Earlier this year, 13-year-old Olive Bowers picked up a magazine, flipped through its pages and discovered women were not surfing. At least they weren’t surfing in the images. There was one “girl of the month” photo but was nowhere near a beach. According to this magazine, female surfers are valued more for their aesthetic than their surfing ability.
Of course, to anyone who has looked at more than two surfing magazines this is no surprise. For all the recent steps towards gender equality in surfing, photography of women or photography by women both lie in a continuum of 1950s sexism. Since the days of Doc Ball, surf photography has been the primary convoy for the morals and values of the culture. What photographers produced and distributed became a cultural expression of what surfing is and should be. Consequently, whoever held the camera controlled the vision. What Olive found was that the message surf photography projects is a devaluation of women as surfers to conduits of sexual fantasy.
The visual cues are obvious; cropping to refocus the viewer on her physical attributes; beheading her; if the face is shown, she is posed seductively; capturing her on the beach but not surfing; if she is surfing, she is only captured at a bottom turn (remember, focus on her “best assets”). It is a perspective infamously known as the male gaze, made for and made by men. Counting the times a female surf photographer is mentioned in any surfing history book by Matt Warshaw is enough to demonstrate how the gaze was constructed.
Additionally, a browse through the contributor sections of surf magazines and photo books today is enough to reveal the perpetuation of this perspective through history. After this tour through literature, two things become clear: surfing history as told through photography is a patriarchal tale with male surf photography being the only photography shown, and thus the woman’s perspective on surfing, on being a female surfer, is marginalized and ignored.
These conclusions as a researcher of surf photography history are inescapable. Initially, the physical strength required to carry the camera and capture the surfer whilst swimming made it difficult for women to pursue a career in surf photography. If women did take up surf photography, it was from a beach or cliff edge through a telephoto lens. Yet these efforts were seldom seen in surfing publications where a woman’s perspective was not as valued as a man’s. In the late 80’s, Elizabeth Pepin-Silva, a journalist disenfranchised by the surfing industry’s reluctance to capture women in a non-sexualized manner, became the first woman to photograph surfing from the water and have that work published in surf magazines. It is around this time more women started to take up surf photography as a hobby and eventually a career.
It would be great to say that very brief story ended with women surf photographers being hired just as much as men. We all know that is not the case. Not only is the surf industry denying women a voice, but it also denies them the opportunity to make a career out of surf photography. I am well aware of the difficulties in maintaining surf photography solely as a career, from the democratization of photography, reduced money available at magazines to pay photographers, the need to have multiple streams of income, and so on. But that still doesn’t explain the reluctance to hire female surf photographers for paid campaigns when men are so readily hired in front of them.
I once heard an argument during my research that “women’s surf photography just isn’t that good.” Quite frankly, that’s bullshit. Tired with the pessimism surrounding women’s surf photography, I decided to create the WSPC (Women’s Surf Photography Collective), dedicated to showcasing the incredible work done by female surf photographers. Part of the pessimism around women’s surf photography originates from a lack of awareness of many women behind the lens. Browse through the collection and try disputing the quality of women’s surf photography, or denying the need for more female perspectives, in a male-dominated industry.
It is time our entire community grew up. Women are as much a part of surfing as men are. Gender equality in surfing is an issue both genders should support, and by excluding women from surf photography as a career, the entire industry loses out on ideas, talent, and stories of amazing people. We are beginning to see greater equality in competition surfing, it’s also time to see this on the commercial side of surfing.