075: Sachi Cunningham/She Change

Bianca Valenti at Puerto Escondido. Picture: Sachi

“It’s hard to be what you can’t see”.

First podcast of my California road trip! And what a lovely way to kick things off. I first heard of Sachi Cunningham when a listener tipped me off, and I immediately got in touch to ask her if she’d be up for coming on the show while I was in San Francisco.

Sachi made her name by pioneering this type of unique Ocean Beach angle.

Sachi is a surf photographer, filmmaker, journalist, mother, cancer survivor and all round force of nature who has spent the last few years working on a project called She Change. It’s a documentary which follows Keala Kennelly, Paige Alms, Bianca Valenti and Andrea Moller on their quest to be admitted in the Maverick’s big wave event, and which uses that topic to explore the wider story of the quest for gender parity in big wave surfing.

Bianca on a screamer at Jaws. Photo: Sachi

It’s a story that has garnered significant mainstream coverage, and She Change tackles themes I’ve covered on previous podcasts, one of which is how men react when women ‘encroach’ on what is traditionally very masculine territory.
Sachi is a skilled storyteller, and she tackles this nuanced and emotional topic with the honest and integrity that is a feature of all her work, whether it’s her pioneering water photographer at waves like Ocean Beach and Mavericks, or in the way she fearlessly and openly documented her recent cancer experience.

Another side of Ocean Beach

Overall, this is yet another poignant, at times hilarious and completely honest conversation with an inspirational guest, who is driven to tell stories about people who’s passion has driven them into new and uncharted territory. Much like Sachi herself.

Show Notes

  • NYTimes article on gender equality in surfing.
  • How to pronounce Sachi’s name.
  • Her Japanese family’s experience of WW2.
  • Being a Japanese-American citizen.
  • Teaching English in Japan.
  • Working in the film industry in Tokyo.
  • Learning water photography in Japan.
  • Buying her first DSLR camera: EOS-1N RS.
  • Not surfing until she was 25.
  • Body surfing during holidays seeing family in California.
  • Learning to shoot in the water before learning how to surf.
  • Discovering water photography through a documentary about Aaron Chang.
  • Photographing the surfer community in Tanegashima, Japan.
  • The process of learning to shoot 20 years ago.
  • Travelling Southeast Asia and searching for identity.
  • Learning Japanese.
  • The ‘lost in translation’ with Asian films in the West.
  • Working as an assistant in Demi Moore’s and Bruce Willis’ office, and assistant to Demi Moore for ‘The Juror’ (1996).
  • “More or less the path has been finding my path”.
  • Honing her journalism skills working in the movie industry.
  • Currently professor of journalism at San Francisco State University.
  • Studying filmmaking at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
  • What inspired the CRUTCH documentary.
  • Joining the Ocean Beach community.
  • Why surfing has grown popular over the years.
  • Sachi’s photo essay on the women who surf Ocean Beach for Surfer Magazine.
  • Making films for news organisations.
  • Having a niche in journalism.
  • ‘Chasing the Swell’ video for LA Times.
  • Documenting the first Big Wave Tour for Men.
  •  ‘180° South
  • The big trip with her husband: driving from LA to Chile for 14 months – and having their baby.
  • The 2012 Ocean Beach swell.
  • How to get in to surf photography: find the surfer to document.
  • Shooting with Bianca Valenti.
  • Not making a living out of water photography.
  • The SheChange project begins.
  • The first 12 women surfing at Mavericks and campaigning for women to have a heat.
  • Sachi’s video on Bianca for the SF Chronicle.
  • The obstacles women face in outdoor sports.
  • The masculinity of the wilderness.
  • Jeff Clark wearing a pink wetsuit.
  • Seeing change in male surfers.
  • Seeking funding for the SheChange film.
  • “If I was a guy making this film, it probably would’ve been made by now”.
  • Sachi’s editorial choice to narrate SheChange in first person.
  • Being diagnosed with cancer 2 years into filming, and documenting her experience.
  • “I attribute a large part of my recovery to that time being in the water”.
  • Investing in films is a cultural, not necessarily financial, investment.
  • The timeline for SheChange.

People Mentioned

  • Keala Kennelly
  • Paige Alms
  • Bianca Valenti
  • Andrea Möller
  • Layne Beachley
  • Aaron Chang
  • Bill Shannon
  • Jesse Simon
  • Rebecca Wunderlich
  • Suzie Yang
  • Beth Price
  • Greg Long
  • Mark Healey
  • Matt Warshaw
  • Bastien Bonnarme
  • Nico Sell
  • Easkey Britten
  • Sabrina Brennan
  • Jeff Clark
  • Louis Psihoyos
  • Adrian Hall
  • Sylvia Lacock Marino
  • Kelly Clark

Places Mentioned

  • Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe
  • San Francisco
  • Santa Monica
  • Okayama, Japan
  • Kagoshima, Japan
  • Tokyo, Japan
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Tanegashima, Japan
  • Sumbawa, Indonesia
  • Bali, Indonesia
  • Lakey Peak
  • Nias
  • Ocean Beach, San Diego
  • Oahu, Hawaii
  • Half Moon Bay
  • Todos Santos, Mexico
  • Silver Lake, LA
  • Chile
  • Panama
  • Peru
  • Wahaca, Mexico
  • Ireland
  • Mullaghmore
  • Maui, Hawaii
  • Alcatraz