A Sachi Cunningham Portfolifo

“The main lesson is the simple reminder that we are all going to die some day, so no sense in sweating anything too much along the way. And no time like the present to work towards achieving your dreams.”

Sachi Cunningham – June of 2017

While working on Women Who Surf, Lucia Griggi and I cultivated quality surf photos from the Usual Suspects – Erik Aeder, Fred Pompermayer, John Bilderback, Jim Russi – but also found nuggets in unexpected places.

One of the best surprises of the photo hunt in that book was working with Sachi Cunningham, and her photos of Bianca Valenti.

I knew bupkis about either of these women – Bianca as a surfer, Sachi as a photographer – but as an editor at Surfer Magazine for 10 years and 130 issues, and the author of like two dozen books – most of them about surfing – it’s become harder and harder to shock or awe me.

But Sachi’s photos definitely caught my eye. First of all, I was born in San Francisco and am familiar with the many moods of Ocean Beach – going back to the time when Playland was still there, and the Fun House was the coolest place on earth.

I’ve tried surfing Ocean Beach a few times and seen it in full fury many times and am left with the almost inarguable impression that The Beach could be the hardest place to surf in the world – unless you are paddling off the beach at Nazare on a 30-foot day, or whatever.

Before this, the gnarliest female at Ocean Beach was “Geology Judith” – aka Judith Sheridan – a woman who likes to body surf Ocean Beach on big days, in the winter. Brrrrrrr.

But as Women Who Surf evolved, Lucia Griggi pointed me toward Bianca Valenti, a name I was vaguely familiar with because after 130 issues of Surfer Magazine and a couple dozen books on surfing, I am beyond surf media burnout and have begun to tune out on what is happening.

I’ve said all I had to say, let someone else write about it. Occasionally I will chime in.

Bianca Valenti? Sounds like a yacht a James Bond bad guy would use to make good their getaway.

But then I got into the profile on Bianca, a So Cal girl who heard the siren call of bigger surf rattling her nervous system like Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, so she moved north to the land of ice and snow to take on bigger, colder waves in Santa Cruz, at Ocean Beach and at Mavericks.

Bianca’s story – like all of the women in Women Who Surf – is a good story, about a woman amped to break the glass ceiling of women surfers in big and gnarly surf, and who wasn’t afraid to take beatings and freeze her ba… to be really cold in the pursuit of big thrills.

As I compiled information on Bianca I started looking at photos from Sachi Cunningham and I liked – and understood – what I saw: swimming out at Ocean Beach on those big, shifty, heavy current, freezing-ass offshore winter days is not for the weak or faint-hearted. Ocean Beach is heavy, in all senses of the word, and just as lining up for a bomb out there takes nerve and strength and luck and skill on the part of a surfer, lining up to take photos of someone riding those bombs might even be harder – even with really good swim fins.

As a homesick Northern Californian, born in San Francisco, raised in Santa Cruz, whose dad lived in Sharp Park and Montara and Half Moon Bay and who has lived in Tiburon and Berkeley and San Francisco – and whose memory of San Francisco goes back to hippie peace marches in Golden Gate Park in the 1960s – and who wishes Playland was still there – Sachi’s photos of Bianca at Ocean Beach struck a chord.

That photo of Bianca dropping in at the corner of the frame. That photo of Bianca with her face in the sun, soaking up those stray rays. That post-hippie silhouette shot of Bianca with the sun behind her.

Really good stuff – action and art – which made me wonder what else Sachi had in her photo calabash.

Here are around 30 of Sachi’s pix to click – from The Beach to Pipeline to Pe’ahi to Mavericks and Back to the Beach – with captions by Sachi and others.

Sachi on the beach, in 2003: “This photo is by Elizabeth Pepin, a trailblazer in surf photography in her own right. It was taken in 2003 I believe, when I was regularly swimming out at Ocean Beach. I started shooting Ocean Beach in 2001. The camera I’m holding is a film camera (youngsters have it so easy today!) - an EOS 1NRS. The camera housing was made in Japan in 1996 by the same folks that made Kin Kimoto’s housings.

The water photography thing all began around 1996: “I’m born and bred in Pittsburgh, PA, so it wasn’t a given that I would find surf photography, but I will credit my dad with giving me the bug even though he’s at times been adamantly against my pursuit of it as career. My parents are from Southern California and my grandparents used to rent a beach house at Capistrano Beach for two weeks every summer since I was a baby. Those two weeks were absolute bliss for me. I think my dad recognized that and also recognized that I had talent as a swimmer, bodysurfer and visual artist, so when there happened to be a random documentary about Aaron Chang that appeared on our little TV one night when I was in high school he called me down to take a look. I had never seen water surf photography before that moment, but it was pretty clear to me that I was made to do that. I stored that idea until I could pursue it, which was when I had my first job out of college teaching English in Japan and apprenticed with a surf photographer and bought my first camera and water housing in 1996. After two years of working in Japan I travelled through Asia for a year, starting off testing out my camera and water housing in the magical island of Tanegashima, Japan, and later in Indonesia. I ended up locking in and falling in love with Sumbawa (Lakey Peak - I guess it’s no secret spot anymore) where I was encountering some pro Australian bodyboarders and surfers, which always helps in making good photos! There was one particular swell which I overstayed my Visa for (I clearly had the bug) the size of which is hard for me to gauge now, but it was definitely solid. Maybe 15 feet on the face? I got one of those classic standup barrell shots of a guy named Sean from North Narrabeen that I’ll never ever forget. There’s no rush like it.

I came home and asked my dad for a loan so that I could pursue water photography. He answered with a flat no, but I thank him for that. It forced me to figure out how to make a living instead, and made me that much more hungry and passionate to prove him wrong and become good enough to get paid for my work. Soon after I returned from Japan I crashed the 1997 (maybe 1998?) HIC Pro at Pipeline and went out on a crazy day where the swell jumped from like 4 to 20 feet in the matter of hours and was coming straight west. I was too naive to understand what that meant so I just stayed out in the lineup having a ball. By the end it was only me, Larry Haynes and Mike Prickett in the lineup. They were both looking at me like, “Are you OK?”. I was in heaven! It was pretty clear after I got out that most people don’t do that, let alone a woman.

People were telling me “Waimea is going to break tomorrow. You should shoot that!” I didn’t even know what Waimea was! I think it was that, combined with my experience in Sumbawa, that made me realize that this thing I loved more than anything else was also something that I was uniquely born to do. It would take me a long time before challenging myself again in big surf (that making a living thing took some time), but it was an early confidence builder that helped launch my dreams and pursuit of water photography. Ocean Beach was (and remains) the perfect teacher for me.”

Ocean Beach San Francisco is Sachi’s happiest hunting ground, and Bianca Valenti is her favorite subject. If you are not familiar with Ocean Beach, it can be:

  1. Moody.
  2. Cold.
  3. Treacherous.
  4. Absolutely perfect A frames under perfect blue skies and offshore winds.
  5. Absolutely impossible to get out.
  6. Freezing.
  7. Sharky.
  8. Snarky.
  9. Tricky.
  10. Cliquey.
  11. Dangerous (See: Mike Parsons)
  12. All of the above.

Not an easy place to surf or to shoot, but Bianca and Sachi are game: “The classic Ocean Beach story behind this photo is that is was absolutely perfect for about 20 minutes (typical), most of which we were watching it here on the dunes. By the time we got out it was dead low tide, which can often be great - slack tides are definitely ideal for me not drifting out to sea, but in this case it got all funky and was super hard to get into position (typical). I ended up getting a few nice shots which is all I’m looking for to be satisfied enough to go in and call it a day, but it was one of those deceivingly difficult days (which really for newcomers is almost every day at OB). This was MLK Day 2017 which is significant because it was the 2013 MLK swell which was well documented and thrust OB on the radar for a lot of people, but for which I was a new mom and terribly out of shape. But I looked at all of the photos from that day and silently revelled in the fact that no one shot it from the water. I knew it was possible to shoot from the water and that swell gave me the goal to go out on the absolute biggest days at OB someday, which I eventually did.”

Shot six of a six-shot sequence of Bianca pulling inside at where? Backdoor? Rifles? Santa Cruz Harbor? No! Ocean Beach!

Sachi says: “This one was super special because:

A. It’s fucking hard to get a barrel shot at OB not only because it’s super challenging to get out and then line up, but also

B. because OB has more almond-shaped barrels than other spots that often close up or close out.

This day I almost went surfing rather than shooting, but thank goodness I chose to shoot! If it’s not bigger than double overhead I’m usually more interested in surfing than shooting. This day was probably head and a half, but clearly barreling and I was still weak from chemo so I decided to stick with what I’m best at.

This was Valentine’s Day 2017 at Rivera and it was one of those perfect days at OB where it was relatively easy to get out, the waves weren’t scary and there were endless barrels. Before I went out I grabbed my wide angle lens because I made it a goal to get a sick barrel shot of Bianca so that I could do that mirror thing and make a heart out of it for a Valentine’s Day post. This was one of the last waves of the session. I remember yelling at Bianca to go - not that she needs my encouragement but I wanted to make sure I made my desires known because I knew the wave was going to barrel and I knew I was in position. Fortunately Bianca has the skill to pull it off which is the great joy of working with her in the water. She sends it and gets the job done.

This angle on San Francisco has been seen in a million movies from Frank Sinatra to Clint Eastwood to Eddie Murphy. This is Beth Price up at Hawk’s Point in the Marin Headlands, looking back at some bridge that has the same color as Donald Trump’s hair, and the San Francisco skyline beyond. San Francisco is the center of the world right now in many ways - a tremendous amount of technology and money bubbling away out there - changing the world.

According to Sachi: “Beth is credited as the first woman to be recognized for charging on big outer bar days. I remember watching OB from the dunes on a huge Thanksgiving over a decade ago - one of those days when only a few people were crazy enough to be out. Beth was one of those people. I was in awe. But it also made me realize what was possible. Having mentors like Beth and Judith Sheridan have been critical to my development as a water photographer and surfer.

Thus spake Sachi: “This is Monique Kitamura, a South Africa-born beauty who was raised in Cape Town and LA and came to SF to study and become a chef. She has a super graceful style similar to Emi Erickson’s. She’s married to Jon Kitamura, one of the best surfers at OB and she’s about to have her second child. Definitely looking forward to getting more shots of her after she gives birth! This photo was for a story about the women who charge Ocean Beach that appeared in the 2016 Special Edition of Surfer Magazine. This particular image was not selected, but is a favorite.

It’s not all Immigrant Song, however. Sometimes Sachi and Bianca will pull themselves away from the land of ice and snow and thaw out in more tropical climes. Like Bianca here surfing, “in a spot I probably shouldn’t disclose to the world. Don’t get me in trouble for this - maybe say - somewhere in the Pacific? This is at __________ during the El Nino winter. I had stayed up all night the evening before this finishing my final grades for the semester but the swell this day gave me that Superwoman strength. I had never shot at _______. I asked around if anyone knew about shooting _______ from the water and all I got was, “nobody swims __________” so of course I wanted to! 🙂 I talked my way onto a jet ski to get a lift to the lineup for the morning sesh. This was the afternoon sesh which I had to swim all the way out for.

I take pride in that swim because it was fucking long and hard and as usual I don’t really give much energy thinking about the creatures below but I know they were there.

This wave and shot I have to admit is one that motivates me for next season because Bianca got barreled on this wave and I backed out too soon. To my defense, what you can’t see in this shot is that it was one of those mutant waves where the lip in front of where I am is actually about to land on my head so I chickened out and played it safe and dove under after this shot since this was my first time shooting __________ and I didn’t really know the dark side of any consequences.

But post-cancer Sachi says ‘Fuck it!’ and is just going to take it on the head. As Bianca always tells me, ‘I eat shit all the time. You need to, too.’ She’s right. But eating shit also takes up a ton of energy which often results in you not being able to shoot at all so it’s a balancing act.

The Pipeline at sea level. Are there some famous heads in that group?: “This is Pipeline right before Da Hui Backdoor Shootout 2016. There were no other female photographers nor were there any other female surfers other than Bianca. Kelly Slater and Bruce Irons were out there this session - Bianca sitting all the way at the top only surfing Backdoor because she’s badass like that.

I was of course in heaven.

Eddie Rothman gave Bianca’s biceps a squeeze after this and said enthusiastically: ‘Nobody’s gonna break her!’ then he kinda growled with pride and said, ‘Strong! That’s how I like my women!’ He also gave me props for shooting Backdoor, ‘You a strong swimmer, yeah?’

Shooting Pipe is a bit like shooting fish in a bucket, so I was trying to get lesser-seen angles like this.

Sachi shot this from a boat in the channel during the 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge, on Maui at the spot either called Jaws or Pe’ahi: “This was right after we made it out to the channel on the morning of the Pe’ahi Challenge, Nov. 11, 2016. The light is so magical when it’s coming over the cliffs at this hour. This is Greg Long nabbing one of the first waves of the day with the circus looking on.

The Hawaiian word “pe’ahi” translates to “beckon,” but maybe it should translate to: “Oh God this wind sucks and I’m not going to make this drop am I going to die?”

This is Maui local Andrea Möller dealing with that gusty, vicious Maui wind during the 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge: “The woman on the Zodiac is also one of Andrea’s mentors. Andrea is riding an SOS board, but even that couldn’t cut through the wind. It was a challenging day for men and women by all accounts.

Check it out. Andrea is a solid paddler but she didn’t have a prayer, and got tossed around like a fart in a windstorm. Those who have never been to Maui and dealt with that wind can’t appreciate just how difficult paddling Pe'ahi/Jaws is. It’s really kind of amazing anyone makes a wave, ever. Repeat: That wind sucks: “I like this photo because it shows the reality of big wave surfing. The wave doesn’t care who you are or what you’re riding. It will do what it pleases.

Maui local Paige Alms had some trouble with that wind as well, during the 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge: “Paige was putting on a clinic during this competition. Making more waves to the channel than anyone but also surviving wipe outs like a champ. Paige is built like an Olympic swimmer, so if anyone can withstand a thrashing it’s her.

Paige did herself and Maui proud by winning the 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge: “This is the competitor’s boat after Sean Ordonez - Paige’s boyfriend and shaper - dropped her off to get a group hug from (left to right) South Africa’s Tammy Lee-Smith, Bianca Valenti, and Laura Enever. We were all so happy for Paige!

A swellegant selfie featuring from left to right: Bianca Valenti holding the phone, Australia’s Felicity Palmateer, South Africa’s Tammy Lee-Smith, Paige Alms, Andrea Möller and Laura Enever: “This was not the first time I had shot Pe’ahi. I had shot the wave twice the season before, so I had my bearings more or less. What was different this time was some serious sisterhood.

The wind is strong enough to piss off ladies, but men have to deal with it, too. This is Italian charger Francisco Porcella dealing with those gusts during the 2016 Pe’ahi Challenge competition. Porcella survived this and went on to win the 2017 XXL Biggest Wave Award by making it to the shoulder of a bomb at Nazare.

Anyone with a camera and any sense at all is going to be drawn to Mavericks - a wave with movie star charisma: “I first shot Mavericks from the bluff on Big Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001. I made it onto a Zodiac the following season, a ski following that and have been going out on and off ever since, but not really that regularly until I moved back to SF in 2012.

I first swam in the lineup with Judith Sheridan (of course) in 2014 and then again during the Women’s Supersessions Invitational that season. My first real swell to swim in the lineup was the Super Bowl swell in Feb 2016. I planned to swim out there last season but cancer and chemo got in the way so I’m looking forward to returning to the lineup this fall.

This was from a swell in 2015 when I was on a boat. This is SF local and my friend, Ryan Seelbach. I did my first Mavericks video story about Ryan’s first time in the Mavericks contest while I was in graduate school at Berkeley and have been following his trail ever since. It should be noted that Ryan is 6’6” so he manages to somehow make most Mavericks waves look average. In this case, he is clearly in his element.

Kinda looks like Mavs from the other side, but kinda doesn’t. What’s the scoop? “This is one of my favorite photos from Ocean Beach near Noriega. This is Australian underground charger Skeet Derham who managed to score what remains my favorite session ever at The Beach.

Back to The Beach, and its many bipolar moods: Calm and smooth one day, riotous the next: “This was that same swell, early December 2015 at the start of the El Niño season at Ocean Beach. The sun came out in classic fashion for about 15 minutes this morning and the remainder of the day was the classic spooky grey OB. This is (from left to right) Pat Shaughnessy, Bianca Valenti and Danny Hess in between sets.

An interesting bird is a pelican, it can get more air than Kelly can. Shooting Ocean Beach puts Sachi eye to wingtip with nature.
Maybe a little too close to nature sometimes. When you’re swimming a few hundred yards to sea, you are more than a little vulnerable (and maybe even more so for women, according to Laird Hamilton. “Seeing fins and dark shapes cutting through a big green hump can be heart stopping - there in the Red Triangle: “But as soon as I saw them swimming in the waves I knew I was safe. It was the end of my session so to see these dolphins (or perhaps porpoises?) out there was icing on the cake. Watching them do their thing always puts a huge smile on my face.
Bianca Valenti likes pink boards and they can contrast nice with those blue days and green waves when all the elements are flowing together at The Beach: “This was Black Friday 2014, the first time I made it out on a significantly large day at OB. One of those magical days where the crowds thin to, in this case, three of my favorite surfers: Bianca Valenti, Ryan Seelbach and Lance Harriman. Bianca is on her favorite Pyzel Pink Paddilac. I like this photo because I think she looks like a superhero taking flight. This image ended up on the homepage of the New York Times last season (2016) when Bianca was making international news for her fight to get a women’s heat into the Maverick’s competition.
Brrrrrrrrilliant angle on Bianca dropping in on one of those frigid San Francisco winter days, when the wind feels like it came Straight Outta the Arctic. If it looks cold, you are correct. Way cold. Colder than….. “I use Viper fins, a 5.4.3 with hood - either Isurus, Patagonia or Xcell suit - with 5 mil socks and gloves. But even then I usually get out because of the cold. I can last around 2-3 hours in big, cold, surf. Warm water = no limits.
Something way cool about this photo. It almost looks like a mistake, like Sachi was out of position but she clicked it anyway, and got Bianca charging into a bomb at The Beach: “This was the same Black Friday swell in 2014, my first time in the wilds of OB. It’s funny, I’ve made these lists of top adventure photographers, but my biggest adventures are these sessions right in my front yard. I wasn’t in the best position for this photo - that is correct. It was like, “Shit! I’m too far back in the lineup!” when she took off. This was my first shot of the session. But the backlighting and the charging pose is pretty classic. This made it on the cover of the print edition of the LA Times in 2016 during Bianca’s fight to get a heat in the Mavericks competition.
Pipeline comes to Ocean Beach. This has a kind of Second Reef Pipe look about it, but much colder: “This is Johnny Bowling, a local OB and Mavs charger dropping in with a 10 foot board wearing a knee brace (!) - he wasn’t supposed to be out, but couldn’t help himself. So yes - pretty big day, the biggest I had swum out at that time during the early season 2014-15. This photo made it to a Surfline gallery where Marcus Sanders gave me “extra credit” for swimming out on a big day.
Anyone who has surfed NorCentCal from Moss Landing up to Fort Point knows this feeling: It’s cold, the surf is pumping, you’re tired, you want to go in but you don’t, the sun is out and there’s a teeny little bit of warmth available. Bianca Valenti turns to it like a sunflower, as the Pacifica Mountains look on.
This photo belongs on a velvet black-light poster being sold on the corner of Haight and Ashbury circa 1967. So hippie. So cool: “This and the previous image was the end of a two-day run of incredible swell at Ocean Beach. This reminds me of the silhouetted women on the back flaps of trucks, but obviously a bit more empowering. 🙂
Cancer and chemo - before and after. You could make an argument that Sachi doing battle with the tides and currents and surf and cold fear of taking watershots at Ocean Beach was preconditioning for the biggest battle of her life: cancer. You can read all about Sachi’s genetic predisposition to cancer, her diagnosis, her treatment and her fight on surfermag.com But here is the shorter version: “I was diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer Stage 1C in July 2016. They discovered a 2mm tumor in my fallopian tubes after I had a total hysterectomy and double mastectomy following a positive test for the BRCA1 gene, a gene that determined I would have a 90% chance of getting breast cancer and a 60% chance of ovarian cancer. Since my mom had both and died of ovarian cancer it was a no brainer to get the preventative surgeries. What was a surprise was to find cancer already growing inside of me. The tumor was discovered once they biopsied what was removed. I had 6 rounds of chemo following the discovery of the tumor to attempt to get every last cell. The last round of chemo was in December, so it lasted about 6 months. I had the last of my breast reconstruction surgeries two weeks ago. I'll be able to get back in the water again in two weeks and should be done with treatment aside from routine blood work check ups every 3-6 months for the next 5 years. Hoping for the best!

So what that means is, many of the photos you see in this portfolio were shot by a woman weakened by cancer, with a body drastically changed by life-saving surgeries. Quite a year.
Sachi with her husband Zachary Slobig and daughter Nami Slobig, a full head of hair and a full life ahead of her. When Sachi lost her hair she wrote it off in surfer style: “But whatever––I just looked like Shane Dorian and Kelly Slater ,” she was quoted on surfermag.com. The hair grew back nicely nicely but the other losses weren’t as simple. Sachi’s decision to get reconstructive surgery was inspired by her daughter: “Chemo is extremely painful in your bones and body. Breast reconstruction surgery is also no joke. While some may see getting reconstruction as anti-feminist, I did it mostly for my daughter. I grew up looking at my mom's radical mastectomy and frankly, it made me sad and scared. I didn't want my family to have to have a daily reminder of my cancer in that way. My daughter has had the most intimate relationship with my breasts of anyone. Based on her reaction to the results I know I made the right decision even though it is admittedly a very barbaric process, and probably not for everyone.
The Glimmer Twins - Sachi Cunningham and Bianca Valenti - radiating health and happiness at the 2017 WSL XXL Big Wave Awards in the spring of 2017. It was time to get loose after a long, painful year for Sachi Cunningham, as she juggled job, family, cancer, chemo, surgeries and shooting from Ocean Beach to Pe’ahi. Photo: Dayla Soul.
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