Writer Lauren L. Hill talks to one of America’s most accomplished surf documentarians
Sarah Lee’s first foray into underwater photography came at a high school swim meet. In her first year, she jumped into the pool with a borrowed camera and discovered a whole world of beauty and fluidity just below the surface. She witnessed the edges blur between bodies of water and found light and shadow play upon the skin in otherworldly ways.
“It allowed me to experience what was going on around me in a much richer way,” Lee remembers. “Ultimately, photography gave me a sense of contributing to something beyond myself as I engaged with my surroundings and peers.” Lee’s photography has continued to enrich her life. For her, making images isn’t so much about complex intellectual musings, as it is about experiencing and then conveying beauty and joy.
Growing up in Hawai‘i, Lee was immersed in the vibrant hues and deep contrasts of the tropics. She was raised on a coffee farm and amongst the beaches of the Big Island of Hawai‘i, but she spent most of her water time in the pool as a competitive long-distance swimmer and water polo player. On land, she dedicated extracurricular time to learning about web design, video editing, and graphic design.
Demands for her photographic prowess came early. Throughout high school, she shot professional portraits for other students as well as couples and weddings. It was a great responsibility for a 17-year-old, but indicative of Lee’s dedication to her craft, even from early on. She has since worked with some of the world’s biggest brands and media outlets: National Geographic, ESPN, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and H&M, among many others.
Moving to Southern California in 2008 refined Lee’s career trajectory. During her university studies, she found herself drawn to the ocean in a new way: toward surfing. Increasingly interested in riding waves, she also became fascinated with the idea of taking her photographic skills to sea. Since then, she has become a leading surf photographer, specializing in water photography. Her years spent honing strength and endurance in still water, via competitive swimming and water polo gave her a rare advantage.
The physicality of making images in the water is often overlooked. Photographers have currents and tides to contend with, rogue set waves to avoid, and out-of-control surfers to dodge. Riptides can pull a photographer out to sea, and coral reef heads snag skin. And the job requires hours of treading water and searing sun on top of that. But the skilled surf photographer still manages to extract moments of treasure from the chaos.
At first, she didn’t know much about currents or how to line up with surfers to make good images, “but as I put my time in, took advice from others, and became more confident in surfing myself, I’ve gotten more comfortable and can find my way in most ocean situations. Now, I feel like when I’m in the water with my camera, my brain shuts down, and I can get into this sort of meditative state where I can be with what’s in front of me, going with the flow of feeling instead of thinking.”
Her mastery of the physical and creative challenges of water photography came from many years of practice as well as working closely to develop creative clarity with other athletes and artists. One of those is Alison Teal, a surfing adventurer with a strong environmental ethic, who has been called “the Oprah of adventure” by O magazine and “the female Indiana Jones” by Time magazine. Alison, usually donning a hot pink bikini and shortboard, sets up quirky photographic opportunities to bring awareness to her campaigns, in service of protecting indigenous cultures and the planet from human misuse. For years, she traveled extensively with Alison to document her work. “Professionally, Alison’s a storyteller with a vision and a need to capture and portray those visuals to get her message across, and that’s what I love to do best.”
Lee divides her year between her home bases in Hawai‘i and Southern California. When she’s on the road blurring the lines between work and play with her photography, she adopts a philosophy of saying yes to new adventures, collaborations, and concepts: “I think what’s opened doors for me is just playing and collaborating with talented water people and creating art. The more personal and creative work I put out there, the more work comes in.”
Moving forward, she is keen on pushing her work into heavier water situations, shooting big waves, and continuing to portray “the ocean as a beautiful place worth celebrating and protecting.
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