It began at the Chicago mall where they filmed Weird Science. I spotted this hot pink skateboard with green grab rails and a huge black tail guard. I placed it it on the carpeted floor and stepped on it. I went one way, the board went the other. My nine-year-old self thought, “Skateboarding is impossible.” Too late, I was hooked.
The next year I moved to South Florida. The first boy I ever kissed took me under his skate-or-die wing after we decided, or rather he decided, we should just be friends. We removed those pesky rails and the tail guard. After some tutelage and lot of practice I was ready for a real board. I got a Vision Ken Park Mini. It had a proper sloping tail, with a more streamlined shape, a nose, lighter wheels, faster bearings, and better trucks. It was black with blue swirls and some kind of claw-like creature on the underside. Slowly my friends and I became a crew. We ventured out in search of the better curb, the faster rail, seven days a week, every day after school and all weekend. I don’t think I did anything else for the duration of middle school.
I was always the only girl. I tried to teach my girlfriends to skate but it was either too hard or they were not really interested. They were definitely interested in the boys though. I found myself simultaneously inside two totally separate worlds, both of which I understood comfortably even though they did not understand each other quite as easily. I was relating to boys from a different perspective than my girlfriends, and relating to my girlfriends in a different way than most of my boyfriends could. It was a position of privilege and intrigue. I recall walking into a class one day to hand a note to the teacher. Two younger boys at the back of the class started whispering “That’s her, that’s the girl who skates.”
Each new encounter with a group of skater boys resulted in the same ritual. They watched me with skepticism, boards stood on tails, hats on shaggy heads, eyes askance. I had to prove myself above all the other boys even though I was more skilled than some. The alternative was to give into the nerves, bail on a trick, and face ridicule. Rather than land a trick and smile scathingly at them I would meet their gaze and sense their excitement and genuine respect. I would smile. We would connect. Of course there was the occasional dickhead but my friends backed me up. Those boys never saw another girl skateboard. I loved blowing their minds almost as much as I loved skating.
Though I don’t skate anymore, I still love skateboarding and stop to watch whenever it crosses my path. Even though I’m a photographer it’s one of the things I haven’t felt drawn to photograph. Skateboarders are a popular subject among photographers, but the pleasure for me comes from watching them in motion. I’ve never wanted to freeze them in time to examine them fractionally.
Last November I was in Iceland to shoot a portrait project about women. Iceland is known for gender equality, and the country routinely ranks among the best places in the world to be a woman. A week into my stay I was walking down Laugavegur Street with a partially prolapsed disc in my back. This happened to be my first day before shooting and I’d been to the chiropractor twice already. I remember thinking to myself “thank god” I have a bunch of tiny Olympus OMDs and not giant Canon 5Ds to lug around.
Three boys on skateboards whizzed by and stopped ahead. I plodded on and caught up with them. They must’ve be about 10 years old. I saw one trying to ollie and struggling. As I passed I called out “It’s hard! It took me a month to learn to ollie.”
“You skated?” he asked in surprise.
“Yes when I was about your age.”
We all chatted for a bit about finding skate parks and losing contests. I asked them if they knew about Mozart the composer. Yes of course they did. But did they know Mozart never won any prizes (ever) or that Charlie Chaplin finished third place in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. They were all skeptical and delighted to learn that even the greats aren’t always recognised for their talent (and in Chaplin’s case not even for himself). Then one of the boys who recently finished fourth in a skate contest fist bumped his chest and said, “It’s truly an honour to meet a girl who skated.” They zoomed off to the skate park trying to ollie everything in their path. As I continued to my next shoot, I remembered what it felt like to play with boys as a child. Not as the only girl, not as one of the boys, but as a respected peer.