Who are you and how long have you been doing what you do?

I’m Joel and I’ve been skating since I was 10… so like, 18 years. Wow.

Skateboard and street photography—how does one compliment the other and how does your approach differ between them?

The thing with skateboard photography is that it’s almost always a staged or planned out event. Of course there can be instances where it’s not—people photograph skateboarders all the time without their knowledge or permission—but then this becomes a grey area between skate photography and street or documentary or whatever. Basically everything that we consider skate photography will have been in some way planned out between skateboarder and photographer, there’s been communication there, and I think that this has the biggest impact on the approach. When I’m shooting street there won’t be any communication with who I’m photographing and that’s what I love about it. Capturing very honest and real moments. But in order to photograph in this way you need to be aware and ready to shoot constantly. You don’t have time to whip your camera out of its bag and do a quick focus and meter reading – you need to be ready to shoot as soon as you see something worth photographing, because those moments are extremely rare and fleeting. If you see something that is worth shooting and you miss it, it’ll ruin your day.

What makes a good street photo and what makes a good skate photo?

I think if you can sort of fuse the two, if you use one to inform the other then that’s a good start. With street photography, for me, it’s all about the moment, patience and luck. Anybody who says that luck has nothing to do with it is talking shit. I don’t mean luck as in just point your camera blindly and sooner or later you’ll get something decent: I mean that you can have the perfect environment and light and be patient, but that extra something might never come or happen. Luck is crucial because it brings with it the unexpected. For example, I was in an estate here in Berlin and I’d wanted to get a shot at this statue with these weird, colourful faces. I was determined to shoot something there and on this day the light was great and in the right place, so I waited there for something to happen. Skip ahead over an hour of just holding my camera and waiting, and finally a mum and her two daughters came along. People had been past already but nothing had happened where I wanted it to with the statue. Finally, these two girls came and started playing hide and seek, running between the faces. I shot quite a few frames in those 10 seconds, as you can imagine, and I was hopeful for a decent photo of one of them peering around a face, hiding or whatever. When I got the film back from the lab, though, I was really surprised by the very last frame. It just had this arm held out straight from behind one of the faces. I don’t remember that happening and it was a surprise to see. That’s the unexpected element I’m talking about. Maybe in this case it’s only really a surprise to me and to a viewer it might just look quite unimpressive and even posed, like ‘hey, go stand behind that statue and stick your arm out’, but for me it was a funny surprise. I think this patience and openness to the unknown or unexpected are also crucial for good skate photography. Don’t shut your subject into this safety bubble of controlled lighting and rigid composition… let the outside world come in and overlap with your skate photos.

Do your shots just happen while being out and about or do you actively go out to find motifs?

I used to have way more time on my hands and would be able to go out and spend the whole day just walking with my camera. That was great, but still, a lot of the time I would come home with nothing. Like, you’re just hoping that all these crazy different elements are going to fall into place and that you’ll somehow just happen to be there to witness it and capture it. There’s no way of knowing the right time or place, so I think it’s more important to just always have a camera on you, more or less ready to shoot. Whatever you’re doing, just have some of your awareness constantly dedicated to that goal of capturing something interesting or surreal or unbelievable or whatever. I work on my bike, delivering food, and I always have a camera around my neck. It’s not often that I use it, but there have certainly been instances where I’m glad I had it.

Shooting people in the streets can be sketchy endeavour. What’s the sketchiest situation you found yourself in when shooting in the streets, or skating, for that matter?

I’ve had the usual: people trying to grab my camera to ‘delete the film’, mothers assuming I’m a paedophile (and shouting these assumptions), because why else would somebody be interested in photographing a child? But the worst was actually to do with skateboarding back in Northampton, my hometown. We were all pretty young—teenagers—and I’d been shooting my friend Niall on this bank in a carpark. The thing is, the carpark was in a hospital and as we found out, you aren’t allowed to shoot photos on hospital grounds. I tried to explain to these two security guys that, you know, there’s no way any hospital patients would be at all visible in the photos, especially with a fisheye! But they weren’t interested in hearing it, they were just demanding that I destroy the film. I didn’t want to provoke them but I really didn’t want to lose the photo we’d just shot so I was trying to worm my way out of there. Next thing I knew I’d been tackled to the ground, hit my head on the edge of a curb and had this old guy sitting on me for ten minutes until the police turned up. Actually, come to think about, I’m also guilty of shouting ‘paedophile’ based on nothing but wild speculation.

How did photography start for you?

I got into photography because of skateboarding. I experienced a few of those years where you didn’t see skateboarding on a computer screen all day long, you just saw it on VHS tapes and in magazines. I was genuinely fascinated by these photos where the skateboarders would be perfectly frozen whilst the background would be full of motion and blur. I couldn’t get my head around how it was possible and of course I couldn’t just go on Instagram and DM my favourite skate photographer for the answers. But my point is that this was my introduction to photography and I was full of intrigue and passion. After a while this passion dwindled, but I kept shooting. I studied photography but I think I kind of just fooled myself through it. I liked it for the most part, but there wasn’t really much passion for it. It was when I got my first book from Alex Webb that something changed and I was just in awe of every page. It gave me something I wanted to achieve, too, no matter how unrealistic. I finally had that feeling again. There are obviously countless other people I could mention, but whenever I really need some inspiration, Alex Webb is my go-to.

Being out and about shooting, what catches your eye?

That’s quite hard to put into words… errr, I don’t know. Well, an obvious one is when two or more elements all in one scene have the same colour or something. It sounds pretty juvenile and I guess it is, but I think that the simplicity of it can really pay off sometimes. There are certain sorts of gimmicks and methods practised in street photography—optical illusions, for example—and it’s difficult to find that balance between something great or just recreating thousands of other photos. Silhouettes are another one, finding ways to silhouette figures against highly lit backgrounds. But these are all just visual methods. They’re great to work into a photo, but the most important thing is the moment itself. If you find a great moment and then manage to photograph it in a great way, then that’s what makes a timeless shot. That’s what keeps me shooting: I’ve never shot anything that I think is a great street photo, there’s always been some element missing.

Your equipment ranges from DSLR to analogue snapshot cameras. What camera would you shoot the apocalypse with?

Hah! That’s a good one. Um, the reason I own more than one camera is because none of them are perfect. There’s always something I like about camera A over camera B, so I guess the camera I’d shoot the apocalypse with would be whichever camera I happened to have on me at the time. If it was mid-apocalypse and I was like, ‘right, just off out to photograph the end of the world then…’ I know that I wouldn’t settle for just one camera, hahaha. I suppose it wouldn’t matter in the end, anyway, as all photos would be taken in vain.

Tapping into something more general: As far as I know you’re from the land of the Queen, but chose Berlin as your city of residence. What does Berlin offer you?

I first came to Berlin when I was about 15. I came with a few friends for a skate holiday that took us through Berlin, Copenhagen & Malmo. Ever since that trip, I’ve wanted to live here. Whilst I was living and studying in Manchester, I met my girlfriend and she just so happens to be German. I mean, I was planning on moving here anyway, but that was a nice coincidence. It turned out that she wanted to move back to Germany after 8 years in the U.K. and Berlin just made sense. The city is always changing so rapidly. When I moved here it was already very different to when I first came 10 years before. But there’s just something about the place that I and so many people love, the kind of ‘anything goes’ vibe. I’m not one of these ‘fuck anywhere else—Berlin or die’ guys. I just feel comfortable here.

What’s your least favourite photographic trend?

I wouldn’t really call it a trend, but I’m not into the opinion or mindset that exists in skate photography where if you don’t use flash it’s ‘lazy’. This attitude is definitely changing and becoming less common, but it does still exist. Obviously flashes are required or beneficial in some instances, but personally I think that some people almost don’t even consider whether or not they need to use flash and just go straight to thinking ‘okay, how am I going to light this?’. I think it’s far more effective to use what you have available in front of you. Maybe it’s also to do with the whole ‘staging the events’ I mentioned earlier, I think I prefer to see more natural looking photos rather than full-blown, stage-set type shots. It’s all just personal opinion, of course. On the same topic, I love it when pedestrians or neutral bystanders are involved in skate photos but if it’s not natural or real, then I’m not really feeling it. If you’re putting people into your photos in Photoshop then no matter how clean and real it looks, it’s no longer a photograph, it’s a collage. It can still be good, in fact with such an advantage, it can be insanely good but it’s an insanely good collage, not a photo. I’ve been guilty of digitally manipulating photos in the past. I’ve ‘improved’ a skater’s hand and I’ve put people into a couple of photos, but when I saw those photos in print I felt horrible and like a proper phoney, so I don’t do that shit anymore. Not for anybody else’s sake, just for my own.   

You’ve worked with most major skate publications in Europe, as well as DPY. Where would you like to see your images in the future?

Yeh, it’s really nice to see some of my photos in a hardback book! Very stoked on that. I think one day I’d love to just make a book myself. Since opening that Alex Webb book for the first time I think I’ve been like, ‘Okay – this is what I want to do, this is how photos should be presented.’ I don’t know, it’s sort of just a pipe dream but it keeps you going, you know? I’m just hoping to keep going in the same direction. I’m super grateful for any opportunity I get. I love skate trips because you’re there for a specific purpose but at the same time you have the freedom to shoot more personal work alongside it. That’s a very valuable opportunity for me, especially since I rarely find the time to shoot anything day-to-day here in Berlin.

This article was published in BS29

Interview by Felix Adler