The water swallows Jesse Jennings in it’s cool embrace. Insulating her, softening the world, and reality, she so desperately needs distance from. She’s been in Costa Rica nearly two weeks. In that time, sleeping evades her as much as she avoids it. The movie playing on the back of her eyelids one she’d like to avoid. The only thing that seems to bring the smallest amount of clarity, is those moments where she’s simultaneously swallowed and held by the vastness of the ocean. 


“Being in the water, it just cemented a different connection with the water,” Jennings explained. “[For] two weeks, that was the only thing getting me through. In that time, I couldn’t find the words but I quickly figured out that I could take the photos. I could kind of connect what I was feeling and tried to begin to tell the story through photos.” 

A story that now included this unfathomable reality; her mom had died of suicide. 

“That was one of those moments in life where it’s like, there’s before this and there’s after this.” 

The ‘before this’ including being raised on a farm in Roswell, New Mexico. Growing up hundreds of miles from the ocean, Jennings couldn’t have predicted how much that salty water would grow to mean to her. Her mom, Mia was from South Africa, so she got to experience the ocean a few times growing up and the rarity of those trips cemented the specialness of it for her. 

“I so vividly remember growing up when I got to visit the ocean, how overcome with emotion I was when we drove over this final hill and then there is this massive horizon of water. It just all felt so surreal.”  

Jennings went to a small college in Los Angeles and despite the time it took her to get from East LA to the coast sometimes feeling about as far as her desert hometown thanks to the infamous traffic, she couldn’t stay away. 

“When I was in the water in any way, I just found a sense of calm.” 

Her introduction to water photography came around the same time. AxisGo, a company that specializes in creating water housing for iPhones, was hosting a giveaway. She estimates she entered the contest close to 2000 times, bugging her friends at lunch to use their phones to increase her odds of winning. Her persistence turned out to be well worth it, because she won the case.  

“That’s been one of the most pivotal points in my life,” Jennings explained. “Instead of surfing, I started taking my iPhone out and shooting while my friends would go surf, or just shoot the shorebreak by myself in Laguna. I absolutely fell in love with it.” 

“It was not only this connection between me and the ocean, but now it’s this connection getting to capture someone else’s experience within the ocean. That was just so powerful and then to get to share that with other people was even more powerful.”

Her first photo was an iconic shot of a female longboarder at Malibu, balanced gracefully on the nose of her board. That photo set Jennings on a path she never saw coming, but now can’t imagine her life without. 

One of the first steps on that path she took her junior year. Jennings had saved up for a trip to Bali. It would be her first solo overseas trip and now fully entrenched in trying to become a better water photographer, she had visions of capturing the beautiful reef breaks of Indonesia. The trek from LA to Bali took days, and included an 18 hour layover in China. 

“The first night I was there I got a call from my dad. My mom had passed away, and not only had she passed away, she had taken her own life.” 

Before. After. 

Her first reaction was to stay exactly where she was, thousands of miles away from her life. 

“If I don’t go back, I don’t have to deal with,” Jennings thought. “None of this is real.” 

Almost as soon as the thought entered, her younger brother’s face flashed through her mind. Her mom was gone, she couldn’t stay away too. 

“I had this flutter that reminded me, I have to step up here. I need to get back and take care of these things. I think when you’re hit with death, in a way that’s unsuspecting it’s difficult no matter what, but then you also learn very quickly there’s this whole administrative side of death. So I got on a flight the next morning and made the trek home.” 

After two weeks of making sure all the details were taken care of, Jennings used the leftover money from cutting her Bali trip short to go stay at a family friend’s house in Costa Rica. If there are stages of what needs to be dealt with after a death, she’d made it through the first two: the initial shock, the details, and now was in the most pervasive, all-consuming, and terrifying stage thus far: why? 

“She was the happiest person,” Jennings explained. “At her funeral, there were people literally flowing out the door. She was one of those people that touched so many people. She was a teacher for 20 years and so many students [came to her funeral].” 

“It’s why when my dad first called I was like, ‘there’s no way, what are you talking about?’ I made 50-plus phone calls like, is this real?’” 

Her death made so little sense to Jennings she left no stone unturned, combing through police reports to try and make sense of the impossible to understand. 

“When you lose a parent like that it’s so complicated. After she passed away, I really had to turn inward and reflect on what’s going on here. I took the time to observe, what could she have done better? What could I have done better? What could have been different? That’s what you go through with death no matter what, but especially with suicide.”

“The one thing I came to, I have to live for myself, and myself only. Not for the reason that I’m going to put myself first or only care about myself but in a manner that I look forward to waking up every day. I have to figure out how to create a life with the people I want in it, with my career, with the way I talk to myself and I talk to myself and I treat myself. I just got to do it for me and I have to do it in a way that I genuinely don’t dread a day in my life. Purely, honestly, for the fear of what else it might look like.” 

Jennings turned to the place she’d always felt a calm in any storm – the ocean. Her mom’s death took what was a hobby, and turned into something she felt, beyond a shadow of a doubt, she had to incorporate into her life. 

The next year she and her friends returned to Bali for their senior trip. Still sporting her trusty AxisGo and iPhone, she was determined to return to the place her world turned upside down and create new memories. While there, her friends connected with someone who was looking for water photographer for their new spot in the Mentawais. He asked to see Jennings’ portfolio and she handed over the best of her iPhone photos.

“I didn’t tell him I only had an iPhone,” Jennings remembers with a laugh. “He said, ‘oh I love your work, we’d love to have you over. You just shoot for us every day.’” 

Next thing she knew, Jennings was in the Singapore airport buying the cheapest camera she could find to add to her photographer’s kit. When she arrived at the gig the owner was ‘perplexed,’ but was more than happy with the images she got of the guests and the waves. So she left with his approval and the suggestion to ‘not tell anyone you’re only shooting with an iPhone.’ 

Jennings saw the opportunity and ran with it; buying a Sony A6500, and a couple of kit lenses when she returned home. 

“Literally fake it till you make it,” Jennings said.  

In the years since, Jennings has objectively ‘made it.’ Shooting for professional surfers and some of the biggest brands in the world. She unintentionally ended up riding out COVID in Australia, and took advantage of the surf spots and world-class professionals who were also there through the pandemic. In 2022 she went back to the Mentawais with much better equipment, and worked on a charter boat. Learning the ins and outs of where she could sit in the line-up, how deep to be in order to capture the wave, and surfers’ best moment. 

She’s taken thousands of pictures since her first with that AxisGo in Los Angeles. But that shot of the female longboarder has proven to be the guiding light to illuminate the path of her career. 

“Female surfing is the coolest thing,” Jennings said of the sport that has inspired her photographer career. “It doesn’t matter if it’s longboarding, it doesn’t matter if it’s on 40-foot waves. It’s the etiquette, the grace, the power, it’s this fearlessness that women have to carry in a different way then men have to carry it. That moment [with the female longboarder] was kind of the moment that I was like, I’m in love. I want to capture women surfing.’” 

That certainty has provided Jennings’ with career opportunities of a lifetime, including shooting The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational earlier this year, an invite-only big wave event, and Red Bull Magnitude, a big-wave competition exclusively for female big wave surfers. 

It’s also given her what she was so desperately certain of in the days after her mom’s passing; that she needed to create a life she looked forward to waking up to. 

“I have found, for me, that’s being around these women who are so inspiring. I think no one is fearless, truly fearless, but they take on the world in a way that is just so fearless. That’s what’s carried me through. It’s pushed me through some of my most difficult times is, you’re creating this life and you’re the only one who can change it, who can make it better.” 

Jennings is also incredibly passionate about changing the conversation around mental health, creating a broadcast channel on her Instagram specifically for that purpose.  

“I want to talk about mental health in a way that helps other people start having conversations about mental health. And I want to do these things partially because of the fear that I'm afraid what the other side looks like, but also because I want my life to be one that I wake up to looking forward to every single day.” 

Follow Jesse’s adventures on Instagram

If you, or someone you know is a person living with suicidal thoughts or behavior, there is help. Call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Someone is available to talk with you 24/7.

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