“I never thought I would be here,” says surfer/photographer Gabriella Angotti-Jones from the North Shore of O‘ahu, Hawaii, where she is covering the 2022 Vans Pipe Masters. The invitation-only event, which she describes as “the World Cup of surfing,” brings together 60 athletes from around the globe to ride the Banzai Pipeline, the most famous wave on earth.
“Vans invited Black, trans, and queer friends out here, and we’re at the center of the most important surfing competition of the year. To be able to witness it, represent our communities, make connections, and bring experiences back has been wonderful,” she says.
“I didn’t think that brands would want to see people like us here, but that’s not true. There’s a lot of negativity and aggro [aggression] in surfing but that’s not representative of the whole system. To be welcomed and supported has been wild, crazy, and amazing.”
“Do you know Selema Masekela?” Angotti-Jones asks, just days before the surf broadcaster joined Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o on Instagram to announce their relationship to the world. As it so happened, Masekela, son of South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela, was raised just 20 miles from the small Orange County beach town of San Clemente where Angotti-Jones spent her formative years.
“Selema is my dad’s age but we relate a lot to each other as being the only Black people to grow up in these incredibly white surfing environments,” Agnotti-Jones says.
“He was announcing the Pipe Masters and he came up to me and said, ‘I see you out there photographing and it’s so nice to see you choose your moment and understand it. I had the same experience when I was your age. I hope you find yourself and open yourself up to what is coming to you next because this world can give you whatever you ask and should demand from it as a Black woman.’”
Angotti-Jones’s joy is palpable and radiant, buoyant and uplifting, much like her new book, I Just Wanna Surf, which was shortlisted for the 2022 Aperture PhotoBook Award for First PhotoBook. “It’s really amazing,” she says. “I’m still processing it and I’m tearing up as I’m talking because it’s hitting me right now.”
Over the past century, Southern California has become synonymous with the good life — of sand, sun, sea, and surf, beautiful blondes with beach bodies tanned and toned, riding the waves by day and kicking back around the bonfire getting stoned.
Although surfing is of Hawaiian origin, it was widely popularized after local athletes came stateside. Immortalized in mid-century films, magazines, and song, surfing reached mythic heights, embodying the image of the “All-American” athlete in renegade form.
Unlike the team sports that dominate high school, college, and professional leagues, surfing is an individual pursuit that cannot be manufactured at will. The quest for the perfect wave creates a profound connection to nature that draws nonconformists and nomads alike. But surfing’s home base — Orange County — is one of the wealthiest areas of the United States and harbors long-standing right wing ideologies around gender and race.
For Gabriella Angotti-Jones’s mother, a first generation Italian-American growing up in East Los Angeles, the beach towns of Orange County represented the pinnacle of the American Dream. “My earliest memory was when she brought me to the water and the waves were pounding on the shore. It was pretty dangerous,” says Angotti-Jones. “I just ran towards the water and she picked me up and was like, ‘You’re not going in there.’ But I remember feeling like it wasn’t a big deal for me.”
Soon enough, Angotti-Jones was in swim classes, then spending her days at the beach before taking junior lifeguard classes to learn ocean safety. “I’m a water woman,” she says. “I love the ocean and I’m humbled by it at the same time. I feel like it’s the only thing I really know in my life, mostly because so much of me forming my identity was being in the ocean from such a young age. It’s given me such a level of confidence in myself and my surroundings because the ocean is very empowering. You’re getting to know something really unpredictable, strong, and sassy.”
Growing up in one of the only mixed-race families in San Clemente, a small beach town in Southern California, Gabriella Angotti-Jones remembers encountering racism soon after moving to Orange County. She was in the car with her father, a Black man, on the way to play tennis when they were pulled over by police. As the cop approached the car, her father warned, “Don’t move! Don’t do anything!”
“I remember I took off my seatbelt and huddled, trying to make myself super small,” says Angotti-Jones, then just 6 years old. “The officer was super aggressive with my dad, asking, ‘Is this your car? Where are you going? Why are you going so fast?’ and all this other stuff. It was really dehumanizing. My dad was really quiet. It wasn’t until hours at dinner than he said, ‘We have to talk.’”
Despite the harsh realities she faced, Angotti-Jones’s parents made sure she understood that she could pursue any path she chose. At the age of 8, she did just that, taking up surfing despite the fact she was the only Black girl in the mix. In time, Angotti-Jones began to notice the way people would stare and the curious comments they would make. Inundated by a tidal wave of racist microaggressions that undermined her sense of self, she began to wonder, “Do I belong in this space? Should I exist here? Why am I here?”
At age 12, Angotti-Jones quit surfing to protect her mental health. “I was internalizing these experiences and suddenly became aware of how I looked, my hair, my skin color, and how dark I would get. I stood out and wanted to fit a little more,” she says. “On top of that, when you grow up in an area like that, beach families are institutions and have long legacies in San Clemente. These kids have literally been in the water from [the beginning]. Then you have people like me who got there when I was 5, which is light years behind. I felt so different.”
The Endless Summer
In 2019, Gabriella Angotti-Jones, then in her mid-20s, reconnected with her roots when she began meeting other Black women and non-binary surfers who shared her intense connection with the ocean. Inspired by their energy, she began photographing them to show another side to the sport, one that has largely gone overlooked in favor of a singular archetype.
“Initially I had powerful feelings of being protective of the people I was meeting, like I had a responsibility to do that. It was really emotional and I didn’t know how to process it,” says Angotti-Jones, who began keeping a journal of her thoughts, feelings, and observations at the suggestion of mentors like photographer and photo editor Jeffrey Henson-Scales at The New York Times.
“I noticed what I was writing was really heavy. As soon as I got back in the water, all these old feelings from being a kid started coming up. I was trying to process my own racial trauma and depression by embedding my experiences in the people I was meeting who eventually became my friends, and how unhealthy that was,” she says.
“When I really started looking at the images I noticed a desperation to them. They are all happy images based on connection, relatability, and love, and that was the opposite of what I was feeling on the inside, which was confusion and turmoil about who I am and what I am doing. Once I realized this, it became the narrative. Surfing is a disruptive sport because you’re constantly searching for high, riding the wave, and nature doesn’t line up with your needs that much.”
But life follows art, and Angotti-Jones rode the wave, creating I Just Wanna Surf out of pure need, both individual and collective. Like the best athletes, she aligned her body and mind with her milieu, allowing instinct to guide her journey.
“This is the rawest and realest thing I’ve ever done because I was processing my depression in real time. I didn’t realize the book was about me until it was out in the world. The entire time I deluded myself and said, ‘This is totally about my friends’ — and it is, the pictures are real. None of it is posed,” she says.
“It wasn’t until I worked closely with Peter Van Agtmael and Ben Brody, who make deeply personal books about war, that I decided to include part of my experience in the book, because they told me, ‘People want to hear your story. You are a part of this.’”
I Just Wanna Surf is published by Mass Books, $40.00.