Q&A: Gabriella Angotti-Jones on Surfing, Community, and Storytelling
With her new book "I Just Wanna Surf" the LA-based photographer empowers Black folks to get in the water while challenging what surf media looks like
Capturing the beauty, joy, and complexities of the ocean is no easy feat. It takes not only patience and skill but also a deep understanding of the ebbs and flows of our planet’s most abundant resource. Photojournalist Gabriella Angotti-Jones has been captivated by and has been studying the ocean since she was a child. Now, she’s using her talents as a visual storyteller to show the many ways folks live by and enjoy the ocean.
A self-described “very curious and observant person,” Angotti-Jones began her career in news media, working as a staff photographer at the L.A. Times and now frequently contributes to the New York Times, among other outlets. Feeling the pull to create more personal work, she recently fixed her lens on her friends, and the ocean—an organic decision that has led to her most recent project.
“I didn't know I was going to make a book until I had a post go viral,” Angotti-Jones shares, “and my mentors Ben Brody and Peter van Agtmael saw it and said, ‘This is a book. You should make a book.’” I Just Wanna Surf, named by Angotti-Jones for the expletive she and friends often shared while in the ocean, went to print in late 2022 and has been met with widespread praise. The unique mix of raw, nostalgic film images shared alongside personal diary-like entries in a zine-like format makes this book feel like a much-needed fresh take in the outdoor space.
Recently, on a bright Los Angeles afternoon, we spoke with Angotti-Jones about why she keeps returning to the ocean, how her relationship with depression informs her work, why this book matters in the face of mainstream surf media, and how she intends to use her work to further ocean conservation and community connection. Read on for the full conversation.
Let’s start at the beginning, tell us a little about your aquatic journey. Did you grow up around the water? Were you always someone who loved the ocean?
I grew up in a small beach town called Capistrano Beach. It's sandwiched between Dana Point and San Clemente, California, just south of Laguna Beach––walking distance from the ocean. My mom would take us to the beach pretty much every day after school. Eventually, she put me in a surf camp and I started surfing. I got my first surfboard when I was about nine and then I surfed with my neighbors and family friends until I was 12. And then I stopped because I just felt a lot of pressure because that’s the age when competitive surfing starts, but then I started studying the ocean at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. My main focus was marine science and I ended up doing research internships out there.
I pretty much stopped surfing consistently until I turned 25, 26, then caught the bug again. And now I've been surfing consistently for three years.
Can you describe the feeling that being out in the ocean gives you? Why has it become such a big part of your life again?
It gives me balance. If I don't surf, I get crazy. Working on the book has made me realize a lot about my depression and how much racial trauma affected me. I didn't realize I conflated that a lot with the ocean. When I was young, I really wanted to relate to someone, and working on this book and realizing there are other people that looked like me and did the same things I liked helped me.
The ocean always humbles me in ways that I couldn't be challenged on land. I think it's the experience of being in the water and being so in touch with my surroundings that has taught me a lot about how to be kinder to myself.
How did you start your creative journey? And what about photography as a medium that captivates you?
I've always been really creative and I come from a creative family. My mom is really art inclined—she wanted to be a curator at one point—and my dad is a designer. So I grew up around movies and just being aware of different cultural movements in art, and that really inspired me to be a visual person.
I've also always been a very depressed person and I tend to embed my own experiences and of others, and photography is a really good way to do that. That's what attracted me to it because I didn't have to directly address my everyday experience and what was going on in my head. I could distract myself with what was around me.
"I'm pretty hell-bent on getting to know people and sharing their stories, and showing their resilience."
I really enjoy aesthetics and sharing people's stories and sharing people's power because I've very much felt powerless in the context of my depression, since I was like 8, 9, 10 years old. So, I'm pretty hell-bent on getting to know people and sharing their stories, and showing their resilience.
Why was it important for you to find and build community when you reconnected with surfing?
I think it was in part healing my younger self and giving my inner child what I've always wanted. What started out as a curiosity to get to know if there are other people around me that like the water has grown into some of my best friends.
I consciously/unconsciously created a community where I felt like I could relate to those that shared the same experiences as me. It's so comforting to know I'm able to text any one of my friends and be like, "Hey, surfing?" And I have this really large group of people I can text and eventually find someone to go out in the water with.
What inspired the concept, style, and name of your latest project, I Just Wanna Surf?
I was working as a freelancer in New York City and just finished up an internship and I felt like I wasn't shooting like myself. I wanted to work on something that encapsulated who I was as a person, which is a parking lot beach rat, and reflected the imagery I grew up with—surf and skate magazines. So my boyfriend at the time was like, “You're a surfer and an ocean person, you should do something on that.”
I ended up connecting with my now really good friends Olga and Shelby and it just kind of went from there. I would bring out disposable cameras and like, call upon the golden era of surfing and that kind of imagery, but recreate that with Black and brown women and people in general.
"I wanted to make a surf book that was just so radically different than all the other surf books out there."
Was there a particular feeling you wanted the images to convey, or a narrative to tell?
We edited the book like it was crashing waves––waves of emotion or waves from surfing, crashing on you. What the crescendo of catching and riding the high of a wave is like and then coming down, and those warm mellow and contemplative moments. There's a lot of repetition in the kinds of images that are presented. They also mirror the cycle of depression.
We just wanted the images to have a very emotional editing sense to them, so that the reader could connect with the text, which is pretty heavy about depression, my experience, but also the vibrancy and elation of my friends in the images. The narrative is between those two spaces.
Why was it important for you to not only share images but your own thoughts side by side with the photographs?
Two reasons: the first is because as I was taking these pictures I kept a journal of everything I was feeling and once Ben and Peter took a look at it, they were like, "Oh, okay. This is the narrative right here." Because it's the contrast and elevated the work to speak to something more than just images of Black people screaming on waves.
Secondly, in surf books, like the ones that have been made already, there's this really funny thing where they make a book about their surf adventures and there's always a narrative in a conversational style that kind of explains the story.
I wanted to make a surf book that was just so radically different than all the other surf books out there, which just focus on technical images of surfing. I wanted this to be more real and relatable because surfing is not like what it's advertised at all. I wanted to attest to the experience of what it's like to actually be a surfer, rather than how it's advertised.
Lastly, what’s next for you? Will you continue exploring surfing through photography or switch gears completely?
I am in the process of planning a trip to Ghana at the end of February to photograph shark fisheries and overfishing in West Africa. That's my main focus this year, because I ultimately want to travel around the world and tell ocean stories and show communities and people and how their identities intersect with their environment in the ocean.
I think I unintentionally made the surfer work a good jumping-off point for that. Eventually, I want to make a big body of work on how we enjoy the ocean.
I Just Wanna Surf, published by Mass Books, is now available directly from Gabriella Angotti-Jones for $40.