Photos capturing joy and community of Black female and non-binary American surfers

Photos capturing joy and community of Black female and non-binary American surfers

In her new photobook I Just Wanna Surf, photographer Gabriella Angotti-Jones goes back to her roots and faces up to traumas of her past.

Growing up in Orange County, CaliforniaGabriella Angotti-Jones saw her first surfer when she was around five-years-old, and picked up her first board a few years later at a camp run by the famed Colapinto family in San Clemente.

It was an idyllic, sunny entry to the sea and the surf, and for the next four years the sport became a constant in her life, taking to the beach with her friends at every opportunity. But as she grew older, she started to become more aware of the world around her, her own place within it, and the difficulties of growing up as a Black female in a predominantly white area.

“Me and my friends would surf and bodyboard pretty consistently until I was twelve-ish, when it started to get a little bit more serious and people really started to get competitive. San Clemente is a very surfy town, if you’re going to surf you’re going to do it semi-professionally,” Angotti-Jones explains. “I started to feel like I was getting singled out in the line-up because at the time there weren’t many girls or non-male people in surfing, so I really internalised that a lot being a woman but also a young mixed-race-slash-Black girl. And I really started to notice how different I was from everyone else.”

Whether it was being critiqued and embarrassed by adult men, or people checking the licence plate of her parents’ car to check if they were from the area, these growingly apparent microaggressions pushed her away from the sport that dominated her younger years. As she grew older, she focused her energies on her burgeoning photography career, even if she never strayed far from the sea. “I took a really long break, [I did] outrigger – Hawaiian canoeing – and I tried to learn how to scuba dive,” she says. “So I was always near water, but I never really liked the culture of surfing and felt like it kind of spat me out.”

Years later that aversion shifted after she completed a photography internship at The New York Times in 2019. She had always loved storytelling, particularly through images and visuals, but felt detached from the pace of staffer work. “I was tired of just photographing news – [I was] feeling like my work wasn’t my own and I was just interpreting other people’s stories,” Angotti-Jones explains. “I was like ‘fuck, I have no vision’, and my boyfriend at the time [said I] should do something personal, so I started thinking about how [surfing] never really left me. A couple of friends were like ‘you should photograph Black girls and non-binary surfers’, and I was like ‘oh yeah’.”

Now, her new zine-photobook hybrid I Just Wanna Surf, presents that journey in printed form. After reaching out to countless Black female and non-binary surfers on Instagram, she travelled from coast-to-coast across the USA, photographing and capturing what is now a burgeoning community. Shot entirely on film, it’s filled with joyous moments of her new friends surfing and engaging in wider surf culture in their own ways – paddling out to catch a wave or nibbling on snacks while splayed out on towels. With Black women and non-binary people often left out of the popular imagination, her work helps fill a gap in media and historical representations of beach culture.

“I’m obsessed with the Y2K, ‘90s surf/skate photography aesthetic – I really loved Big Brother Magazine because it showed what the culture of skateboarding was outside of skateboarding,” she says. “So that’s what I really wanted to do. I wanted to show not only my friends, but myself and other people that we’re legit – we do all the same things that white and male surfers do – it’s just the culture of surfing.”

The zine is a deeply personal, and at times tough, read. Alongside the warm photographs are diary-style entries detailing her experiences and her feelings throughout the years. She’d struggled with her mental health, and making the project helped her to join dots and confront some of the underlying causes. “I think it helped me process what I was going through when I was younger and that I associated a lot of racial trauma with that period in my life, and at the same time I was able to realise how depressed I was,” she says. “I would embed my experiences in my friends and my surroundings as every photographer does, and didn’t really ever address what was actually going on within me – I felt like I was taking really superficial images of people having fun, but I was really trying to block what I was feeling.

“So it became this big thing that I had to throw up and get out of my system,” she continues. “Making zines, books, art, whatever in general is just meditation – it’s my story, it’s what I know.”

I Just Wanna Surf by Gabriella Angotti-Jones is published by Mass Books

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