Former photojournalist Bryanna Bradley has helped put the female surf community in Tofino, British Columbia, firmly on the global map. She talks yellow feet, patience in chaos and her ongoing obsession with light.
True North Photographer | Bryanna Bradley
4 min read
Image by Bryanna Bradley
What drew you into surf photography?
I studied photojournalism at college and totally fell in love with shooting. I ended up working in daily news, which was awesome, but after five years I just hit a moment where I thought, “This isn’t for me.” So I booked a one-way ticket to Hawaii in the middle of the night and left this great opportunity in Montreal working for a big daily newspaper as a freelancer. I was just stuck. I needed to find a different outlet, and that’s when I started shooting surfing and happy things.
Who has influenced and inspired you?
I think there are lots of different things, whether it’s the athletes that I’m shooting, or other female photographers that I’ve followed on social media since the beginning. There are a lot of male photographers in Tofino who have really inspired me and definitely made me push myself; to be able to stand the cold like they can, and swim in big waves like they can. And in the journalism industry; there were so many insanely talented people that were so helpful to my photography.
Has photojournalism influenced how you shoot today?
Totally. I learned how to shoot a story and use all aspects of what’s in front of me to show that story, and I think that has just stuck with me. You always need something that’s going to cause a reaction, you need to be able to compose a photo, and you need to be able to do it quickly too. In sports and adventure that’s really important. And it definitely taught me to be able to shoot in chaotic environments; to hold my ground when it comes to that. I don’t think I’d be able to shoot the way I do now, if I didn’t come from a photojournalism background.
“Photojournalism definitely taught me to be able to shoot in chaotic environments; to hold my ground when it comes to that.”
What’s your process when you photograph somewhere new?
I’m weirdly obsessed with light. I love light. So I’m always going to analyse the light first before I start figuring out where I want to position myself, where I’m hoping a surfer might come through the frame of the photo. I usually prioritise what the light is doing before I decide how I’m going to compose the photo, where I want to be, what I’m looking for.
Is there anything that you love to shoot that isn’t surf or water?
Not really! I just really like being around the water. It doesn’t have to be surf... Just me and my friends hiking a mountain and swimming in glacier waters with my water housing. I like shooting things I’ve never shot before; that’s where I’m at my most creative.
What different factors are at play, compared to shooting on dry land?
I think when it comes to a photographer there’s a sliding scale of patience. And I think that we probably have a little bit more patience, because sometimes it’s really hard to shoot in the water. You end up with a whole session with drops of water on all of your subjects, or nothing’s in focus because your housing didn’t want to clear the water off the front lens.
That being said, I think wildlife photography takes way more patience than surf photography. I wouldn’t last three minutes doing wildlife photography.
How important is the relationship between you and the surfer you’re shooting?
It really depends. I have certain surfers I shoot with regularly and I find that professional surfers know what to do. You really do have to work together, especially when shooting beach breaks, because it’s so difficult to line up. So I always have a conversation with the surfer: “Please aim for my head, come straight towards me, I am a gold star.” If they’re surfing away from me, sometimes the shot will work out and sometimes it’s just really difficult to compose.
“I always have a conversation with the surfer: ‘Please aim for my head, come straight towards me, I am a gold star.’”
So it’s nice if you have a certain level of communication, just to line up the shot because it can already be very difficult. But at point breaks it’s a little bit easier because you know where to position yourself and they’re just coming right towards you. I’ve had moments where I’ve been freezing my butt off and the surfer I’m shooting has gone all the way down the beach break, and it’s super rippy and we’re just not lining up at all and it’s really frustrating.
What’s it been like photographing the growing community of female surfers in Tofino?
It’s insane. I’m so lucky to be a part of it. Watching my friends getting better and better, and the community getting tighter, and more women that come from the surf community in Tofino being celebrated on a global level – it’s incredible to watch. There are definitely more opportunities that mirror what’s happening on a global level, which is really special to see and be a part of.
How do you think shooting cold-water surf separates you from the rest of the surfing world?
I don’t know if it separates us, because when I’ve shot in hot water there are different components that are just as gnarly, like sharks and sunstroke! But shooting in the cold water definitely means that we’re a little bit more crazy. I personally get cold so easily, there are days when I say to myself, “What is wrong with you Bryanna? Why are you putting yourself through this?” The other day I wasn’t wearing my booties, and my feet were pretty much yellow when I got out of the water. I don’t think that’s a good sign. But it’s so rewarding; there’s just something really special about it.
It makes the adventure seem a little bit more hard-won. And I think it also brings the community together a bit more, because we’re all kind of looking at each other like, “OK, it’s below zero and almost snowing but yeah, let’s jump in the water and try to make a beautiful thing happen.” It’s weird, but also really fun. Except for the days when you get too cold and don’t know what day it is anymore.
What’s the most powerful takeaway that photography has given you so far
Photography gives me this vessel to bring me to the life I want to be living. It allows me to build incredible relationships with people all over the world and shoot so many incredible things. And I get to share them with my friends and my family, but I also have a platform to bring a little piece of what I love to everybody else. And I think that’s such a privilege.
“Photography gives me this vessel to bring me to the life I want to be living.”
I appreciate things more; I appreciate when I get a shot after I’ve frozen my butt off, and I appreciate when the light is so unique I’ve never seen it like that before, and when my friends take time to organise a surf session so we can work together towards creating new photos. All those things have become so important in my life that I don’t really know what I’d be doing if I didn’t do photography at this point.
Do you hope your work will incite change on any level?
I think that’s the goal for any photographer – to evoke emotion. I really hope that my photos bring some perspective into what the females in Tofino are doing, and give them a little more credit as athletes. As women who are freezing their butts off to do something they love. And I hope that inspires everybody else to search out what they love as well, so that they can feel the same way we do.