Waves of Inspiration

Big-wave photographer Sachi Cunningham on the ocean’s power, storytelling and her students at SF State

An unidentified surfer rides a wave at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Nov. 25, 2014. Photo by Sachi Cunningham.

An unidentified surfer rides a wave at Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Nov. 25, 2014. Photo by Sachi Cunningham.

SACHI CUNNINGHAM loves the feeling of floating in the ocean, a speck in the vastness alive to the moment. And she loves sharing that experience with those who prefer dry land.

“When you see that breathtaking moment, that perfect wave at the perfect moment, you want to capture it and show people how beautiful nature and the world can be,” she says.

A celebrated surf photographer, journalist, documentary filmmaker and SF State professor, Cunningham surfs almost daily at San Francisco’s hazardous Ocean Beach, where the swells break in different places and “there are currents pushing you around, and you have to swim all over the place.” Cunningham lives near the beach with her husband, writer and surfer Zachary Slobig, and their 2-year-old daughter Nami (whose name means “wave” in Japanese). To get her breathtaking pictures, she wears a wetsuit and fins — her only flotation device is her body — and trains like an athlete. Several times a week she goes to a jiu-jitsu studio near the beach for physical training classes geared mostly to big-wave surfers.

surfers at the 2014 Mavericks competition

Kohl Christensen (left) of Hawaii and James Taylor (right) of South Africa drop in to a wave at Mavericks on Dec 20, 2014. Photo by Sachi Cunningham.

It’s a good thing she prepares herself. Cunningham was in the Ocean Beach surf last January 23, when the swells rose 20 feet. The water was flecked with pros who had come to ride the storied waves at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay but went where the action was that day. Despite the rough chop, Cunningham managed to capture spectacular images of champion surfer Bianca Valenti and others that made news in the surf world and beyond.

“I don’t think people thought it was possible to swim out and shoot photos there on big, big days. I’d never been out in waves that big before,” says Cunningham, who doesn’t deny it was scary.

An Emmy Award-winning reporter, producer and cinematographer who has worked for The Los Angeles Times and PBS’ FRONTLINE, Cunningham began taking water photographs 20 years ago. In the beginning, she apprenticed with two Japanese photographers who tutored her in the thrilling and dangerous art of shooting big ocean waves while being carried aloft on them.

Sachi Cunningham shooting in the ocean

Assistant Professor of Journalism Sachi Cunningham looks for “that perfect wave at the perfect moment.” Photo by Emma Chiang.

“You’re always very conscious of the power of the ocean, and your vulnerability, and if you aren’t you’re being foolish and reckless,” she says.

Cunningham’s sense of the world and desire to tell stories were shaped in part by the experience of her late mother, a Japanese American who was born and spent her first four years in a World War II internment camp near Poston, Arizona. Her family and other Japanese Americans “were thrown in there, and their culture told them shut up, to smile and nod and assimilate,” Cunningham says. “If I can help people tell their stories as they’re happening now, there’s value in that.”

“Sachi is unstoppable in all she does, from shooting a film on the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan to raising well over $100,000 for her next feature,” says Daniel Bernardi, interim dean of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts. “Yet she takes time to listen to her students, to engage her colleagues and to consider with forethought and kindness the subjects of her films.”

Cunningham in the classroom with students

Cunningham in the classroom. Photo by Emma Chiang.

As a journalist, Cunningham has brought forth stories about rural Chinese women in a matriarchal society, the disastrous Gulf oil spill, the weightlifters of Kabul and much more. She was in Fukushima, Japan, last summer with Professor of Journalism Jon Funabiki and six SF State students, helping them shape Web stories about life in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe. And currently she’s co-directing a documentary, “Crutch,” about her childhood chum Bill Shannon, an acclaimed dancer, choreographer and artist born with a debilitating hip condition that inspired him to create a mesmerizing way of breakdancing and skateboarding on crutches.

Her students, Cunningham says, “can learn from my years of experience and the mistakes I’ve made. I teach skills classes, but I try to de-emphasize the skills. Because the camera and the technology are always going to change. You need to know how to tell a story.”

One student who learned that lesson is Dariel Medina (B.A., ’13). He’s now a film editor and shooter at Al Jazeera, where Cunningham helped land him an internship.

“She teaches her students what it takes to bridge the gap between student and professional,” he says. “Sachi is a professor, a journalist, a world traveler, filmmaker, wife, mother, surfer and just an all-around badass.”