Kimiko Russell-Halterman paddles at the 2021 Black Sand Peace Paddle – an event in Manhattan Beach, California, to raise awareness and create space for black surfers.
Gabriella Angotti-Jones just wanted to surf.
That was early 2019. New York Times photographer Angotti-Jones is stuck in a freelance situation — always worrying about when her next assignment will come.
“I feel like I’m stuck in a hamster wheel,” she told CNN. “I just feel like this working machine.”
So she turned inward. In pursuit of a personal project, the Capistrano Beach, California native had one thing in mind: surfing.
“It’s like f**k – I just want to have fun,” Angotti-Jones said. “And I just want to surf.”
That’s the title of Angotti-Jones’ new photobook – “I Just Want to Surf” – available for pre-order now. Centered on black women and non-binary surfers, its pages are filled with lush images of the sea and people riding the waves, in locations from California to Costa Rica. But it’s also a personal heirloom, chronicling Angotty-Jones’ own journeys of surfing and depression.
After all, the project became Angotti-Jones’ home. She left New York for California for a month to connect with a group called Black Girls Surf. Armed with an inexpensive disposable camera, she began taking pictures of other black women and non-binary people on the water. At that time, she didn’t know where it all went. She just had a good time.
The photos in the book reflect this feeling. Surrounded by water and sand, the joy of surfers and their community is tangible. Their smiles bring readers closer; their body language calls us in too.
Angotti-Jones’ work is reminiscent of surf photography in the 1950s—blurred photos of people lounging on beaches and in the water, surfboards dragged along. This is in stark contrast to what many have portrayed when envisioning a more commercial surfing medium, showing people riding 8- to 9-foot waves and scaling back.
“It’s irrelevant,” Angotty-Jones said. “What’s relevant is resonance.”
Russell-Halterman and Diaz learn how to dodge short boards in a swimming pool in Nosara, Costa Rica.
Jackson pretended to throw a piece of driftwood with a javelin in Santa Barbara, California.
Clockwise from top: Jackson, Diaz, Shelby Tucker, photographers Gabriela Angotty-Jones and Marika Burnett take a selfie on the beach in Santa Barbara.
Diaz and Jackson walk to the beach in Nosara.
But surfing and surf culture aren’t always associated with a chilly beach vibe. There is also a strong culture of surf localism, the territorial notion that waves exist only among locals in the area. This mentality can become aggressive towards surfers who are seen as outsiders. Last year, for example, two black surfers said they were called a racist and homophobic slur by an older white surfer in Manhattan Beach, an incident that quickly went viral in the local surfing community.
Angotti-Jones’ work ignores those localist ideas — instead, it emphasizes the deep community surfing can create, especially among black surfers.
“I just wanted to show black women and non-binary people, and black people in general, in the same context as surfing,” she said. “I think it’s a super powerful storytelling tool, and it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re here. We’re surfing.'”
This is not a common sight. In the book, Angotty-Jones reveals that she didn’t meet another black surfer until January 2019.
One photo stands out in particular. Angotti-Jones captured Kimiko Russell-Halterman at the 2021 Black Sand Peace Paddle — a paddle in Manhattan Beach to raise awareness and create space for black surfers after an incident of racial harassment.
However, Russell-Holtman was caught screaming in joy as she rode her new longboard and jumped out of the waves.
Sierra Brown puts sunscreen on her arms.
Wetsuits hang to dry in Baja California, Mexico.
“When I look at Kimi, I see the joy of the ocean, I see what happens when you let the ocean put you under your feet,” Angotti-Jones said.
But there are quieter moments. Wax the planks alone, or apply a whitish sunscreen to darker skin.
In one image, in the foreground a young black girl in a swimsuit walks in front of a group of young white girls with surfboards. Although the two are walking in the same direction and seem to be doing the same thing, there is a gap.
All the girls participated in the same event hosted by SurfearNegra, which aims to diversify the sport by making surfing more accessible to children of color, and the Sisters of the Seas, a group focused on introducing young women to surfing . Although the kids got along well, Angotti-Jones noticed that there were still some less experienced black surfers who separated from white surfers, some of whom were already competing in surfing.
It was a feeling she recognized.
“I feel like I’m reliving what I’ve been through and I don’t feel like I’m a part of it even though I’m a part of it,” she said.
On the surface, this book is about surfing. But it’s also a vessel — a way for Angotti-Jones to deal with some of her own trauma and find the root of her depression. She said her mental illness had made her build walls. The black man pictured exudes a sense of openness that she has never allowed herself to experience.
That’s what she wants her readers to remember – the story of black surfers is not defined by racism and conflict, but by love and friendship. We are not the bad things that happen to us. We are the joy and community of our choice.
Underwater landscape of Guerrero, Mexico.
Shadows on the wall in Troncones, Mexico.