Hey Chris, how was your weekend?
It was good, got to go for a swim. Hang out a bit. You?
I neglected computer work and it’s really fucking me right now, my taxes are due so I just sat on my computer and worked like an adult. It’s really pathetic.
Mine are three years overdue!
Yeah I usually do it in January when it’s dark and cold, but then I ended up in Australia and then China and then some other shoot, then it got to April and my friends were like ‘no let’s go fuck off and do mushrooms in the dessert and do cool things’ and I’m like ‘OK’. Then the tax person is like ‘what’s going on dude’ and I’ll write back ‘Bill, you need to calm down’. But yeah I’m doing that now.
Where’s good to do mushrooms near you?
Usually everyone goes out into the dessert. I prefer it up in the mountains where there are hot springs; sometimes it’s fun to given driven back into the city and lose your mind a bit.
Our mutual friend Jesse (from Mona) introduced us after your trip to Tasmania. How did you end up down there?
I was thinking about that myself recently. Jesse follows Leo Romero on Instagram who was on a skate trip down there. Red Bull have a travel series where they try to go to ‘exotic’ places — for Australians it might not be super exotic but to someone in Germany, Tasmania is incredibly exotic. Anyway, Jesse was just like ‘if you want to come to this museum, let me know I can get you guys in and show you around’. And so we were just like ‘fuck yeah let's go on a day off’.
So we went to Tasmania and it was Leo Romero, Jackson Pilz, Jesse Noonan, Reece Lauren and Ryan Townley and we just drove around the island and skated. Jackson had just signed with Red Bull and so it was a project to get him integrated and show off his personality, show off his skating, that sort of stuff.
What did you think of Tasmania?
We loved Launceston because it’s not necessarily where you go in Tasmania, but there were a lot of really cool places to skate. Bay of Fires was incredible and Port Arthur was one of the best times I’ve had in a really long time, just squid fishing and having some time to decompress.
Most skate trips will be around twelve days, two locations, three cities and like three days in each city with some travel days around them. This trip we skated for about seven days straight then towards the end we pretty had everything we needed, so we could either keep skating (which we were too tired for) or just go fishing.
Your Instagram story seems to be from a different country almost daily. How do you think skate culture and photography differs from continent to continent?
I approach skate photography by accentuating what’s already happening. We did a shoot in Dakar recently which has a super bright and very harsh light, but there also wasn’t a lot of infrastructure for skating. So with that I would just shoot a little more high-contrasting/bright to highlight the surroundings. For example, you could see a kid grinding a ledge but then across the street is a whole row of goats and some people watching, so we’d pull out a bit wider to get more of that scene, then use the sun to make it really bright, or if it wasn’t super bright put up a strobe so it looked like a fake sun, or what I would direct the sun to do if I could do that.
Places like China, India or Brazil have a more high-octane light, in that they can burn shittier gas and the pollution is so terrible it casts as if there were a giant scrim over the world. That’s a lot of fun because you can light it up all trippy. Instead of the skater getting washed out, they pop a bit more with this Blade Runner feel to it, like almost retouched or CGI. Or you can take the shutter speed down way lower and the whole city gets quite ominous looking, then you can really light the skater up so they pop.
In Africa or somewhere similar, when the lighting is a bit different I might try and focus on a more high-energy shot, or a high-contrast show that might not be the gnarliest trick, but in somewhere like China with a more bizarre lighting I might try and get a more relaxed but frozen moment, because there's that dream landscape lighting to play with.
Are you responding to the skate culture in those places as well?
It's hard because as a Westerner you're getting away with a lot more than as a local. Ten years ago, you could do literally anything in these places. You could climb a roof and people would just watch. Now it’s a bit different and the marble is getting messed up in cities like Shanghai, so with that comes a bit more security. But in like Guangzhou and other regions away from the major cities you can get away with everything.
The skate scene is a lot stronger than it was. I just went to China and it was insane seeing the number of skaters. It’s still rebellious, but it’s a different kind of rebellion as to what it would be in Australia or America. It’s on the same plane as listening to certain types of music or pursuing certain education. I feel like being a punk and being a skater is like the same thing in China, whereas in America they’re two different realms.
But like, there’s skating in the Olympics now. And China is a competitive country, so they have skate schools that are training people to be better because it’s like ’oh you can be an Olympic athlete and win things’ which normalises it. And that culture has grasped onto it, and they’re like ‘well, we want to win gold’. So they open skate schools and study the magazines.
But for us, we’re still just horrible Americans shooting whatever we can while trying not to get yelled at.
Has there been any countries that caught you off guard?
Not on the negative side. I grew up on a farm in Ohio so I’ve always just been excited to travel. So even when I’m in some crazy scenario it’s really fucking cool because I literally grew up on a farm. Everything is still a little cool. Dakar was crazy, the skate scene there was really unexpected. We’ve had some interesting drives through Serbia and Bosnia. Some places get it more than others.
Can you tell me why you shouldn’t take a drone to Morocco?
Haha, how did you hear about that? This story is gnarly. I brought a drone to a shoot in Morocco, and apparently just before me a Russian journalist had brought a drone to try and do this story about how much food the Moroccan Prince wastes while there is a tonne of poverty there. Anyway, he gets caught, then a few weeks later I rock up with a drone and they lose it. They’re like ‘we’ll keep it here but you have to come back through Tangier and get the drone’. But while we were on the trip, Trump puts his fucking travel ban in so you can’t fly direct from Morocco to the US.
So I’m like ‘ok I’ll figure this out when I get to Tangier’. So I get to the airport, I get the drone, then they don’t let me check in. I end up missing my flight but decide to go to Paris instead. The whole time they’re looking at my stuff asking ‘why do you have so many cameras, why so many hard drives?’ And there is this one security guard who tries to confiscate my drone again. So I’m about to miss another flight, the last one out of Tangier, and I’m texting my hotel in a panic. This guy comes back and grabs my phone, and he’s reading all my texts saying things like ‘fuck Morocco’ ‘this country fucking sucks’ and he’s like ‘why did you say that’. Then he thought I was filming him, so he goes through my phone. I had been seeing a guy at the time so he goes through my picture log and there is one of his dick pics from WhatsApp like right there. And like being gay is illegal in Morocco. So he just drops the phone and goes to get a cop.
So they’re questioning me and saying I shouldn’t have that in Morocco and I’m just like pleading with them to literally let me go like I’ve been trying to do. Then they’re talking about criminal charges because it was a crime. So in my head I’m thinking ‘y’know what, my brother is a diplomat and his wife is a diplomat specialising in Northern Africa so I’m just gonna play this card really quick and freak them out’. So I’m like ‘I want all my gear and I want to go to the embassy and tell them you’re abusing an American homosexual and threatening to send them to jail’. Then they completely flip; ‘oh no no no no’ it’s all a misunderstanding’. So I get my drone, get on the plane, and it felt like the ending of Argo when they’re waiting on the plane waiting for it to take off. I was like ‘please get me out of Morocco because I’m so fucking freaked out right now and I don’t know any laws for this. And everyone on the plane is gossiping about me. But yeah, I got out of there fine.
Does it burn you out having no fixed address?
I drank a lot and did a truckload of drugs over the years. I don’t want to say I was an addict, but it was certainly un- healthy. The last four or so years I didn’t drink as much, I tend to stay in hotels that have gyms now and I’ll try and go running or do normal things like cooking a meal or doing my laundry. Those routines keep you grounded. And yeah, a lot of mental crap can make you lose your shit but it’s just important not to dwell on it. Like I said, I grew up on a farm and if I start freaking out I’m just like ‘remember when you were a kid and just felt like the world was so far out of your reach and you’re on this massive field with cows everywhere and were just like ‘will I ever get the fuck out of here’’. I’ll just remember that I wanted to be here. Then doing it long enough, you start meeting people everywhere. I have a tonne of friends in Sydney, so it doesn’t really feel like I’m travelling when I’m there. The job in China was with some really good friends, so you’re catching up with them.
But the biggest thing is to eat healthy and not drink all the time. Being hungover will make your brain do some crazy shit. Coming down makes your brain go nuts.
How do you think being queer shapes your perspective as a skate photographer?
There are really subtle things you’re able to pick up on be- cause every thought you’ve ever had, you’ve had a million times. For example, we often think more about how we present ourselves: today I I had a meeting with Vans and I was joking to some friends that I hadn’t been “straight” for a while because on Thursday I went to a screening of RuPaul’s Drag Race, then I met a friend on Friday to talk about what heels we were going to wear to some stupid drag show, then I went to work and I was like ‘I need to get these gay cobwebs out and ‘get straight’ and I’m trying on clothes asking myself ‘Is this straight?’ ‘Is this’? Straight people just put on clothes and they’re like ‘sweet!’
Anyway, you’re always thinking about like ‘what crowd am I in? How should I act? Should I straight it up, gay it up? You’re constantly thinking, which helps you recognise ‘emotion’. I’ll keep saying it, but growing up on a farm gave me a lot of time to myself. All that mixed together helps me be more observant — if a skater is los- ing his mind, 90% of the time I’ll say ‘what’s up dude’ and they’re like ‘I can’t land this trick’ and I’ll say ‘shut up, it’s not the trick, you’re freaking out about something’. Then they’re like ‘OK this girl I’m seeing didn’t text me back or I saw her with blah blah blah’ and then that helps develop a relationship which helps develop more trust for photos, or you can recognise a moment that’s good or they feel more comfortable and let you take better photographs.
That has a lot to do with the diversity of skate crews these days too.
Yeah, I mean I met with Vans today to talk about Skateism magazine. They’ve become like a diverse skating mag- net; a lot of its writers are women and LGBTQ+ people, and they champion underrepresented skate lifestyles. So I was pitching them a bunch of ideas with eight marketing people in the room. But right next door, only three marketing people were doing this huge project with Jeff Rowley. So it’s a funny shift where you’re either the gnarliest skater on earth or you have a voice to say some- thing, and the middle is getting pushed to either end.
People are gravitating to underrepresented stories. It’s more interesting to watch what someone from Unity is doing rather than just anyone doing a technically good trick because it’s probably been done before. Lee Baker took off because they fronted one of the first ever marketing pushes towards a queer skater, and now these brands are thirsty for that and they want to see more of it. Now it’s started a new media shift where they’re just realising ‘oh fuck, we can tell stories and people are going to be into it’.
And now you’re working with Skateism pretty closely.
Yeah. It was started by these two guys, Mock from Athens and Osh from London. A while back they asked if Lee and I could shoot some photos that weren’t so ‘skate’, more portrait stuff because they wanted to start an inclusive skate magazine. That started a relationship and it soon became like ‘this is something I want to be a part of’.
Now we’re starting to form an agency side of it, working with brands to connect them with queer creatives, editors and skaters who can help make their productions more diverse either in front of the camera or on set.
Has there been instances in your career where having that may have solved problems you’ve faced?
The video world is so often dominated by these macho-male types. I was talking to a producer the other day who was like ‘I want to get into directing but it’s so difficult to be heard in the room and to get through that wall of men’. So what we want to do is to talk to diverse creators, help them build a portfolio, introduce them to brands, then introduce the brands to queer people and build a bridge between those worlds.
Is there a fear of shifting the focus away from the skating itself? Is this a dumb question?
When you have a sport that scores points, like basketball or cricket, there is a clear directive; the person who gets this ball over there the most wins. Skating is bizarre because the person who ollies the highest isn’t necessarily the best. The people embodying a spirit are the ones finding success.
I always tell people ‘if skating was to measure skill in terms of stair count or how far they grind, then the industry would collapse’ — skaters like Nija or Shane O’Neill are too good. All your favourite pros wouldn’t be sponsored because they’re not the best, but their tricks connect with their personalities so it works. Why shouldn’t that be the same for other stories too? I always hear it with women skaters too, ‘X woman isn’t as good as X man’ but there are 100 sponsored male counterparts that aren’t as good as them either, so by that logic they have to go as well. Forever growing up it was like ‘keep politics out, just rip it up’ whereas now if you’re a pro and you’re not using your spotlight to make the world a better place then the world doesn’t really care.
I suppose it’s interesting that for every act of legitimacy skating finds itself in (like entering the Olympics), it pushes back with more diverse, more interesting skaters who reject it. Does everyone need to pick a side?
This is the part of skating I’ve dealt with my whole life and it’s the reason why I love the queer skate movement: to me, skating is such a non-binary act. Skating and being queer is the same thing. I don’t think there is an answer to that question because I’m pretty sure it’s whatever you want it to be. It’s an art form, it’s a sport, it’s something to photograph, whatever makes you happy.
Marketing wise, for sure there's going to be some line. I’ve had conversations with Lee about being on the Nike SB team and being marketed massively alongside skaters who have gone on record allegedly abusing women. And at what point does that clash company wise? Nike’s saying ‘go queers’ ‘go women’ and everything but they’re endorsing a potential abuser. So it’s like, do you want to be this type of queer company, or a performance company because you’re riding a bizarre line at the moment. You can’t go political unless you go full political.
But I look at skating as this beautiful vessel to empower kids to find their truth and be happy. It’s a wonderful sport to show that if you keep trying something over and over again you will eventually get it, and it definitely taught me that failure is cool. Failing is acceptable if you learn from it. If you try a kick-flip 100 times but don’t see progress until 101, that’s fine. That’s a very normal thing in skating that a lot of my non-skater friends don’t understand.
If you want to be a crazy technical skater, you should absolutely go and do that and drink Gatorade and be that dude that takes it as far as it can go. The beauty of it is you have room to be whoever you want.
You do a lot of commercial work too, how does that side differ from the skate stuff?
It's not that far off, there are just a lot more emails and phone calls. The commercial world is very strange to me because you’re often hired as something of a ‘specialty’. So I’ll get hired to be like this ‘cool, carefree lifestyle portrait person’ working with perhaps a difficult artist or people that aren’t really into the camera — they just need someone who isn’t super clinical and can loosen the subject up a bit.
I used to research the agencies I worked with or figure out what the client wanted and gear it towards them, but now I’m more likely to just go in and be myself; if they’re into it then they’ll hire me, and there won’t be any surprises when I get to the set. I think a lot of agency creative briefs are like 80% there and they hire you to take it the rest of the way.
"Forever growing up it was like 'keep politics out, just rip it up' whereas now if you're a pro and you're not in the spotlight to make the world a better place then the world doesn't really care."
That’s similar to what Scott Serfas wrote in his essay for Semi Permanent last year, that knowing how to handle yourself in a pitch and actually delivering on it as two different acts.
At the end of that piece he wrote ‘maybe I should be nicer’ which I found really funny. I’ve learnt working with agencies over the years how to approach the question ‘how would you do this’ a bit differently. In my mind what they’re asking is ‘if we gave you the keys, how would you drive this?’ So generally I’ll be like ‘well I keep a good vibe on the set. I don’t like people stressing’. If we have a direction I’ll just start shooting and will let it unfold from there. If it starts raining, we’ll get cool rain shots. Basically, if you hire Sam you’re gonna have a good time, or at least not a terrible time. It might not be super glamorous but we’ll get a few drinks when it’s all over.