Photographing skateboarding is nothing like crouching on the sidelines of a playing field, waiting to capture victory. In skateboarding, that hero shot might never happen and it’s rarely shot in a skate park or stadium. It’s in the street, anywhere, anytime. Skateboarding is not static; and neither is New York-based photographer Jonathan Mehring. His passport is soaked with ink: Argentina, Russia, Bolivia, Mexico, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam.
Mehring recently released the book Skate the World: Photographing One World of Skateboarding with National Geographic. It’s more than just a compendium of his travels and the tricks along the way. There’s a greater narrative that eclipses the idea of documenting—spreading what skateboarding unlocks and ignites in people, not just the act of it.
“It’s about the global culture of skateboarding being a unified phenomenon and how that culture doesn’t really deviate, when you move from area-to-area,” he tells The Creators Project.
The culture of skateboarding is creativity and adapting to environments—it’s problem solving. Mehring understands that mindset. He was born into it, growing up skating at two world-renowned plazas on the East Coast: Love Park in Philadelphia and Pulaski Park in Washington, DC. What happens in those marble public spaces is more than just people pushing their ability; it’s people pushing their minds and finding their voice through filming, taking photographs, making zines, starting brands, and releasing videos. Not every kid will go pro, but everyone can participate in their own way.
"The best skateparks ever are Love Park and Pulaski Park,” he says. “But they’re plazas and weren’t built as skateparks. Skateparks give a meeting point for skaters to feed off each other—that’s how you build a community.” That community is power. It’s what encouraged Mehring to pursue photography further, eventually taking him across the globe.
Those skate Meccas are where Mehring started to turn his camera away from the portraits and conceptual art he worked in early on, learning to document the high level of skating he feed off. But like Allen Ying, co-founder of 43 Magazine and whose work has been published in The New York Times, Mehring’s documentation of skateboarding is about the location as much as the trick. He thinks of himself as a landscape photographer as much as a skate documentarian.
He was quickly recognized by Thrasher and Slap magazines while still in college. “I learned early on how to freeze action to get a skate trick,” he said. “I didn’t learn about other photographers right away. I took a class at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University], but I’m not sure if the program didn’t have a lot available or that I wasn’t interested, but from what I remember it was: If you want straight photography, it’s Robert Frank. If you want fine art photography it’s Robert Mapplethorpe. If you want landscape it’s Ansel Adams. I had two or three professors in school tell me that shooting skating was a waste of time, because it wasn’t art—it was too commercial. Then I got published and thought, ‘Fuck you. I’m gonna run with this.'’’
Mehring’s been searching for new backdrops for skating, but it’s not solely about finding something untouched, it’s about bringing the spirit of skating abroad—the language of skateboarding that everyone involved understands. Part of that mission is working with organizations including the non-profit Skateistan, to create hubs for young skaters across the world.
“I’m attracted to clutter and crowds. I’m also a landscape photographer in a way. I love chaos—that anarchy’s lurking under the surface,” he said. Because he’s traveling with crews to places that may have never seen skateboarding before, the reception isn’t always welcoming. And by that I mean people can get really pissed off, seeing some Americans “destroying” a public monument with a skateboard. He mentions that Japan and India are particularly welcoming, with hundreds of people assembling to watch them, despite the police constantly breaking up their session or asking for paperwork. It also raises the question of what’s off-limits. They had to pass on the perfect architecture of a mosque in Casablanca.
“The most hostile place was Baku, Azerbaijan,” he says. “What it seemed like from my outsider’s eye, being there for two weeks, was that there’s a clash of cultures, because there’s so many different religions and types of people there—different social rules for different types of people. Skating is not about following rules. One guy ran up and body checked the filmer. I’m looking around, thinking it was a diversion, in order to steal our gear. Theotis Beasley was with us and just walked up and punched the guy in the throat. That pretty much ended the altercation.”
What’s next? He talked about his admiration for the Magnum photographers and American street photographers of the 70s-90s, whose work opened up a new world to him. Whether it’s Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey, or the unorthodox skate images of Daniel Harold Sturt, it’s about capturing more than what’s contained in the frame—the greater idea. There’s the impulse and desire to break off and explore non-skate ideas, steeped in conceptual art ambitions, but, like many artists who make their name in skate, there’s always that attachment of “skate” that precedes the medium. It can be be discouraging.
When you look at Skate the World as a whole, you see a fully formed concept, not just beautifully photographed environments, with people riding skateboards in them. It’s about transporting and sharing a boundless passion and seeing how it manifests in others. That’s a collaborative process that transcends space, time, and boundaries, provided the ground is smooth enough to ride.
Skate the World: Photographing One World of Skateboarding (National Geographic) is out now. Learn more about it by clicking here.