Capturing Stillness: How cold water surf photography is therapy

Brought to you byOutsiders Project
Capturing Stillness: How cold water surf photography is therapy
Robyn Steady is a surfer and photographer whose surf therapy sessions with Wave Project are helping tackle the mental health crisis among young people in Scotland.

With a beaming smile on her face and brimming with enthusiasm, Robyn Steady has built a raft out of surfboards and is now cheering on a group of young people as they take turns to try to run the length of it. The sun is out and although there are no waves to speak of, everyone is having a great time.

This version of Robyn, one of a group of Wave Project Scotland volunteers running a surf therapy session for young people, couldn’t be further from how way she describes herself at the age of 15. “I wouldn’t go anywhere,” Robyn remembers. “I wouldn’t leave the house. Sometimes I couldn’t leave my bedroom. I was too scared to do anything. I’d been struggling for a while, since I was maybe eight. I was undiagnosed autistic and I had a lot of big feelings that I wasn’t able to deal with.”

Robyn’s bond with the young people she now volunteers to support is immediately obvious and it comes from shared experience. Robyn started Wave Project Scotland surf therapy in 2020, just after the first Covid lockdown. It took a huge amount of courage just to show up. “When we arrived I wouldn’t get out of the car,” she says. “During the session I went completely mute, I didn’t talk at all. I’d spent so long not really feeling like I fit in anywhere and I thought Wave Project was just going to be the same.”

By the end of the course, Robyn found she was able to begin to open up and feel confident in the group. “I was still really anxious until maybe the fifth week, but I started to ease into it,” she says. “Then I remember crying at home on the sixth week when the course had finished, because it was finally a place I could just be myself. I didn’t have to pretend to be anything else. I didn’t have to act a certain way and I didn’t have to hide. I could just be me.”

“If you can get up on a surfboard, you can do pretty much anything.”

Robyn Steady

Robyn credits the surf therapy with helping her cope with everyday situations she’d previously found impossible to bear. “A couple of weeks after Wave Project, I went into the supermarket,” she remembers. “That sounds like a tiny thing, but before I wouldn’t go anywhere. I didn’t feel great, but I did it. I still don’t enjoy it, I’m still scared to go, but now I have the knowledge and understanding that I can do it. If you can get up on a surfboard, you can do pretty much anything.”

For Robyn’s mum Sara, who is now also a Wave Project volunteer, the impact of surf therapy can’t be overstated: “It was absolutely life changing. I don’t know where Robyn would be now without it,” Sara says.

When I interviewed Robyn, she mentioned an interest in photography. “I like that often at times, it’s just me out floating in the sea at the crack of dawn with my camera,” Robyn says. “Being up when most folk aren’t and just floating in the sea watching the sunrise, that’s the bit I love. The first morning I did just that was the when I properly fell in love with photography.”

Sara, quite rightly, jumped at the chance to emphasise Robyn’s talent and when I saw her photos I realised why. Delicate and abstract, Robyn’s photography celebrates the seascapes of Scotland’s coastline with a creative vision far beyond a mere interest.

“Even if you are getting hammered by sets coming in, there is still a sense of stillness, not physically but mentally,” Robyn explains. “I love the fact that photography gives my a mind a chance to just stop and just feel fully what’s happening in the moment. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true. My mind is so focused on the settings on my camera and making sure I’m in the right spot for the shot that my mind can’t wander off to the usual chaos that it seems so comfortable in.”

Robyn is now receiving guidance from professional photographer and self-confessed “salt water addict” Mike Guest, who photographed her for this interview – another broadening of her horizons which started with going to that first surf therapy session.

“Taking photos in the water makes me feel calm, all the noise in my head quietens down whilst I’m out in the sea with my camera. It offers me a pause button for all the chaos going on inside my mind. I like to try and capture the stillness that I feel in the water through my photos so that other people can experience it along with me.”

Started in 2010 in Cornwall and now a national charity, the Wave Project delivers surf therapy for young people aged 8 to 21. Participants take part in weekly surf therapy sessions for six weeks and are paired with a volunteer surf mentor who provides one-to-one support throughout the course. After attending a surf therapy course, young people can join the Wave Project’s weekly surf club sessions.

Wave Project Scotland has 150 young people in its surf club and supports another 100 young people through surf therapy each year. Alison Young, Regional Team Leader at Wave Project Scotland, is keen to emphasise that the Wave Project is about much more than surfing. “Surfing is the vehicle we choose to help the kids overcome challenges and improve their mental health,” she explains. “We’re teaching these kids coping mechanisms for life.”

In the 10 years the Wave Project has been running, surf therapy has become an established form of therapeutic support and is recognised by the NHS as an effective form of therapy for children and young people. The young people who attend the Wave Project Scotland’s surf therapy come through referrals from other organisations including schools, NHS Scotland’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and social work services.

There’s no strict criteria on who can be referred for surf therapy. Alison’s mantra is that any young person who could benefit from Wave Project Scotland’s work is welcome. “We have kids facing social isolation, bullying at school, kids with learning difficulties, young carers, youngsters who have been through cancer themselves or have lost a parent,” she explains. “Since lockdown, we have a lot of kids that found the transition back to school really difficult and I think the pressures of social media on our young people today are huge. We see a lot of young people really struggling with anxiety.”

Without its volunteers, Alison says the charity wouldn’t be able to make the impact it does. “When the young people realise the volunteers are giving up their time because they feel the young people are worth it, it makes a big difference for kids who maybe have low self esteem or anxiety,” she says. “We’re so incredibly grateful to our volunteers. Without them, we couldn’t change the lives we’re changing.”

Following her surf therapy and another Covid lockdown, Robyn joined the Wave Project’s surf club. Now 18, she’s been a Wave Project volunteer since 2022. Alison says Robyn’s experience makes her an invaluable volunteer.

“Robyn has a huge understanding and huge empathy for the young people because she sees herself in them,” Alison says. “She gets it and the kids feel immediately at ease with her. We’re just so glad that she made that first step to get out the car at her first session because now she’s made such a huge impact on so many other lives.”

This article is an extract from Slow Waves, a project about the surf community in the south east of Scotland by journalist Dave Lyons and photographer Mike Guest. Slow Waves is a collection of stories celebrating the ways the surfing community along Scotland’s south east coast is making a positive impact far beyond the confines of the sport itself, from supporting the mental health of young people, to campaigning against water pollution, to contributing to the towns and villages in the southeast of Scotland. Slow Waves was commissioned by Slow Ways, a charity creating a network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities.

The Outsiders Project is dedicated to diversifying the outdoors. Follow us on Instagram, read more stories or find out more about partnering with us here.

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