© Gabriella Angotti-Jones
In focus with surf photographer and journalist Gabriella Angotti-Jones
Gabriella stopped surfing at a young age because she didn’t feel comfortable on the water. Now, she’s taking it all back and more with a new book that looks at Black surfers and mental health.
Growing up in Capistrano beach, photographer Gabriella Angotti-Jones lived and breathed the ocean air of the beaches she grew up on, and got into surfing at a young age. Capistrano is a tiny beach community, in one of the last coastal regions between Los Angeles and San Diego that’s predominantly working class and lower income, a half-hour from the U.S.-Mexico border. Angottin Jones’s family moved to the area when she was five: “I remember seeing the ocean for the first time. It was a really big day and I tried to get into the water right away.”
Angotti-Jones started photographing at 23 and worked at newspapers around the country before landing a coveted New York Times internship in 2018. Her work has earned her awards such as Photographer of the Year and Shortlisted for Aperture 2022 for first photobook, “I Just Wanna Surf,” published in October.
“I started surfing when I was nine and I stopped when I was 12,” said Angotti-Jones, partially due to how she felt receiving comments from other surfers in the waves. “I always felt like the ocean was a part of who I was and my identity. I unintentionally processed a lot of stuff at the water. I grew up on the beach, like not near, not visiting but getting dropped off and being there from 7 am to 7 pm every day.”
She learned to swim in Capistrano, and worked her way up to junior lifeguard and then surf camp. “My neighbor(s) surfed, and some family friends,” she said, “I started on a big longboard and worked my way up to the shortest board. That’s when I started to notice some of my first microaggressions in the water.”
Despite roots in Africa, Polynesia and the Americas, surfing today is a predominantly white, upper middle class sport. This speaks to the availability of equipment and lessons, and more and more often the accessibility of who has the rights and ability to simply access the beach and coastal areas. For Angotti-Jones, she experienced this playing out more and more in front of her, while she was still too young to really put a label on the discomfort she was feeling.
Chris Blue, a surfer who is from the East Coast and now lives in South Central Los Angeles was also featured in “I Just Wanna Surf.” They’ve been surfing at Manhattan Beach for two years, and acknowledge that racist interactions and micro-aggressions still happen on the water. For Blue, these experiences are something one has to transcend in order to have a “good” session.
Angotti-Jones’s mixed race family had roots in Los Angeles. Her father is a designer originally from Texas, and her mother, “a switchblade of a human being,” is the daughter of Italian immigrants who grew up in East Los Angeles, and had various jobs over the years. “They wanted my sisters and I to have access to the things that they wanted, too,” she said. “They very much understood what it meant to have mixed race kids in Southern California, but I don't think they really understood what it would be like to raise them in Orange County, in a predominantly white environment.”
“They've seen me go through a lot of this,” she said. “My mom was the first one to help me realize this was happening. When I was working on college applications, I didn’t know what to write about, and my mom said, ‘Write about the ocean.’ She opened up a lot of questions for me about surfing, being the only Black woman in the water that I’m still trying to answer. It was a 5-6 year journey about figuring myself out where my depression stemmed from.”
The book has grown out of questions like the ones Angotti-Jones and her mother tackled, and that other surfers of color confront on the water. “I photographed Shelby Tuckerand Olga Diaz when they were part of Black Girl Surf,” she said. “After that, I started hopping around. I went on a big surf trip to Hawaii and met a lot of other women, and met a lot of Black and Brown and queer surfers from there.”
I mourn for the fact that I could be better at surfing now if I hadn't let that [early] negativity get to me. I had to deal with it, get past it, and process, and now it's off my shoulders. I didn't realize a photo book would help me do that.
Angotti-Jones continued these relationships, and made more, as she photographed surfers in Hawaii, California, and New York. The photographs, and the book itself, capture pure joy and sisterhood among the surfers, and celebrate experimentation both of waves and photography. The images in the book and the layout are classic 1970s surf, with a bit of a twist. “That was the aesthetic I grew up obsessed with, but I felt like I couldn't participate in surf culture because it wasn't for me,” said Angotti-Jones.
“My dad subscribed to Big Brother skate magazine, which was run by the Jackass guys. It was very punk, pretty crude and f*cked up sometimes. But it's about a bunch of skateboarders hanging out and having a fun time. I thought that it was a good storytelling tool, and that by showing Black, Brown and nonbinary women in that way, they're just as hardcore as anyone else who does this.”
Autumn Kitchens, a New York based surfer who grew up in Rockaway has been surfing for nine years. She only began to take surfing seriously when she was able to go out with people who looked like her on the water.
“I’ve been surfing for a really long time, and for a long time didn’t feel comfortable in the water,” Kitchens said on the phone from New York. “To see myself in the book and see myself in a project with other beautiful Black people and women was a dream come true. To have a friendship with Gabbie made it more impactful.”
Angotti-Jones’s personal relationship with surfing continues to grow, bolstered by the love and success of “I Just Wanna Surf.” As soon as she finished the book, she dropped two board sizes to a shortboard. “I mourn for the fact that I could be better at surfing now if I hadn't let that [early] negativity get to me.I had to deal with it, get past it, and process, and now it's off my shoulders. I didn't realize a photo book would help me do that.”
Angotti-Jones’s next project will be reporting on sharks and rays in Cameroon and Ghana next year, with a grant from the Save Our Seas foundation and the end goal to photograph more international stories that focus on the ocean and environment.
Order your copy of Gabriella’s “I Just Wanna Surf” photo book here.