A life shaped by water
The name “Sachi” means happiness in Japanese. Water photographer, documentary filmmaker and Professor of Multimedia Journalism at San Francisco State University Sachi Cunningham is half Japanese with a sprinkling of Scottish stock, so it is fitting that she finds the most happiness when surrounded by water like her island ancestors.
A graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, Cunningham’s documentaries focus on the ocean environment, international conflict, the arts, and her favorite pastimes, body-surfing and surfing.
A long list of awards have been bestowed upon her work, from Emmys, to Webbys to recognition from Pictures of the Year International for her filmmaking with media outlets far and wide, including the PBS documentary series Frontline, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Discovery Channel, and the Los Angeles Times.
Her avid passion for water surf photography since 1996 has led to countless hours stepping into both the warm and cold waters of the world’s oceans. She bought her first film camera and water housing in Tokyo, when working as a Marketing Director for a cinema complex. Soon followed an apprenticeship with a Japanese surf photographer, and travel for a year to a dozen different countries around East and Southeast Asia. Her final stop was Indonesia where she spent two months falling in love with the practice of swimming and capturing images of wave riders.
“My original dream was to be a water surf photographer, however the reality was that I couldn’t figure out how to make a living from it when I was younger,” says Cunningham, “I kind of joke to myself that I’ve finally achieved my dream now that I’m a professor because I have the flexibility to schedule to shoot when it’s good, and have the creative luxury of not having to make a living on my surf photos.”
The work she feels the most proud of is a three part video titled “Chasing the Swell” that she shot, produced and edited for the Los Angeles Times about big wave surfing, tracking the best surfers in the world as they chased a swell across the Pacific, that also culminated in documenting the first season of the Big Wave World Tour held during 2009-2010.
A former competitive swimmer and water polo player, from a young age Cunningham has always enjoyed a partnership of passion with the surf, no board, just herself and the freedom of riding the crashing waves.
“Bodysurfing will always be my true love, I have been fortunate to swim alongside Ocean Beach bodysurfing legend, Judith Sheridan who has bodysurfed at Mavericks, and who taught me how to navigate the frigid waters around breaks in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay.”
Cunningham currently lives in a beachfront home in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco where she regularly bodysurfs, surfs and shoots in the challenging waters of Ocean Beach.
Recently ASJ surf editor Neil Pearlberg was able to sit down with Sachi.
ASJ: You have taken some amazing surf pictures. What’s the next step for your photography career?
SC: I was recently in Portugal where I saw American big wave surfer Garrett McNamara. He invited me to film him the first season in Nazare, Portugal when he surfed his famed 100-foot wave, but I was driving with my husband from California to Chile at the time with the goal of starting a family so we decided to stay the course. It was a difficult decision, but I know that I probably wouldn’t have a daughter now if I had taken on a project like that. Garrett and his wife Nicole are great, and very encouraging of my work so I’m hopeful that I can work on a future project with them.
ASJ: Have you been involved in any ocean film projects that have not involved surfing?
SC: I’m very proud of a video that I did about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and shrimper Phan Plork from Buras, Louisiana who was one of a fleet of fishermen hired by BP to clean up their oil spill. Faced with rough seas, inexperience in oil cleanup and the arrival of hurricane season, Plork and his wife Tal worried for their future. I also made a piece about Abby Sunderland, a 16-year-old girl from Thousand Oaks, California who tried to non-stop solo circumnavigate the globe in her sailboat Wild Eyes. Both were made while I was on staff at the Los Angeles Times, and have won several national awards.
ASJ: When you are not teaching and crafting stories, how do you like to spend your time?