Portrait

Watching the waves with surfer, photographer and documentarian Elizabeth Pepin Silva. By Romy Ash.

Filmmaker Elizabeth Pepin Silva

I walk with Elizabeth Pepin Silva, documentary filmmaker and photographer, down the steep steps to the beach at Point Addis on the surf coast of Victoria. We pass a solo, older woman with her hair wet, slicked back, longboard under one arm. Further down the path, two teenage girls with boards, and towels slung over their shoulders, are stumbling against one another and giggling. Closer to the beach we pass a woman and her kid. She has a longboard under her arm and her boy walks up the stairs with her.

On the beach, which is tucked under the cliffs and curls to the left of us in a crescent moon of sand, another woman walks out of the ocean, one-metre waves peeling off the point behind her. The woman is dripping. Her longboard squeaks as she manoeuvres it under her arm. Her leash trails behind her catching seaweed and sand.

“I’ve got to take this woman’s picture,” Pepin Silva says to me. She asks her, smiling and laughing with the woman who stands still, allowing Pepin Silva to capture her salty face and also a wider portrait that takes in the breadth of her board and the beach behind her.

When Pepin Silva was learning to surf in California in 1985, there weren’t any other women in the water. “I managed to stand up on my first try and in that five seconds, or two seconds, in that brief moment that I was up on the board, I knew that my life was going to change forever,” she says. 

She’d paddle out at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and watch the men from afar, teaching herself to surf. Ocean Beach is a training ground for Mavericks, a surf spot a little way south on the Californian coast that’s renowned for a gnarly, giant wave. Not the easiest place to learn, she tells me, but Ocean Beach was the closest break to her home. Later, she would make a documentary about Sarah Gerhardt titled One Winter Story. Gerhardt is the first woman to surf Mavericks, the first woman to be towed into a wave, a woman who “surfs mountains”.

As Pepin Silva watched women take to the water in great numbers in the early ’90s she became frustrated by the lack of representation in surf media. In surf film and photography, women were always standing on the beach in bikinis, looking out at the men surfing. Even in photographs of women surfers, she says, you could see where the male photographer had focused, and it wasn’t on women’s faces, it was their chest or their crotch. Pepin Silva began photographing women surfing. Swimming out with her camera encased in underwater housing and photographing women as they surfed towards her face.

“It’s so damaging, the lack of photographs of women actually surfing, because it doesn’t allow girls to dream; it’s just all guys. It doesn’t even matter if you can surf, because all we want to know is how cute your ass is. I saw an ad in Torquay that is just like, I don’t know, are you kidding me? It’s 2019 and you’re using two women’s asses to frame this shot. They were in the foreground slightly out of focus to frame this shot of a male surfer doing an aerial. You wouldn’t see two men’s butts framing a shot of a woman doing an aerial, I can tell you that,” she says, furious that so little progress has been made since she started surfing, photographing women surfers and telling women surfers’ stories. She shakes her head. She takes photos that show women as athletes: “The joy on their faces, sometimes the frustration, action shots where they’re just powering or they’re just having so much fun – just all the things that I experience as a surfer,” she says.

The south-westerly pulls at Pepin Silva’s long salt and pepper hair. She takes her shoes off and rolls her pants up, walks down to the water to feel how cold it is. “I’ve got to come back with my board,” she says.

Her latest documentary is Super Stoked Surf Mamas of Pleasure Point, and watching it, it shouldn’t feel so revolutionary to see heavily pregnant women riding waves. The silhouettes of their pregnant bodies against the sky and surf captures something. These women are in complete control, when pregnant women are so often depicted as helpless.

“I didn’t have kids,” Pepin Silva says, “and part of the reason, frankly, was I didn’t want to stop surfing – and it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t have to, because all I ever heard was that you can’t do that sort of thing when you’re pregnant. So that was one of the reasons I made this film. To reassure women that if they wanted to make that choice, it wasn’t such a radical idea and that other women had done it. My films and my photographs, while I use surfing as a lens, I’m really talking about universal things here.”

We drive around to Bells Beach. From the lookout at Winkipop, we watch a woman surfing. On a shortboard, she bursts into the air above the wave and lands it, carving into the face of the wave. She drops off the back as the wave changes shape and we watch her paddle out, so strong, pushing through the green, the surf breaks over her.

“Right on,” says Pepin Silva.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Tides of change". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.