Starting as a spontaneous creation born from surfers in 1950s California, skateboarding has gone on to become a professional sport and global culture – wherever you may travel to you will find skateboarders, it is so widespread and embedded in mainstream popular culture.
As a sport, it picked up steam in the 1970s with the emergence of skate teams such as the Californian Z-Boys, featuring the likes of Jay Adams, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta – now regarded as the cornerstones of skateboarding. Then during the 1980s it went underground with the rise of street skateboarding, only to be appropriated into mainstream culture in the 1990s with the likes of mass-marketing tools such as the X Games and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on the Playstation.
We spoke to California-based photographer Tim Hans about his project Skateboarders, in which he has taken portraits of skateboarders from around the world. Hans, a regular contributor to Jocks&Nerds and skater himself, embarked on this project in our first issue (seen here), where he photographed skateboarders from Camden Town, London.
Can you tell me about the project?
Well it actually started in Camden Town, London. I photographed a small community that warmed to the creation of a new skate park. From there, I decided to make some portraits in California and it was really interesting to see the parallels between skateboarders in London and skateboarders in California. It led to me really wanting to see what it was like to look at and meet different skateboarders from around the world.
There's still those kids out there but they're the last of a dying breed
And you’re based mainly in California now?
Yeah I'm based in California now, but I used to live in London for 6 years.
Were there differences between skateboarders from Camden and skateboarders from California?
I would say that there are more similarities than differences, just in terms of the type of personalities that are attracted to skateboarding. They are these misunderstood but proud people that have a very persistent mindset, who are continuing trying to progress and that gives them satisfaction.
However, I would say that the biggest difference between London and California would be that here [in California] I feel that a lot more people are trying to make it into a career, and there [in London] a lot of people are doing that, but they're doing it more out of love.
Because the industry is out here in LA. There's a contest called Street League, which is for kids and is shown on major television. They start skating with the intention of becoming professional skateboarders, they want to be 'Street League' skateboarders. When I started there was nothing like that, there were hardly any skateparks – so we were skating for the love of it. There are still those kids out there, but they're definitely more rare, they're the last of a dying breed.
It's a lot more in the public eye in America than the UK?
Yeah it's becoming a lot cooler to do. It used to be more of an outcast activity.
How long have you been skating for then?
About 15 years probably.
Why do you like photographing skateboarders?
Well for the majority of skateboarding photography, it's really about the tricks they do. I'm more interested in the people who do it, why and what fuels that love.
Looking through your shoot for the first issue of Jocks&Nerds, you obviously shoot all your subjects in black and white.
Yeah I wanted to remove colour, so it really just focused on the person. It's not about the colours, more on the values and the expression of the subject. Because I think colour can distract you in certain ways.
So how would you describe your style of photography then?
I would definitely say that it's a mutual form of expression. It's not me dictating how the picture goes, it's a bit of both. It's a collaboration between me and the sitter, but it's also not entirely documentary either.
Because I am definitely forming relationships with these people. I have to gain their trust. A lot of the times when I come into the skateparks, if I don't skate first, a lot of the skateboarders won't let me take their portraits. So I have to prove myself – as that will gain their trust.
Why do you think you have to prove yourself first?
I am often looking for a real emotion, or something that isn't that forced. If I tried to do that without skating first I would get really silly reactions, they would look off the camera, or act silly or their friends would be provoking them. So if I go there and skate for a little bit first, then talk to them, tell them what I am doing and explain how it's really interesting to see where they come from, and where they skateboard. Because I really think that the location has an impact on the type of skateboarder you become.
Why do you think the location is important?
Because of the weather and the architecture of the city – all that comes into play as to what type of skateboarder you become.
How does the environment effect skateboarders from London and California differently?
I would say that it takes a lot more dedication to become a skateboarder in the UK. The ground is really rough there, it's definitely not as easy as California, you have to be a lot more determined to make it happen. Whereas here [California] it's sunny every day, the ground is perfect. You take it for granted as a skateboarder here. In London, when you have nice weather, you’re obviously going to take advantage of it.
If I don't skate first, a lot of the skateboarders won't let me take their portraits
Have you got any more skateboarding-related projects lined up?
Yeah, I want to continue that project and capture more interesting and exotic faces. There's a really interesting skate community in Ethiopia that would be cool to go and make portraits at. There's another organisation called Skateistan in Afghanistan, that's empowering young women to start skateboarding, which is making a pretty big wave in the skateboarding world which is cool. So now it's just about pushing it further to more exotic places. I shot in Iceland which was really cool to see this little community out there of 30 skateboarders, who were all pretty hardcore as well, which is really unique to see.
It's great, because skateboarding is such a global sport, you get to travel everywhere as a result.
You can go wherever you want and you'll find skateboarders.
Yeah, and each time I'll go to a new community, I find new challenges. Like trying to get the access and gaining their trust to create these portraits.
Surely the women in Afghanistan must be a difficult one?
Yeah I would imagine. That's one I have my eye on in the future.
Do you have any exhibitions lined up?
Yes, I actually have a show on right now at Chelsea Market Gallery in New York City [open till 15 April]. It's all my portraits I have done in South Africa in the last three years.
Could you explain more?
I have been going down to South Africa for the last six years now, every year for about a month, where I work with a non-profit organisation that helps young kids get their medication. So when I am there, I take a lot of portraits of the community, mostly the youth.
And that's Ubuntu?
Yeah, that's the organisation I work with down there. The personal project I was working on is called Port Elizabeth. I guess fashion is a big part of it. I am interested in the youth fashion and the culture surrounding it.
What are the differences between these colour portraits and you skateboarding portraits?
I think the skateboarders project is the only work that I do in black and white for the most part these days. I work in colour mostly. I think there is a very similar thread that goes between them however, between me and the sitter.