Summer: 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
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
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!
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.
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: More and more non-male surfers are starting to pop up in lineups at local level. We have lots of meet-ups for every type of person in LA, from queer (Dream Team Society, Queer Surf, Black Queer Surf) bipoc meet-ups (Intrsxn, color the water). And the people who run them genuinely show up for the community. The local scene, especially in LA, is a lot more diverse and innovative than the professional and amateur circuit. I love that I can say that confidently. It’s at a point where the larger community has to notice and follow suit. It’s only a matter of time before change like that really starts to take hold. It’s inevitable.
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.
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.
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 just wrapped up the first part of a project on West African shark fisheries, specifically in Ghana and Cameroon. I visited small fishing villages and learnt about their local economies and cultures, and I actually even got to photograph some surfing in both places as well! I can’t give out too much information, but I had a great time and I’m excited to share the piece when it’s published. It’s funny, I think a lot of people don’t recognise that I’m not just a surf photographer, I do long form storytelling and international reporting too.