Speaking to Photographer Pani Paul About Capturing East London's Skate Scene

Pani Paul's portraits from Mile End skate park will take you back.

by Joe Goodman
11 November 2015, 3:55pm

Before I lived in London, and before she moved to Hackney, my best friend from school used to live in a block of flats in Mile End. I used to travel up on the weekends, get drunk and then spend two days recovering in her bed. Once, on the walk to the big Asda for late-night shopping (they play Justin Timberlake over the speakers after 10pm), we passed the skatepark in Mile End. I remember, as a young non-Londoner, being impressed that it was the very same one from the Rizzle Kicks video.

Now I live in south London, and I'm a little bit harder to impress and a little less naive. But there are still things which easily transport me back to those days spent on my mate's sofa: foggy nights, mulled wine, the bit in Lord of the Rings when Gollum's leading them to Shelob.

Most recently it was a set of photos from Pani Paul, an Australian photographer who started taking pictures at Mile End skatepark in 2012. There's something about the composition of the series that brings back a hazy familiarity, like I was once one of the skate kids, not an uncoordinated pedestrian watching from afar. Ahead of his show at the Independent Photography Festival this month, I decided to speak to Paul about his inspiration and to apologise for the Rizzle Kicks reference above.

What drew you to the Skate Park in Mile End.
Mile End was the first skate park I went to on the first day I arrived in London in 2009. I had kind of lost interest in skating at the time. I didn't know anyone in London who skated so I felt a little alienated here. I didn't really go back to the park until a few years later when I started skating and met a good bunch of people who got me really hyped on skating again. I had always admired photographers who shot subcultures and had access to what I thought to be these really interesting and hard to reach subject/places. It took me a while before I realised that the scene at Mile End was just as an interesting subject as some of the other peoples work I was admiring and it was something that I felt was worth documenting.

How long did it take you to shoot the series?
The Mile End series was shot over 3 years between 2012-2015. But it wasn't until about a year ago I was encouraged by Lola Paprocka to turn it into a book. The book will be published by Palm. The book is also curated by Lola Paprocka and designed by Michael Bartz.

How did the project change over that time?
The project changed mainly with my own motivation and mood towards it over the past three years. Some days I would absolutely hate the whole thing and other days I would have total restored faith in it. It wasn't something I could rush and I knew like any solid body of work it would need to be done over a longer period of time. It was one of those things where you just need to say to yourself 'OK this is enough, the project is done' and that's one of the hardest things to do. I still feel like I will continue taking pictures there.

How did you decide on the distinctive straight-up portraiture style of many of the photos?
I chose this style because I wanted to avoid as many clichés as possible. I feel young people posing with skateboards has been absolutely done to death and now that skateboarding is on the rise again, or perhaps at its peak of popularity, commercial companies are jumping on the skate band wagon and trying to associate their brands with "cool youth culture". That's something I also wanted to avoid. I felt that clean, honest portraiture and excluding actual skateboards would make it more about the people rather than the physical act of skating. Which was important to me from the start.

Do you consider your work journalistic or biographical or what?
I would say this project is journalistic but, speaking of clichés, I also feel that I see a lot of my young self in the people I photographed, so I guess there is a some sort of biographical element too.

Did you feel a sense of duty to the subject or to the park?
The more time I spent at Mile End the more I got to know the people and their backgrounds. Generally speaking, real skateboarding has always been an "outsider" sport and this usually draws people from lower income backgrounds. As a young person it's easy to feel alienated from, or unaccepted by, mainstream society. This project was my way of paying homage to these people for being themselves. I wanted to creature a body of work that celebrated these people as they are and would hopefully help them gain the confidence to really be themselves and explore other artistic outlets or whatever it is they are interested in. People are always saying you need to do things a certain way or be a certain way to be successful but at the end of the day if you're not happy then you are not successful, no matter how much money you have. (This is just a guess as I really wouldn't know what its like to be filthy rich!)

How did you gain the trust of your subjects?
It wasn't easy! I was turned down a lot at the beginning but after people got used to seeing me there then they started to trust me. I would ask a kid and he would say no and I would respect that, but after a few months I would ask them again and then they would maybe say yes and once a few people said yes and I explained what I was doing, suddenly everyone wanted their picture taken.

Did you have a favourite subject to shoot?
Not really, it changes all the time. Its mainly focused around portraiture and environments of people. My interests usually change between absolutely nothing and then one particular subject heavily. I am not someone who always has a camera and is always taking pictures.

Do you have any enduring impressions or memories of the park from your time there.
Yes: I was there one day when a young couple were getting their wedding pictures done. I had never seen this before and I was thinking 'Oh my God wedding pictures at a skate park has to be one of the cheesiest thing ever'. They were all dressed up nicely posing in front of the graffiti. Naturally everyone was looking at them, kind of laughing and taking pictures on their phones. Then suddenly a guy in a track suit and balaclava came flying across the park on a massive Yamaha dirt bike, stopped next to groom, fist bumped him and said "congratulations bruv". This was something I had never seen before.

Do you think there's something nostalgic about the series, about skate culture in general?
I don't feel it's nostalgic yet, but in ten years my hope is that people in it will be able to look back and be happy about it. I never intended to make the series with a certain era in mind. Style in skateboarding is always changing and people are always drawing inspiration from the past so I guess skateboarding is nostalgic in that way.

Do you think there's anything interesting to, say, for how skate culture has changed in England and how it differs from Australia?
I can't answer that question on behalf of an English person, but I'm sure it has changed. Australian skateboarding when I was growing up on the east coast in my opinion was very heavily influenced by California, as the climate and landscape are similar. I would take influence from any skate videos I could get my hands on (mainly 411s from my friend's older brother's collection) and would manipulate the clothes my mum bought for me from charity shops so I could have a similar style. Nowadays, with the internet, everyone has access to a database of imagery from whatever era or style they are interested in. Merchandise from brands is pretty much available anywhere in the world now, which is great for the skate community, but it also takes its toll on individuality. You can be in a small isolated town and see kids dressed like they're from New York in the 90s down to the last detail. I don't think this would have been possible in the actual 90s.

Thanks, Pani.

The book launches at 71a Gallery on the 26th November from 6-9pm with beverages provided by BrewDog. The show will take place as a part of the London IPF between 18th-29th November.

Mile End by Pani Paul is published by Palm* Studios, curated by Lola Paprocka, designed and edited by Michael Bartz. All images hand printed by Daren Catlin.