Rewriting The SoCal Surfing Story

As surfing embraces “more women, genderqueer and trans people in the surf conversation”, we talk to photographer Gabriella Angotti-Jones about the changing scene

By Glorious

Photography by Gabriella Angotti-Jones

Growing up in Southern California, Gabriella Angotti-Jones would hang out at the beach with her friends. As a natural ocean lover who would spend hours in the surf, she gradually developed a love for the SoCal sporting passion – surfing. So far, so… normal. But Gabriella had grown up in a biracial family and found herself coming up against the traditional stereotype of surfers as white and middle class. It wasn’t an easy ride. Now, as a woman who surfs and follows a successful career as a documentary journalist, she features her tribe in her new zine I Just Wanna Surf. Openly joyful, she documents her tribe who, like her, live for the ocean and for its unifying love of surfing and the sea

Gabriella Angotti-Jones. Photography by Basil Vargvas.

Glorious: Where did you grow up, and how did your interest in photography begin?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: I grew up by the beach in Capistrano Beach and Dana Point in Southern California. I’d spend a lot of my summers while I was in high school, and after school too, at Dana Point Harbor, working at the Ocean Institute or outrigging. So the ocean became a big part of my identity, as I spent so much of my free time there.

I started taking photos during an ocean research internship. I had always thought I wanted to be an ocean researcher, but quickly realised I liked documenting the process of research as opposed to actually doing it!

Since I was deep into studying environmental science, I decided to teach myself documentary photography. After transferring to San Francisco State University from community college, I began covering local protests and the lead up to the 2016 election, eventually interning at the San Francisco Chronicle. I later interned at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Tampa Bay Times and The New York Times. Then I joined the Los Angeles Times as a staff photographer for a year. I transitioned to being independent last year.

Glorious:What came first, a passion for photography or surfing?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: My passion for the ocean came first. I used to swim, did outrigging and bodyboarded. Surfing was woven into that briefly, but my love for it recently made a return after I realised I was ready to recommit to learning it again. My love for photography came in college after I realised I love learning about the world and different situations. I generally like putting myself in uncomfortable situations. I think I have a passion for that more than anything!

Young girls from the SurfearNegra and Sisters of the Sea programs walk to surf near Jacksonville Pier in Jacksonville, Florida, July 2021.

Glorious: Have you always loved water sports or was surfing simply a natural thing to do while you were growing up in California?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: I think both! My mother used to call our access to the beach “five minutes from fun”. We’d spend whole days there – just hanging out, cooling off in the heat in the water. I think it was just a natural part of our upbringing. And I loved being in the water, understanding it and engaging with it in different ways and getting different sensations from the different ways of playing in it.

Glorious: What do you love about surfing; how does it make you feel?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: I love that surfing connects me to my body and makes me feel present. I love that it allows me to see my friends multiple times a week, and I love that I’m constantly running into my friends all around Southern California.

Sierra Brown poses for a portrait in her bedroom with her 7'6 surfboard in Inglewood, CA, July 2021.

Glorious: Tell us about your surfing community and the friendships you have made. Do you feel that surfing is becoming a more inclusive sport?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: I just spent a few weeks on the North Shore of Hawaii, where everywhere I surfed had a ton of young girls absolutely shredding. Even in California, that change is happening. It’s so sick. I think we have a long way to go, but there’s a lot of stuff happening on the local level to include more women, genderqueer and trans people in the surf conversation. So it’s only a matter of time that the change really starts to take hold.

Spot check on Hawaii's west side, August 2019.


Gabriella has produced a book called 'I Just Wanna Surf'.

Glorious: You have produced a zine called I Just Wanna Surf. What is the background to producing it and what was the impact you wanted it to have?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: I wanted to make a book to celebrate my friends, and I unintentionally addressed my depression in the process. I didn’t plan any of it, it just kind of happened. And I wanted the book to reflect the imagery I grew up with, which was Y2K surf and skate imagery.

I don’t really have any hopes for the project, other than for my friends to feel like they’re important. I think I unintentionally addressed some deeper themes in my life, like depression, insecurity etc., only because I was so distracted by making something devoted to my friends. I learned to value myself and my needs through valuing them and their stories.

Chris Blue, a surfer and amateur shaper, Torrance, California, July 2021.

Glorious: There is an intimacy in your portraiture, are you friends with your subjects?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: In the book, yes, I’m pretty close with everyone in the book that I photographed. I wanted our friendship to shine through in the images. Every single person in the book is someone I love dearly.

Glorious: How would you describe your photography style – what do you want people to see and feel?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: I love emotion and connection – and interesting light. I love looser images, especially ones that feel dynamic. I guess I want people to feel like they’re a part of the situation, almost like they’re included in the moment too. I very much view photography, or at least documentary photography, like a collaboration, as I typically spend multiple hours with the people I photograph. So I like to get to know people as best as I can, so I can show what they’re about in photos. I hope to share their power with viewers, and hopefully empower them during the photo process as well.

Kimiko Russell-Halterman pushes her longboard through a wave near the Manhattan Beach Pier, Los Angeles, California, February 2021.

Glorious: Where are your favourite places to surf and why? And if you could surf anywhere in the world, where would that be?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: I surf all along the coast of SoCal, it depends on the swell. It’s pretty hectic, but I’m grateful I can manage it with my schedule. And I love surfing in Baja California, but my dream is to go to Indonesia.

Glorious: What projects are you working on next?

Gabriella Angotti-Jones: I’m about to work on a project on West African shark fisheries early next year, specifically in Ghana and Cameroon, which I’m super stoked about. And I’ll hopefully get to photograph beach culture in West Africa too.

To order I Just Wanna Surf, click here

Lizelle Jackson poses for a portrait after a rainy surf in Nosara, Costa Rica, August 2021.

Photography by Gabriella Angotti-Jones, Editorial design by this is root

Title Image –  Grace, right, helps a young surfer wax down her surfboard for the first time in Jacksonville, FL, July 2021.

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