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Looking for the Best Surf Photography? Hold Your Breath

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Alison Teal, soul surfer and filmmaker, gets an alternate view of the surf in the middle of the ocean of the coast of Fiji.

Photographs of surfing always cause me to pause. I can feel the familiar movement of the wave, the cool, crisp water, and the nourishing sun. As a West Coast transplant living in D.C., I find myself browsing surf photography more than ever. Sarah Lee’s images recently awakened my California roots, and for a moment I got to drift away on a daydream.

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“Byron Bay, Australia, is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth to watch the sun rise and set from a surfboard in the sea,” says Lee.

In her photographs, Lee captures a quiet yet powerful intimacy with the ocean that only someone who grew up in the water could achieve. Born and raised in Hawaii, and currently based in Encinitas, California, Lee had a childhood that sounded similar to my own, both of us in the ocean constantly. When I talked to her over the phone, it was no surprise that our conversation digressed to discussing our favorite southern California surf spots. “I was surfing Cardiff yesterday and I snapped my longboard in half,” she told me. We chatted about the wave at Swami’s and how, in the past few years, Topanga has become less localized.

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A woman duck dives beneath a wave on a wooden alaia, a modern rendition of an ancient Hawaiian surfboard.

Lee developed a love for taking pictures as a child and naturally took to the sea with her camera. She was already comfortable with the physical challenge of being in the ocean; the creative challenge of photography came later.

“The main reason I love ocean and surf photography is the combination of the physical and creative challenge of it. It’s so cool, you’re floating and you can get into any position or angle you want in the water. Where else can you do that with photography?”

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The view beneath a 12-foot wave, just before it explodes back into the sea
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“I love photographing female surfers who have found their own style or dance to the beats of each wave,” says Lee.

I was curious to find out if Lee had any secret breath-holding techniques. As it turns out, she took a free-diving class last summer to help with her photography. While familiar with what to do when pulled under by a set wave, “it was amazing to finally learn the mechanics and how your brain and body work in the water.”

In the training, Lee learned that when you feel what is called the “urge to breathe,” it’s not that you’re out of oxygen but rather that you’re feeling the buildup of carbon dioxide in your body. In essence, your body wants air, but you still have more time. “When you get that urge to breathe, that’s your halfway mark.” She explains that the way to push through the discomfort is to distract your mind. “You will inevitably eat up oxygen by freaking out; it’s [about asking] how can you calm your mind and your body.” Lee uses these techniques to get her shot and, conversely, uses getting the shot to distract her mind during a breath hold.

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“This is the first frame from the first time I ever took a 35mm camera underwater instead of a digital camera. I know it’s 2015, but there’s something so magical and mysterious about shooting film,” says Lee.

Lee herself has had some close calls in bigger surf. While photographing in Fiji she had some freak waves come through and pull her under. Her attitude in these situations is to try and stay relaxed. “Even if it seems like eternity, I just kind of go with the flow. It will pass, and when it does you’ll just come up to the surface.”

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“I feel like bodysurfing without the aid of any flotation can be one of the purest experiences in nature,” says Lee, “because you’re immersed and totally vulnerable to whatever the ocean chooses to do.”

And as for her perspective on me being a surfer living in D.C.? “If I were you I don’t know what I’d be doing.” I hear that sentiment and, at times, I wonder the exact same thing.

*****
See more of Sarah Lee’s work on her website and follow her on Instagram.


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