Raised on the East Coast of the US by two photographers, Amanda was taught to see the world through her own unique perspective. But it wasn’t until 2018, when she discovered surfing in Sri Lanka that she became a photographer herself. Inspired by the sea and her fellow surfers, Amanda grabbed a camera and has been shooting ever since.
Hey Amanda! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for us. We note you’ve made the move across to Sri Lanka. How did this decision come about? Was it a hard one to make?
Sri Lanka is where I discovered surfing! Two years ago, I came for a short holiday and took a surf lesson. And that was it; I thought ‘damn, guess I have to do this everyday for the rest of my life’. From there, the pieces sort of fell into place. My background was in international development and climate change, and I realized that many of the global challenges I focused on existed within the context of developing surf communities. I extended my stay in Sri Lanka indefinitely and got involved with the local community, helping establish the Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club in August 2018, Sri Lanka’s first surf club for local women. The support that emerged behind this club on the East Coast inspired my co-founder Martina and me to move to the South Coast and enable even more local women to start surfing. That’s how SeaSisters Sri Lanka was founded.
Meanwhile, I was surfing every day and at some point I saw someone emerge from the sea with a camera. It blew my mind, it hadn’t even occurred to me that people would go into the water and photograph. I figured it must be the most exciting thing in the world. I looked at that person with an intense curiosity, but also a strange jealousy. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and two months later, I took the leap and bought a water housing. After my first swim out and the worst photos I’ve ever taken, I knew it was one of the best decisions I had made.
Can you provide some more detail on Sea Sisters Sri Lanka for those who haven’t heard of it.
SeaSisters is a social enterprise on Sri Lanka’s South Coast that I co-founded in October 2018. The overall vision is to create a more inclusive and responsible surf community, with more women on waves and where tourism benefits locals while minimizing harm to the environment.
In Sri Lanka, particularly in rural, coastal areas, traditional gender norms place local women inside the homes, responsible for raising a family. So despite growing up in surf communities, they are hardly seen in the ocean. They lack the access and opportunity to learn to swim and surf, which prevents them from taking up skilled jobs in surf tourism. To address this, we founded SeaSisters.
Through free swim and surf lessons for local girls and women, we focus on challenging gender norms, overcoming fears, and building the skills and confidence needed for local women to take up jobs in surf tourism. For the men, they see their women do something they never thought was a ‘female’ thing to do, sparking new mindsets about what is expected of each gender. We also incorporate environmental education and activities, such as beach clean ups, to bring awareness to environmental issues and foster more sustainable practices; and host special workshops and collaborations on topics related to women’s empowerment, mental health and safety.
We’ve been growing quickly and the amount of work can get pretty intense, but it's such an amazing journey! You can learn more on Instagram (@sea_sisters_lk) or on our website: www.seasisterslk.com.
Where abouts are you based in SL and would you recommend to a travelling surfer?
I am in Midigama on the South Coast. It’s amazing here! From November through April there are mellow, consistent waves that we share with sea turtles and friendly locals. Surf tourism has been growing rapidly here over recent years, but there’s still a really laid back energy. It’s as mellow as the waves, especially when compared to surf destinations like Bali.
What’s the best thing about living in SL?
It’s a slower pace than what I grew up with back in the US. I’ve adapted to the simpler way of life and realized that when we slow down, there’s space to appreciate the day to day things that make life beautiful. It definitely puts things in perspective and realigns your priorities to enjoy life and not just work, work, work. Plus I get to spend each day in the sea!
What are you shooting with at the moment?
Canon 5d Mark 4 with a 50mm or 24-70mm lens, and an Aquatech housing.
I shoot almost solely from water as it’s way more fun to be in the ocean than stuck on land. It's as much of a sport as it is a form of art. I love capturing heavy surf in a slightly soft and artistic way. The adrenaline and excitement of being in heavy conditions is unlike anything I’ve experienced. You’re navigating the intensity and strength of the ocean, while trying to get ‘the shot’, it’s crazy. It brings me completely into the present moment and everything on land disappears. I love this feeling.
Have you got any favourite female surfers or photographers that you draw inspiration from?
So many! I really admire women who empower and support each other, like Lauren Hill (@theseakin) and Becky Mendoza from Changing Tides Foundation (@actionsportslaw). Competitive attitudes are so common and I think it’s something we all struggle with - comparing ourselves or feeling like we’re racing against each other - but I really believe that this doesn't get us anywhere. When we share knowledge and support each other, we’re stronger and all achieve more.
My goal is to continually progress into heavier waves so I draw a lot of inspiration from women who swim out and shoot big surf, like Ha'a Keaulana (@haakeaulana), Maria Fernanda Bastidas (@mariafernandaphoto) and Bryanna Bradley (@bryannabradleyphotography). So badass! It’s definitely no joke and they capture these heavy conditions in such an elegant way. It’s what I strive to do, so seeing their work inspires me and hopefully more women too to get out there.
There’s definitely a difference in the way men and women see the world, and while neither is better than the other, the male perspective has dominated surf photography for a long time (especially heavier surf) so it’s really exciting to see the female perspective coming out more and more :)
I recently spoke to a friend who said she felt intimidated to get out into the surf in a male dominated line-up. What’s your advice to others who may feel the same way?
The energy in a male dominated line up can be wayyy different than a more gender-balanced one, and this can definitely be tough. But there is no way to control who is in the line up, so my key is to not think too much - if I want to surf, I go, and if I want to shoot, I do it. I remind myself that we all deserve to be out there and that gender doesn’t matter. We’re not there to prove anything to anyone, we’re just there to connect with and enjoy the ocean. Sometimes that means just being in the line up and accepting an aggressive male energy, or tuning it out and finding some waves. Whatever each day brings, it’s okay as long as we don’t lose sight of why we’re there and make sure to find the fun.
What advice would you give to women starting out in the photography industry?
Shoot as much as you can! Just like surfing, it’s about the hours spent in the water getting an understanding of positioning and experimenting with settings, light, angles, etc.
And reach out to others for advice! When I started (and even still), I would message all sorts of people - photographers, surfers, models, brands - and ask questions, propose ideas and inquire about work. So many awesome tips were shared, connections made and opportunities rose, which completely shaped my journey. You never know what is out there and it won’t come find you, so don’t be afraid to get after it. We are all new at some point :)
Plans for 2020?
Keep progressing into heavier waves. The world is quite a wild place at the moment due to COVID, but when things settle I hope to get back in the waves - Indonesia and Nicaragua over summer, and the East Coast USA in the fall for hurricane season. So far, the East Coast has been my favorite place to shoot; there’s such power in the Atlantic Ocean and hurricane season has definitely been the most challenging and exciting waves. Plus, it’s sweet reconnecting with where I grew up!