Where have all the people gone?

I am writing a thesis about surf culture and a large part of that is about the community of surfing – local, national and global (see last post). I’ve been focussing my thoughts quite heavily on the local community aspect of surfing and trying (with great difficulty) to locate it in some concrete sense. There is a community in the water, but it can be fleeting, and the community on land is often based around competition. I know the community I seek is there, but I am having trouble nailing it down.

Perusing the still photography of magazines, books and posters, I am struck by the absence of people in the pictures. It’s rare that surf photography includes the masses that group at a break, instead choosing to reflect on either the wave in isolation, or on one surfer on one wave. The photographs that include the groups of people waiting at the break are to make a point or to show a more realistic landscape, but they are few and far between, and certainly almost extinct from magazines (except for, on occasion, the competition photographs). The tradition of these photographs exemplifies the complete individual experience of surfing – there is no-one else that matters on any wave. There is only the surfer themselves and their own connection and interpretation of that moment. These are the angles and perspectives chosen and these are the pictures that are encouraged by and saleable to the magazines.

So how can you have a community without the people who make it up? Why don’t we want to imagine them in our surfing ideal? How do we connect when we want to be alone?

And then there is the possibility that I have got it wrong. Perhaps the surfing community is something slightly less tangible than the kind of day to day relationships and instant identification that we often recognise as community. There is most definitely a group of people in Byron Bay who surf and who are united by this (just watch them rally around such issues as paid parking, or the funeral of a friend), but I think that I have been trying to fit the way that these relationships are articulated into already established boxes. Maybe the community I seek in surfing is actually to be primarily found in the shared experience of surfing and connection in the water. Maybe this is enough to tie people in this surfing community.

There is of course also the issue that with Byron Bay, I am discussing a small town, where the residents are already connected in many ways and on many levels; schooling, family, history, other sports, employment, etc. These connections and relationships also add to the connections that are felt within the surfing community itself. However, having said this, there is a definite inclusiveness that is felt once you begin to join Byron Bay’s world of surfing. My own experience is a testament to this. I have lived my life in Byron Bay, growing up here, just as my father did. I know many people in this town both deeply and superficially. When I started surfing and being a regular presence in the water, many of those relationships deepened or changed in some to reflect the experience that I was beginning to share with these people and the new understandings and commonalities that this reflected. People that I’ve been acquainted for years began waving at me from across the street, where before they would walk past. The older mal crew that know me through my father, who before would regard me as a silly girl (and probably still do!) started hooting at me and giving me advice and talking to me in restaurants. There was something about me that changed for them. I had taken on a part of who they were and could share this experience in a way that didn’t need to be articulated. I began to understand my home town in a new way, in both a physical and community sense.

I’ve developed new relationships to the ocean and the beaches. I saw the town and the landlines themselves from a new perspective out in the water and I became someone new to many people, to whom I was developing a new understanding of these things, ideas, feelings and experiences.

And perhaps that is where the community lies – in the shared understanding of that individual experience. Not in obligation and similarity, but in the moments that define the ride – the connections, the creativity, the interpretation, the sense of fun, the sense of achievement. This would certainly work better in explaining how surfers connect internationally, but it may also work beautifully in explaining the surfing communities more locally as well. There is a beauty in the space that is maintained in these relationships – no imposition, but an understanding that others maybe closer to home cannot achieve.

It does, it must be noted, seem a very paternal kind of community – all silent understanding, little communication – but that has also been the scene. Women, unfortunately, remain newcomers to the community, and it remains to be seen what impact their methods of relating and communicating are having.

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