Surreal and powerful, Sarah Lee’s photos are getting a lot of attention lately. Sarah discusses her self-taught profession, what it’s like to give up control to the ocean, and the meaning and attitude of the word “stoke.”
– sarah lee
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ask me what I’m interested in or like to photograph, and it always has something to do with the ocean – whether in it or near it. I grew up in Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i (on a coffee farm!) and currently based out of there, though photo/video projects keep me traveling for 3/4 of the year. Primarily self-taught, my passion for underwater and surf photography emerged from my earlier years of competitive swimming, open water long distance events, and surfing throughout my teens. My Hawai’i roots give me a light-hearted and care free approach to photography – keeping things simple while magnifying the best in what surrounds me. I hope to continue to use my photography to document the lives of water people around the world.
Your underwater shots are incredible. What’s the attraction, and what are the challenges of shooting underwater?
Thanks! I was drawn to underwater photography because I enjoy being able to synthesize both the physical and creative “challenges” of the genre. In particular, I’m attracted to underwater photography in the ocean because of the lack control I have in such a massive body of water and it’s constant state of change in the lighting, water clarity, currents, surf, etc. It’s somewhere where you have to be completely switched on and be able to adapt to anything it throws at you.
Do you surf? If so, what’s your favorite place to surf?
When conditions aren’t “epic” enough to shoot, I’m out surfing. In Kona, that’s at least once a day but when I’m abroad, it’s only when I can steal a log from a friend, ha ha. My latest favorites have been long rolling rights: Maha’iulas on Big Island and Broken in NSW.
You’ve said, “Photography to me is a mode of visual problem solving and a way to perpetuate the stoke, whether it be above the surface or below.” Can you elaborate?
I approach making photos loosely around the question “how do I translate this? – person, feeling, place” which, filtered through my current state of happiness, boils down to “where is the happiness in this? the beauty? the stoke?” To me, “stoke” is a very present feeling of happiness, whether intrinsic or synthesized, and that’s what I want to perpetuate with my photos.
What have you learned about surfers in general? Biggest misconception?
While I was in Fiji for the month of June, I met a die-hard surfer and local hammock maker, Kit, who lives by the motto: “Live or cry, surf or die.” Though he was charging bigger waves than most people could ever imagine charging in their dreams, I think his motto sums up a fair share of the frothers out there … though for the majority or surf folk, that may also be a big misconception.
As you see it, what qualities does a good photographer possess?
Staying present, being conscientious, and finding the best lighting situations.
Capturing the moment – how do you know where you need to be for a particular shot?
It’s kind of an intuitive thing that comes through spending a lot of time in and around the ocean, figuring out what works, what does not, and tuning into what’s going on around you.
From your experience, have your best shots come from perfect planning or “perfect” accidents?
Perfect planning to put myself in the place for perfect accidents to happen.
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What’s photography taught you about yourself?
It’s my way of tuning in and getting involved with what’s going on around me.
If you could shoot any place in the world – where would that be?
Mozambique, South Island of NZ, Iceland.
How have you evolved as a photographer/artist from your first days at this craft?
It is like learning a new language by word of mouth. Picking up bits and pieces, starting out with broken phrases and terrible grammar, and after a few years with heaps of practical application, developing a proficiency and refinement in speaking (photos themselves), writing (technical side), dialect (genre: uw), and ultimately developing an accent (style) of my own. ;)
What’s your idea of a great shot?
To me, a great shot possesses “photogenié,” a certain timeless cinematic quality that’s essentially the “x-factor” of the photograph or shot in a film.
Your camera of choice?
Full frame is gold: 5D MKIII or D800 … though I have neither, ha ha.
Your favorite photographer?
I have enjoyed following the work of these three over the past few years, all of which have developed very unique visual styles: Anna Dobos, Morgan Maassen, Jeremy Snell.
Most challenging shoot you’ve ever done?
Since the beginning of 2012, I’ve been out and about shooting photo and video content for a web series that’s starting up, Alison’s Adventures. (www.alisonsadventures.com) It was a huge challenge, traveling around to various destinations such as Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji as a two-girl team both doing the work of a full production team, lugging around cameras, tripods, sound gear, boards, sponsor clothes to shoot, and ocean gear in varying weather conditions for 4 months straight. Totally worth it.
You have 30 seconds to leave for a shoot – and can only bring one camera and lens — what would that be?
Best thing about living in Hawaii?
Fresh, fresh food.
How would your friends describe you?
Observant, laid-back, and level-headed.
What are you working on now?
Packing for two months of very different adventures!
What’s next for you?
21 days of rafting and camping down the Colorado River at the end of September to shoot photo and video content for another episode of Alison’s Adventures. Being off the grid for 21 days is going to be insane!
+ Source: Sarah Lee
Article by Wes Garcia. Find him on Google+.