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Carolin Unrath Captures the Unparalleled Joy of River Surfing

“This day was special,” the photographer Carolin Unrath admits. It was May 2020, and the world was grappling with the first few months of the pandemic. Longing for adventure and a break from the isolation of the previous weeks, she connected with the surfer Andreas Müllner and the producer Peter Scherb. Together, they made their way to Eisbach, the river surfing epicenter of Munich and a gathering place dating back to the 1970s

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“Usually, the wave is super crowded, with many many people standing around the Eisbach and watching the surfers,” Unrath tells me. “On this day, the wave was open for surfers but still closed for watchers due to Covid restrictions.” It was a gray day, and the light wasn’t perfect, but she relished the opportunity to chat with Andi and document one of his first trips to the wave after its reopening, without the usual clusters of onlookers.

In some ways, the session was timed perfectly, as it started raining just after they packed up their gear. On a larger scale, though, Unrath’s series Surfmaskcaptures a historic moment that can never be repeated–a time marked by the uncertainty of the pandemic but also the beauty of hope, the joy of the surf, and the power of sports to connect us in trying times. Late last year, one of the shots from Unrath’s series won the “Lifestyle by COOPH” category at the world-renowned Red Bull Illume Image Quest photo competition. In this conversation, she revisits the pictures that defined an era.  

The Essential Gear of Carolin Unrath

Unrath tells us,

“This series is minimalistic in terms of the equipment. I used the Leica Q2, and this camera has a fixed lens, a Summilux 28mm 1.7, and also a Leica M10 with a Summicron 50mm 2.0. That was it. I used available light only.”

Phoblographer: How did you first get started as a photographer, and what drew you to sports and adventure photography?

Carolin Unrath: I started photography through music. I traveled the world with a choir and different orchestras, and that’s where I stumbled across documentary photography for the first time. I wanted to capture all the memories back then.

When I studied in Munich, I got more and more in touch with outdoor sports myself, and that’s where my passion for sports and adventure photography began to grow. I got my first clients in this industry, and I recognized that I wanted to dive deeper into it.

Phoblographer: You made this series in May of 2020–is that right? What did it mean to you to be able to go out and create these images after lockdowns?

Carolin Unrath: Yes, it’s right. I made the series in May 2020. The beginning of the pandemic was quite relaxed for me because I had just come home from Cape Town right before the first lockdown, and I had a lot of post-production on my schedule and worked on my website quite a lot.

But after one month, I realized how much I missed going out and taking pictures with people. That’s why I texted Andi, and I just wanted to take some pictures with him. It was my first project after the lockdown.

Phoblographer: Eisbach is a manmade river in Munich. What makes this place special?

Carolin Unrath: I guess this place is so unique because of its location. The spot is famous worldwide for being the largest, best, and most consistent city center location for river surfing, and that’s why the wave catches a lot of attention every day. People who go for a walk in the English Garden stop there for a moment to watch the surfers. I also chilled there several times, watching them, but this was the first series I shot there.

Phoblographer:Can you tell us a bit about the urban surfing community in Munich?

Carolin Unrath: In my opinion, it’s an international place. You can meet people from all over the world.  I had some friends who went surfing there daily, and they often told me to come by and watch them surf. I met Andi in Cape Town in January 2020, and then he also told me how often he goes surfing at the Eisbach. As Andi is also a great commercial model, I realized I wanted to do this river wave project with him because it was a concept on my table for such a long time.

Phoblographer: How did you, Peter, and Andreas stay safe while making these images?

Carolin Unrath: As we mainly shot outdoors, we had enough space to distance ourselves, and we also made sure that everyone was healthy. The team was small: just the three of us and a handful of other surfers at the wave.

Phoblographer: What was the most difficult shot from this series to achieve?

Carolin Unrath: There was no difficult shot: I just pressed the button and had a flow. I let Andi do his thing. It was the same for the image with the train. We waited for two trains and took the train to the Eisbach, so I had two opportunities to get the picture I wanted. As it was a personal project, I tried out different things, which worked great for this series. The moments I remember most were when Andi was in the water and enjoyed surfing. I love to watch when someone shows me his passion.

Phoblographer: What does it mean to you to have this series recognized by Red Bull Illume? What do you think it means to Peter and Andreas?

Carolin Unrath: We celebrated–I guess, every one of us. I was totally overwhelmed. I did not expect it to happen, and I’m beyond proud of this achievement, especially as men in photography mainly dominate the action sports industry. I’m pleased that I made it, especially in the lifestyle category, which describes my work well.

Phoblographer: In what ways, if any, has the lockdown/pandemic affected your approach to photography, adventure, and the outdoors?

Carolin Unrath: That time changed something inside me. I spent a lot more quality time in the mountains, ski touring, and stand-up paddling in summer. I realized that living in the present moment is so worth it. That’s why I’m also using a lot of analog films right now for personal photography projects–to take a step back from this digital, fast-paced world.

All photos by Carolin Unrath. Used with permission. For more from Unrath, be sure to visit her website. Follow along on Instagram at @carounrath, and Behance at @carolinunrath.

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