Hard work and dedicated training has paid off big time for Christa Joy Funk, one of the world’s leading water photographers best known for her picture-perfect images from the one and only Banzai Pipeline. Big or small, Funk is in the mix and firing away. Guaranteed you’ve admired her work across the pages of Freesurf Magazine and Surfline’s website amongst others, or scrolled her Insta feed @instaclamfunk. Veteran surf photographer Zak Noyle told us that she’s often out in the lineup before he even hits the sand (and he’s an early bird), plus she’ll stay out the longest thanks to her hardcore fitness regime and background as a competitive swimmer. We’ve even heard stories of her running the beach with weight belts before sunrise, when most of us normal folk are still asleep dreading the alarm clock.
Funk’s dedication to her craft demonstrates discipline and courage, and her personal story as an officer in the Coast Guard helps explains her bold get-after-it attitude. Getting in the mix as one of the world’s best (in any industry) is no easy feat, as photography gets increasingly more competitive in the digital age. Yet, Funk has proved herself in heavy conditions, earning her spot in the lineup along with great respect amongst her peers and the surf community. She is, indeed, one of the only swimmers willing to paddle out on the heavy and shifty second and third reef Pipe days, scoring unique shots from the gladiator pit. We’re big fans, if you can’t already tell. Her inspiring story might motivate you to get up for dawn patrol more often, or maybe not, but it will definitely give you some insight into how putting in the extra effort can set you apart.
Current gear: SPL water housing, Canon 7d MK ii, various Canon lenses, and DaFins.
How did you get into photography? I started taking pictures in 2003. My computer teacher recommended me for the film photography class at Grand Junction High, which was typically reserved for juniors and seniors. Thanks to her recommendation, I was allowed to take it as a freshman. That class taught me to shoot, develop film, and work in the darkroom. The process from conception to production got me hooked. I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.
Describe the mental and physical preparation leading up to swimming a big day at Pipe: The physical work is done months before. I go to bed around 8:30pm or 9 every night and I wake up by 5am to workout. I mix a lot of cardio and strength training with swimming, surfing, and bodysurfing. That’s the easy part of my preparation, and I’ve been doing it for the last twenty years.
Mental prep is the most important and most difficult part. It starts the day before the swell comes and usually peaks the morning of. I check the buoys the night before if I think it’s going to be good to get an idea of size and direction. I talk to my husband about it, and we usually look at a couple of other weather apps and websites to get information “from the source” on what the conditions are going to be like. When I wake up on the morning of the swell, instead of working out I’ll prepare a chia bowl, login to Surfline, and start putting my camera together while I watch. If it looks like it’s going to be good, I check the buoys for an update on what the size and direction will be doing throughout the day, then I head down to the beach. When I get to the ocean I sit and watch it until I’m sure of: (a) how I’m going to get out to the break, (b) where I’m going to sit while shooting, and most importantly, (c) how I’m going to get out of the water if all hell breaks loose or if I get hurt. If at any point during my decision-making process—no matter what the waves look like—if my gut tells me no, I listen.
How has your competitive swimming background prepared you for water photography? I swam competitively from age 7 to 22, and when I was on active duty as an officer in the Coast Guard I always incorporated swimming into my workout routine. I was not a sprinter, so the endurance I gained from years of swimming long distance freestyle helped build my stamina. My kick was the strongest part of my stroke, which has assisted tremendously with swimming while holding a camera. My strength and muscle memory have been considerable assets when spending hours in the ocean. Shooting surfing, I’m in cruise control unless I’m moving to get out of a bad situation or swimming under a wave. It’s mostly all automatic. However, swimming back and forth in a calm pool in no way mentally prepared me for the current and impact of large waves that the ocean produces. Ocean knowledge takes time to learn; I’m learning constantly, and I don’t think that will ever stop.
How was your experience in the Coast Guard, and did it play into the self-discipline you have today? Even before the Coast Guard I was disciplined. At an early age I wanted to spend my life in wild places on Earth and decided that the best way to do it would be a degree in Marine Biology or Photojournalism. To achieve either of those goals, I knew that physical fitness and working hard would be essential. My life revolved around swim practice and school. The discipline and focus I learned from my parents, swim team, and school got me into the Coast Guard Academy where I finished with a Marine Biology degree and a commission.
Some of my best and worst experiences happened in the Coast Guard. I am still working through the worst, but without the Coast Guard my photography career path would have been completely different. I would not change what happened, because where I am now is where I’ve always wanted to be. As a photographer I use that same discipline to run my business, stay in shape, and stay calm in the ocean.
Mentors & photographers you look up to:
I have not had another photographer be a consistent mentor like Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker or Mr. Miyagi to Daniel-San. I have, however, had other photographers give me advice and help along the way, for all of which I am beyond thankful. One of those photographers, Kenji Croman, is the most significant in my mind because he took me out for my first water photography sessions at Sandy’s and then later st Pipeline. Additionally, Erik Ippel and Larry Haynes have given me valuable insight over the years. I also look up to Sean Davey and Art Brewer; both are fantastic photographers.
Heaviest moment in the water: Another photographer tumbled into me in the whitewash of a wave at Pipe. We were both in a bad spot for a wave, so when it detonated we tried to get under it, but collided. He unknowingly kicked my shoulder out of the socket. I came up disoriented looking at the lip of another wave about to land on us. I moved away from him deeper into the zone so the same collision wouldn’t occur. Boom! As I was thrown in the whitewash again, my shoulder was pushed back into place. I decided to try and keep shooting. I only lasted another ten minutes before returning to shore.
Big picture goals for your photography career: I want to continue to seek out situations where I am uncomfortable, since that is where the most growth occurs. I want to shoot for the rest of my life and continue to earn a living from it.
Words of advice for women who want to make it into the surf industry? Surf photography is in a weird place right now because the delivery medium is changing so quickly. Be aware of that. Fearlessly submit your work; your photos may get used, they may not, but you’ll never know unless you submit them.
Stop worrying about being a woman. In the Coast Guard, I worked with some tough and salty old men who weren’t comfortable with women in the service. I had to earn their respect, and I did that by working hard. Surfing is no different. If you want respect from the men in this industry, earn it with hard work and dedication. Which leads me to say: when you shoot in the water, start small and work your way up to bigger days. Do not force yourself into conditions you don’t feel like you are ready to handle. Going out with a point to prove will likely end in injury.
My last piece of advice is to enjoy the moment: the water, waves, sand, reef, sun, clouds, people riding pieces of foam… appreciate all of it, because it is simply awesome.