It might rain today in San Diego, which throws us off because we are spoiled with 72 and sunny (and we know it).
Eyes on the unusually dark sky, we cautiously settle at an outdoor table at a coffee shop in Encinitas, California. Sirens, trains and car traffic hum, ring and buzz in the background as we get to know the lovely lady behind Sarah Lee Photography.
On talking about yourself:
How do you talk about yourself? I'm not a very chatty person, so it's taken a lot of years to be okay with sharing my story instead of just listening to others.
With social media, the game has changed. Now people want to know about me, but I’m much more comfortable and excited to share photos of others. So for me, its more of a struggle to learn how to share myself authentically versus hiding behind my work.
On an untraditional introduction to photography:
I got into video editing when I was 11 years old. I remember playing with that program, Paint, that came on everyone's computer and realizing I could make things. This quickly turned into learning how to use photoshop and all that. At the same time, I did a lot of water sports growing up in Hawaii. Eventually, I picked up a camera as a teenager because I was bored at swim meets.
As a more shy and introverted kid, photography was my way to engage and interact with my peers.
So I started taking photos of my friends' races. I saved up to get a bag water housing when I was 15-16 because I was super stoked to capture how people looked in water and their connection with the water. That’s why I wanted to get into shooting underwater and I happened to have all these people to shoot and all this time to play. It became what we did after swim meets and waterpolo games. I just had fun doing it. My sights weren’t set on becoming a professional photographer.
On self identifying as a "photographer":
I went to school for narrative film production at Chapman University in Orange County, but I quickly realized the narrative style of filmmaking wasn’t for me. I found myself more drawn to use film to connect with other people and bring their stories to life, so I ended up reemphasizing in documentary film production. Simultaneously, I learned to accept that it's okay to call myself a photographer.
I was enjoying it a lot and getting hired for different shoots so I figured, “Well, I guess it's okay if I call myself a photographer,” even if everyone else seemed to be doing it too. It hasn't been done by me, and that's what will make it different.
On finding inner calm in free diving:
There's a documentary I helped shoot about a legend of a free diver, photographer and writer in the Big Island of Hawai’i named Carlos Eyles. Spending time filming with him and witnessing his deep and transcendental connection with the ocean inspired me to really think about my own place and connection within the ocean at a really key take-off point in my life at 21 years old.
Eager to get proper instruction on free diving, I took a course with free dive world record holder Kurt Chambers. The first day, we learned about safety and “static apnea,” where you lie in the water (or in a bed) and just hold your breath for as long as you can. It isn’t supposed to be comfortable and is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. He takes you through how to hold your breath for a couple of minutes. If you're in the right mind state you can actually hold your breath for a lot longer than you could ever imagine. The last day of the course, we had the opportunity to dive down to 100 feet deep.
Coming up after my first time down that deep, I thought "Holy shit, the physicality of this is so incredible.” It's amazing what our bodies can do.
On shooting photos in the ocean:
When shooting, I don't have a mask or a board -- I just wear swim fins and drag around 15 lbs of camera equipment. Shooting underwater really forces you to be in the moment. My only real worry is the current. When I'm in big surf, I just sink underwater and enjoy the ride beneath the turbulent clouds.
It's so beautiful to shoot a wave from behind and watch it peel in front of you or to go through the clouds underwater. I find it both exhilarating and peaceful.
My Instagram did not happen overnight. I built my it slowly, over time - and it was from a foundation of my time spent on other sites like flickr, facebook, and blogging platforms. Now I'm pretty much using Instagram to get jobs, connect with people, and to share photos that “feel good” to me.
I want to my photography to feel good and spread joy.
On surfing versus shooting:
I'm most excited right now to go to the Maldives and be in crystal clear water and shoot perfect waves -- and to also surf.
I feel like I've gotten really immature about wanting to surf all the time. I think it’s just part of the ebb and flow of my life in its current chapter.
On positive body image as an athletic woman:
Growing up in Hawaii, you take what you have and make the most of it. This has become my approach to photography, the opportunities I’m given, and with myself. Having that mindset has been helpful to recognize that I am physically capable of doing things a lot of people can't thanks to swimming and thanks to the way my body is built. I’ve become grateful that my parents raised me in a way that positive reinforcement was given because of who I was and what I was capable of.
I think that who I am and what I do will attract the people I'm inevitably supposed to be around and work with and build friendships with. This is what I've rolled with, as well as: let your light shine because you are who you live with so why hide that?
On preserving a community:
I have a friend, Devyn Bisson, who is directing a documentary focusing on 50-70 year old Japanese women, the “Ama,” who free dive for abalone their entire lives. She spent time building relationships with the community before I joined with a rad team of girls and got to spend time diving with and filming them. They go 10-30 feet deep up to a minute at a time for hours, just peeling up abalone. Unfortunately, it's a dying trade because these diving rights are passed down in daughters, but now young girls want to be living in cities, not in wetsuits.
Devyn is very deliberate and conscientious about representing their community the right way because they haven't really let people in. For me that was a major career highlight -- not that it was action packed but that it was so meaningful and completely different than anything I’ve ever seen.
On life as you make it:
Growing up, my family was fairly entrepreneurial and I'm grateful to have been in that environment. My dad’s passion is Kona Coffee. He pretty much knows everything related to coffee farming from start to finish — whether it was mowing, building drying decks, storage rooms, growing stronger coffee trees to sell to farmers, roasting coffee perfectly, connecting other farms to coffee roasters and buyers … the list goes on. Growing up, he would take on new projects and learn and figure things out as he went.
When I got into photography, I was like, “Cool I can do this," because I saw my Dad’s passion for coffee farming and his success with it. He works very hard but still has this sense of freedom from choosing what he wants to do and where he invests his time.
Being self-employed as a photographer can be stressful sometimes when I don't have a lot of work in the pipeline. But I still feel like I have a world of opportunities that I haven’t tapped into yet. It’s very nonlinear.
Sometimes I talk to people who have more linear jobs and they tell me, "You're so lucky." I don’t know how to appropriately respond. I’ve don’t really have an on/off switch with work and play. I like to integrate them both — even before I was a photographer.
On the necessity of criticism:
Jumping in and putting yourself out there is the only way to start. A lot of artists hide their stuff. I find that overthinking and “analysis paralysis” is huge roadblock a lot of my peers struggle with. If you're gifted an idea, it's yours to cultivate -- otherwise someone else will do it.
The reason I think I got to where I am today is because photography was something I wasn't judging or controlling or thinking about too hard. I kind of just fell into a flow when taking pictures. I was just putting it out there because photography for me was more about a shared experience and a way to play.
I think that it’s so important for people to share their own personal “art” whether it’s writing, cooking, building, dancing, music, writing, art, etc… whatever brings them joy.
Why else would you be on this earth but to share and express what is uniquely you?
On following your curiosity:
I feel like everyone needs to read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I love the audio book -- I don't read enough but when I'm driving I want to be doing something more than just listening to music all the time. That book really puts a lot of things into an understandable, relatable perspective. There's a quote in there about following your curiosities more so than passion because there's so much pressure with passion:
“For me, a lifetime devoted to creativity is nothing but a scavenger hunt — where each successive clue is another tiny little hit of curiosity. Pick each one up, unfold it, see where it leads you next.”