by Sachi Cunningham, @seasachi

Lianne Milton: Where to start, Sachi! Tell me what you’re up to now?

Sachi Cunningham: I’m working on a documentary about the first big wave women in surf competition. At the moment I’m taking a breath-holding course in San Diego and then I head to Venao, Panama, with my daughter for a month to teach a workshop on environmental filmmaking to at-risk youth.

LM: What came first, filmmaking, visual journalism or surf photography?

SC: Filmmaking actually came first. I took a filmmaking course at the Rhode Island School of Design while at Brown University and did an independent study my senior year where I made a video documentary about “mixed race” women. I did a bunch of internships and jobs in the feature film industry during and after college. But I always knew I wanted to try surf photography, so the first thing I bought after college was a good Canon DSLR (film — not digital yet!) and custom water housing.

In 1997 and 1998, I traveled all over Southeast Asia and fell deeply in love with water photography in Indonesia. It would take another 20 years before I actually achieved the dream of being a professional water photographer. Along that road, I transitioned from feature filmmaking to documentary when I was working as an assistant to director Barry Levinson on a film called “Bandits”. I eventually left Hollywood for graduate school in journalism at UC Berkeley, where I focused on documentary film.

Our class graduated in 2005 during the golden age of video journalism. I never thought I would be working for a daily newspaper, but everyone in the documentary program of my graduating class ended up getting video journalism jobs at places like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and then Current TV. We all ended up getting jobs that didn’t exist when we started journalism school. I worked at PBS Frontline/World after graduating and that launched my career in visual journalism.

When I started journalism school, I made it a goal to make every story have some connection to the ocean or surfing. My thesis project was eventually picked up by Frontline/World about a surfer in Puerto Rico who protested against the illegal dumping of dredge on their surf reef by the Army Corps of Engineers. When I was hired by the Los Angeles Times in 2008, I made it known that I wanted to be a part of any surf or ocean related story. That served me well; I was sent the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, and I did a three part video story about big wave surfers chasing swell across the Pacific, among other video stories that I’m proud of.

After three years at the Los Angeles Times, my husband and I quit our jobs and took off on a 14-month road trip along the Pacific from Los Angeles to Chile. During that time, I applied for a tenure track position in the journalism department at San Francisco State. When we arrived in Chile, I found out I had gotten the job and was also three months pregnant!

Teaching provided the perfect schedule to start shooting and surfing these swells again. There was nothing in the world I loved doing more. After a few seasons of swimming and shooting on big days at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, I finally made a name for myself as a water photographer because I was making unique pictures from the perspective of the water — something that until then (according to Matt Warshaw, the former editor of Surfer Magazine and author of the Encyclopedia of Surfing) had never been done before at Ocean Beach.

Counterclockwise from top: 1) Bianca Valenti deep in a barrel at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, this February. 2) Bianca Valenti exits a wave at Oahu’s Sunset Beach. 3) Bianca Valenti, at right, watches Patrick Shaughnessy getting barreled by a winter swell at Ocean Beach. Photos by Sachi Cunningham, @seasachi

LM: Some people do just one thing as their career and surf on the side, like myself. Is there a thread that connects all these passions, being a filmmaker, a video journalist, a teacher and a surf photographer?

SC: You know it’s only been very recently that I’ve finally understood what the thread is. I needed a larger body of work to understand what was driving me. I used to think it was the ocean and anything to do with the ocean, but now I’m finishing a documentary about a dancer with a disability who dances on crutches. He does performance art that incorporates hip hop and skateboarding. No ocean involved. CRUTCH is the documentary that really launched my career (and yes, I’m still working on it!). Since then, every enterprise story I do is about someone whose passion has driven them to new and unchartered territory.

LM: And it’s not like you dabble in these things. What drives your tenacity in your work?

SC: I can credit my parents with this. My mom was born behind barbed wire in a camp of incarcerated Japanese Americans during WWII. Later, she became a high school valedictorian and received a full tuition scholarship to UCLA because of her tenacity. My determined father is an industrial designer, a visual job, despite being born with one good eye. Losing my mom at 19 and then, looking death in the face myself this year with my own bout with cancer, has also added urgency to my work. We all have the capacity to live and work with passion.

LM: I’ve heard you like to “run toward the unknown.” What keeps you motivated? Do you set personal goals? Do you just follow your desire? Or are you working toward specific themes?

SC: I do set personal goals for things I haven’t done yet but for which I have enough experience to know that it’s in the realm of possibility. Swimming out on days with the biggest swell at Ocean Beach was one of those goals. Now my goal is to swim into even bigger waves that have never been shot from before. I think this comes from a love of entering, and sharing with the world, what it looks like to swim and document in unchartered waters: To witness and feel the power of the wild, raw energy of the sea and learn about some of its salty characters. The doc I’m working on about the best female big wave surfers, the “walking toward the unknown” is no longer a solo act, which gives me a lot of strength too. These big wave heroines are making history, and I’m honored to bear witness.

I’m also conscious of the impact that achieving my goals as a woman of color can have on my students, my daughter and those around me, which motivates me. Ultimately it’s about leaving the world a better place for having been here, be that the state of our environment, progress with gender equality, changing the way people think of disability or ethnic differences. I want people to embrace diversity and change. I want to spark a desire in people to think outside of the box and seek a life with passion and purpose.

Clockwise from top left: 1) Bianca Valenti prepares to head out to the line-up at a break in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia. 2) Bianca Valenti at Ocean Beach in November 2014. 3) Bianca Valenti getting barreled at a break in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia, in July 2015. Photos by Sachi Cunningham, @seasachi

LM: Why do you focus your photography on big wave women surfers? What inspires you to dive into big waves to photograph women surfers?

SC: Gender equality and showing that wilderness, adventure, the great outdoors and achieving the impossible is not only a world just for men to explore, grow and achieve. It’s hard to be what you can’t see. I know that even one image of a woman on a big wave can change the way multitudes of people will think about what is possible for themselves and others. I like stories that are at the forefront of history and are breaking new ground.

LM: When it comes to gender equality among visual storytellers, do you see parallel worlds between visual journalism, the film industry and surf photography?

SC: Sadly, yes. I saw a Facebook post recently from a video editor of a prominent surf magazine asking, “Are there any female surf filmmakers out there?” All he had to do was a tiny bit of research to know the answer to that. It’s a bro culture in the water and in photo/video journalism. They are both physical jobs and, if something is physical, women aren’t even considered for the job. We are naturally drawn to trust people that think, look and act like us to work with. When you add the inertia of history to this — generations of only men in these professions — it’s a hard habit to break.

There are very real physical and biological factors that women have to contend with that men do not. It’s inherently unequal to expect a pregnant woman to meet the same physical demands of someone who isn’t. Men with newborns don’t go to work concerned about the best time and location to discreetly pump their breast milk. They don’t have to deal with getting their periods while on location or having an abortion before covering a big event.

It ain’t pretty, but it’s real. I like to think of the gender binary in the workplace as an opportunity to realize everyone’s unique talents beyond gender. Women have historically been so underrepresented in the workplace, particularly in fields like journalism and surf photography where physicality, technical skill, storytelling smarts and creativity are needed. The world and workforce have only begun to realize our collective potential. I’m not interested in black and white. I’m interested in interrogating the many shades of grey between.

San Francisco native and surfer Matt Lopez bottom turns on a 10–15 foot face at Ocean Beach in December 2016. Photo by Sachi Cunningham, @seasachi

LM: Motherhood and work: I feel like this has always been a taboo topic in journalism. How do you balance work-life ambitions with home-life? And what has motherhood taught you as a journalist and as a surf photographer?

SC: Parenthood makes you very efficient and doing good work makes for happy parents, and the cycle of love and reward that being a working mom gives me has been nothing but a positive thing in my book. I think the physical act of giving birth also gave me unique strength as a water photographer. Experiencing your body create a human being is like a super power that gives me extra confidence in compromising physical situations. I could go down a rabbit hole of guilt over the time that I spent away from Nami while working, but continuing to work and develop professionally has been paramount to my happiness, and my happiness is paramount to me being a good mom.

The real key to my continued productivity as a mom is my husband, Zach Slobig. I couldn’t do any of the work I’ve done without his support and encouragement. Zach also provided most of Nami’s early childcare while I was teaching and away on reporting trips. They joined me for a few adventures too because I was still nursing, and I didn’t want to give up that time with my daughter.

Life experiences as a parent can help inform your work in a unique way. They provide a new and important perspective. Giving birth also has a similar effect as facing death: it reminds you that we all began as the same helpless beautiful balls of love, that life is magic as well as tragic and not to be taken for granted. I don’t have nearly the same anxieties I once had about getting the perfect shot or recording the perfect quote since having the experience of keeping a baby alive and fighting cancer. Life is too short, and our time here is too limited to be worrying about anything but the present.

Being a journalist or filmmaker or photographer means that you’re often on location or working toward a deadline that doesn’t give a crap about your personal life, no matter what gender you are. I deliberately took a step away from my job at the Los Angeles Times to conceive a child. I needed to eliminate the stress of a daily news job and add the ritual of getting into the ocean every day.

I made a fairly big change in my professional identity from being a full-time video journalist to becoming a professor of video journalism at San Francisco State and new mom. I am also required to do scholarly reporting work outside of teaching. In my case, that means making documentary films! I work on stories that I can plan ahead. I miss being in the field every day a lot, but I don’t think I would want to have a newborn while maintaining the hours and focus that my job at the Los Angeles Times demanded.

In other words, being a mom hasn’t slowed me down too much. I’ve traveled to Iraq, Fukushima, Burma and Morocco, among other work trips since her birth.

Clockwise from top left: 1) Sachi kisses her daughter Nami, 4, with her husband, Zach Slobig, after swimming with her camera at Ocean Beach, on December 1, 2016. Photo by Brian Feulner 2) Sachi prepares her underwater housing at home in San Francisco, on December 1, 2016. Photo by Brian Feulner. 3) The view from Sachi’s attic window which has a bird’s eye view of her home break, Ocean Beach. Photo by Sachi Cunningham, @seasachi

LM: Last year you were diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer following a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy, which was followed by six rounds of chemotherapy. Can you talk about why you were open to documenting and sharing your experience on Instagram? What have you learned from it, and how did it change your life?

SC: I was open to documenting my cancer story because I knew that I would be visibly showing the effects of chemo. I wanted to normalize what I was going through. I am certainly not unique to the challenges of cancer. I lost my mom to ovarian cancer at a young age. If there’s one thing I would have done differently during that time it would have been giving myself time and space to process what was happening in the moment.

My mom chose to keep her story relatively private and very much wanted me to keep moving forward with school and college as planned. I ultimately ended up processing it in a mental hospital — I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder right before she died, and I was hospitalized a second time shortly after her death.

I attribute a large part of the mental anguish which triggered those episodes with my lack of processing and feeling from the tragedy of her death. This time, I had the ability to do things differently with my story. I didn’t want to suffer the same mental illness as my last dance with cancer, so I took the steps necessary to maintain my mental and physical health. I spent a lot of time in the ocean. I processed events as they happened, sharing experiences with the hope that not only myself, but also other people won’t be so afraid of the word “cancer”, “mastectomy” and “hysterectomy” in the future. It has been comforting to connect and hear from people who can relate and appreciate my candor. I selfishly also know it gives me strength to know there are people out there rooting for me.

Counter-clockwise from top: 1) A winter dusk at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, on Jan. 15, 2015. 2) A mosaic of Pipeline’s colors photographed underwater at O’ahu’s North Shore, on Jan. 7, 2016. 3) Photographed from the ocean, Sutro Tower is seen above a sea of fog (locally named Karl the Fog) as it blankets Ocean Beach’s Outer Sunset neighborhood, in San Francisco, on Jan. 15, 2017. Photos by Sachi Cunningham, @seasachi

LM: What advice have you received from incredible water women or women journalists that resonates with you? And how have you applied that to your career, at home and in the water?

SC: One of the best tips I’ve received from a colleague was when I was working with Carolyn Cole, a legendary Pulitzer winning photographer who I reported with while covering the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. We were about to drive to dinner after a long day of reporting. I forgot my camera and ran back to the hotel to grab it. I got back into the car, only to notice that she didn’t have her camera. (I think it was probably in the trunk.) I was surprised and asked why she didn’t have her camera always strapped to her side. She knew she had put in a productive day of work, and she had the experience to know that she probably wouldn’t need it at that moment. But she added something that I’ll always remember. She said, “Besides, I’m a reporter. I don’t need a camera to get the story.”

I often admire and try to emulate that confidence in myself. The confidence of knowing that you’ll get the story with or without the image-making technology is important and something I try to instill in my students. To remember that at the end of the day we’re reporters and storytellers. We can’t lose sight of the essence of what we’re doing in any situation: to bear witness and be mentally and physically prepared to get the information needed to tell a complete story that reveals the truth of that situation to the best of our ability regardless of the medium. And to do so with the knowledge that if we do our work well, the story that we get will always be unique and valuable.

LM: For aspiring photographers, especially women photographers trying to build a career today, what advice you would share?

SC: Go for it! Silence the haters and trust your voice and vision. Be brave. Walk toward your fears. Be respectful and nurturing to the craft and to your colleagues — especially to your female colleagues. And work your butt off, because the reality is you’re going to have to work harder than anyone in order to even begin to compete. Finally, always keep an eye and ear out for magic, because that’s what it’s all about — life is beautiful and no one sees it more uniquely than you do.

The lineup at Pipeline’s Off The Wall break on O’ahu’s North Shore, HI, on Jan. 7, 2016. Photo by Sachi Cunningham, @seasachi

Lianne Milton is an editorial and documentary photographer based in Brazil and Washington, DC. Her work focuses on the effects of politics on people and their environments. She is represented by Panos Pictures and a contributor to Everyday Latin America. Follow Lianne on Instagram @lil_milty.