By Oriana Poindexter, Images by Ashleigh Yob
I sat down with Ashleigh Yob on a warm morning in August, after a surf with the most balanced gender ratio I’d ever seen in the lineup. Ashleigh is an ex-professional surfer, surf coach, self-declared surf bum and English native. She’s been gaining a following recently as the eye behind San Diego Surf Photos, photographing average Janes and Joes surfing their local breaks in San Diego County. Ashleigh had called together a ‘Ladies on Longboards’ session, where she’d announced she would only photograph women surfing longboards.
How did you end up here in San Diego doing surf photography?
There’s only so much surfing you can do in a day! When I moved here three years ago, I had a lot of down time because I wasn’t allowed to work until I got my visa -- I had given up my business back in Europe, packed a bag and moved to America. I’d always be taking photos of my husband & friends, or exploring my photography because the conditions here are amazing. People kept coming up to me on the beach and saying to me, as a joke, ‘Did you get the shot?! Did you get my big wave?’ Which got me thinking that maybe I could, and maybe I will!
One day, I was down on the beach, and there was an old guy out surfing with a few others, and I decided to take pictures of the whole lineup. When this old guy got out, he cheekily asked, ‘Oh I don’t suppose you got any pictures of my waves??’ When I told him I did, he just couldn’t believe it. Speaking to him, I found out he’d been surfing here his entire life, but had only one photo, from decades ago. I thought wow, this guy has spent a lifetime in the ocean, and nobody has taken a picture - he’s not a pro, but it means something to him, and he had a great wave! So I printed the photos but didn’t know how to find him - I knew his van, so one day I left the photos on his windscreen. I saw him again not long ago, and he’s a grown-ass man, but he cried.
You grew up in England. Tell me about your background in surfing.
There were never any girls around surfing when I grew up, so I hung out with the boys and surfed like them. I actually used to ride for O’Neill in women’s longboarding, with contests, travel, the whole thing, so I come from that world. I used to run a surf school in Europe (Cornwall), so I always dealt with surfing from both ends of the spectrum - my life would be full of people who were surfing professionals and athletes, but my day to day job would be average people wanting to learn to surf.
Most surf photographers seem to focus their lens on competitive surfing, or well-known surfers. What inspired you to focus your lens on the everyday surfer?
I think people’s vision is to go after the most exciting surfing, or what’s modern and progressive, but 99% of our surf population are people who surf for fun. Surfing is one of those things people just hold so close that it’s very difficult to share that feeling. I really started to take photos of just random people surfing - beginners, people falling off the board, and never found the thrill of taking photos of people who surf incredibly well. I do enjoy getting an image of a great surfer, but usually those surfers are on great waves, and in that case the wave is what I’m interested in photographing rather than the surfer!
I realized that when you take photos of people who are just everyday surfers, they get pleasure from holding those moments that they don’t necessarily remember. I really enjoy giving people that joy of encapsulating a moment that they had riding a wave, that however brief it may have been, they can then hold that memory, and stick in a book, or pop it on their wall, or share it on social media. I enjoy being able to give someone back some of the pleasure they get from surfing.
You spend a lot of time watching the surf. What do you notice about women in the surf from an observer’s perspective?
The general population out in the lineup is not female. Women get dropped in on, over and over. They sit on the side. I think some of it is that surfing is a male-dominated sport, and the pressure to perform in surfing is high. It takes a long time to learn and improve, and a lot of women take up surfing a little later in life. There’s definitely an age gap - there’s young girls, and then you get to like 16, 17 or 18 they’re doing other stuff. But then you get a lot of ladies in their late twenties, early thirties, or forties, taking up surfing when they have some free time in their lives.
There’s definitely more ladies surfing here than a lot places I’ve been in the world - women here are not afraid to paddle out on the biggest days and take the waves they deserve. All the women I’ve encountered surfing here are so genuine, humble and honest about their surfing. There’s more of us than they think there are! You feel empowered when there’s a few others like you.
I thought that was really cool what you pulled together this morning -- just calling it as Ladies on Longboards day got more women out in the lineup than I’ve seen, probably ever. What inspired you to do that, and what do you find most rewarding about your surf photography?
I was looking through my Instagram feed, where I generally post a shot from every session, and there’s a dude surfing, and another dude surfing, and another dude, and I’m like, where are all the ladies?? That was half my inspiration to get this morning together. I figured I would just do a day, and hopefully the ladies would turn up! I know a lot of ladies who joined in this morning are just learning, and I was more pleased that the girl turned up who’d only been surfing for a month than I was anyone else. It’s awesome that there are lots of opportunities here for people to get together, and I’m glad I can be an influence in bringing those people together.
I want to give back to surfing. I’ve taken so much from it my whole life, it’s provided me with everything - jobs, travel all over the world. There comes a time when I’m not so interested in being the best of the best, and there aren’t too many people like me who get to spend their whole life surfing. It brings me joy on days that I don’t want to go surfing myself, I can still be there and take pictures for people. And then some days like today, I’m watching you all surfing and I’m thinking I want to be out there too!