Serendipity in a photograph is found when light, composition and moment align. Capturing this elusive, magical photograph is a challenge when a photographer has two feet on dry ground. It’s infinitely more difficult to achieve the same outcome while swimming in strong currents above razor-sharp reefs amid crashing waves. And that’s precisely how Lucia Griggi makes her living.
Now in the midst of a career that turns the ocean into her office and spans the globe, the veteran surf photographer has beautifully photographed the world’s most renowned surfers.
Griggi was born with neither surfing nor photography in her DNA. She grew up a competitive swimmer, but her first encounter with surfing wasn’t at world-famous breaks like Pipeline, Waimea Bay or Cloudbreak. Rather, the first time she got on a surfboard was at the age of 21 in the icy waters of the British Isles.
In under a decade, Griggi has transformed herself from a novice hunting for the perfect wave to a respected professional surf photographer sought after in the industry. Just before speaking to TIME, Griggi, now 31, had just finished collaborating with a major manufacturer of waterproof camera enclosures, who sought her insight on how to evolve their next line of products.
Griggi makes it look easy, but in reality, it’s anything but.
“It’s a pain in the ass,” she told TIME when describing working in conditions so adverse that you’re lucky to come away with one strong image after hours in the water.
On a recent trip to Fiji to photograph at Cloudbreak, considered one of the best surf breaks, Griggi took an hour-and-a-half boat ride through choppy waters. They passed five boats chumming the water (to lure sharks) not too far from where she dove in for a lengthy swim across a channel. “That sort of alarmed me,” Griggi said. “Once we swam across the channel, which takes a while and is exhausting with equipment and fins – we get into position over a sharp coral reef in the midst of 8-10 foot waves. It’s exceptionally dangerous because you don’t have anywhere to go [when the waves crash]. You have to be very alert at all times.” Which begs the question: Why do it?
In the beginning, it was purely Griggi’s passion that propelled her. “No one ever commissioned me or told me to go anywhere. I just had to be there because I wanted to shoot the best surfers in the world, and I wanted to go to the best places.” Now she’s sent around the world to cover the competitions for major organizations, including Surfline and ASP – the dominant organizing body for surfing worldwide.
“Everything I do comes from my motivation and love of doing it.”
See more of Lucia Griggi’s work at LuciaGriggi.com.
Jonathan D. Woods is a senior editor at TIME.com, overseeing Photo & Interactive. Follow him on Twitter @jonwoods.