Alana Spencer’s Workplace is Better Than Yours

Interview by Dan Woodward, photos by Alana Spencer

Alana Spencer is a photographer from the North Shore of Hawaii who captures her subjects at one with their environment.

Shooting predominantly in and around the ocean, Alana experiences defining moments alongside whoever she’s capturing, resulting in photographs that tell true stories. I spoke with Alana about growing up on the North Shore, validation versus creativity, and what it’s like when the ocean is your office.

Does the ocean clear or cloud your mind? 

The ocean is definitely a place that clears my mind. Even if I’ve been toiling over something in my head all day, the ocean always seems to sort it out and give me a new perspective on how to approach it.

What do you find yourself thinking about in-between sets?

In-between sets I’ll often find myself daydreaming about the environment around me, how the sun’s rays are hitting the landscape and people on the sand, and always, always how grateful I am to be there in the ocean doing something I love.

What helps you cope when you’re feeling uncomfortable?

I think being in uncomfortable situations is good for me. It’s a feeling that allows the option to grow and push harder, or shrink back and wait for it to be over. Shooting in the ocean I’ve been in a ton of uncomfortable scenarios that made me wish I was back on the boat rather than treading an open ocean current or getting sets on the head. What helps me cope and keep calm out there is focusing on slowing my breathing, then shifting my mind back to what shots I want to get. If there’s a break during a shoot, sometimes I’ll find a quiet room and do five to 10 minutes of guided meditation with an app on my phone—I love the Insight Timer app—to refocus on the remaining tasks. I’m not a very outwardly expressive person, I internalize a lot and that drains me mentally, so taking the time to do even a short meditation gives me energy and clarity. Meditation means a lot of different things to a lot of people, but for me it helps with falling asleep at night, setting intentions in the morning, and re-centring during the day.

You grew up in the birthplace of surfing, the North Shore of Hawaii—did you find it to be a canvas for your creativity or a proving ground?

I’d say a little of both, for me. Being born and raised there, I’ve automatically been given the opportunity to be a part of a really special place in surfing, so I think I just really want to make my community proud more than having something to prove. Creatively it’s where I feel the most inspired and I do feel a sense of responsibility to honour that by documenting it throughout my lifetime. I live in a tiny two-bedroom across the street from the beach, my parents live a mile down the road, and I can run the bike path and see about five people I know every time. I don’t need much, but whatever that feeling is, I want a lot of it. This year has been a lot less travel, but that feeling of home is what gets me through months of being on the road.

Have you ever thought of the ocean as your workplace, or is it strictly a playground?

The ocean is a unique workplace being a water photographer, but it’s definitely still work for me. It’s the greatest workplace I can think of, but feeling mentally and physically prepared to swim Fiji or a rising swell on the North Shore is something I take pretty seriously. I don’t go out when it’s that big, but it still takes work to know where to be and where not to be for your safety and the safety of everyone around you.

Is validation something you seek in your work or does that destroy true creativity?

Validation is always nice, but I’ve never thought it should be the driving force behind doing something. You’re never going to please everyone, so you may as well go to creative depths because you want to explore that for yourself.

If you could lend your voice to any cause what would it be?

It’s tough to imagine advocating for only one when there are countless that come to mind. BLM and advocating for BIPOC is huge. Everyone owes it to them and our future generations to take a look inward at what can be unlearned and relearned in this matter. The surfing community is not exempt, we need to continue to do the work. I’m not the type of person to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do, but I think it’s good to listen to your own convictions and at least have an open mind to consider all perspectives.    

Mental health is another topic I would love to see the surf community continue to get behind. The stigma around therapy or seeing a therapist, unfortunately, feels so taboo. If I could afford it, I would see one myself (laughs). We’ve all got issues, and denying that feels archaic. The surfing community has the opportunity to share a unique form of therapy through surfing and we’re already seeing the positive effects through studies and organisations around the world like Waves For Change, One Wave, and Waves of Wellness Foundation. I don’t think it’s a cure-all, but I do think we have an opportunity to help others through the ocean, as well as normalise the conversation amongst the surf community that we’re not ok all the time.

If you could take one last photo, what would it be? 

It would be a portrait of my family, no question. I would have them stand on the rocks in front of our house on the point at Waimea Bay. I’d shoot it from the water so you could see our house behind them. Nostalgia will always get me.

Stay up to date with Dan Woodward’s interview series ‘Mind Swell’ right here, and see more from Alana here

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