As someone who’s been skating on homemade ramps since she was a kid in Scotland, it’s no surprise that Nikki Toole spent three years photographing skaters in places as widespread as Utah and Prague. What was a surprise, though, to some of her subjects, was that she’s a woman — plus, in her 40s, and just over five feet tall.
Being something of an anomaly in the scene actually served her well in the end, Toole said. She ended up photographing hundreds of skaters, all of them with the same process. First, she’d ask her subject to get into the “headspace” of skating; then, she’d take five head-on, black-and-white shots. Skater, her new book, showcases a selection of the portraits, and though the project’s done now, her ears still perk up when she hears a board in the distance: “Sometimes it’s a rolling suitcase, but usually it’s a skateboard,” she laughed while on the phone with the Cut from her home in Australia. Read on to hear more about her experience shooting the skate scene, and click through the slideshow to see some of her portraits.
How did you get started finding subjects? Did you head to skate parks?
I would say 60 percent of the skaters were in the street, skating. At first I would take my dogs to the skate park, and they were almost like a lure. Skaters would come over and go, “Wow, I love your dogs,” and I’d go, “Yeah, so I’m doing this project …” [Laughs.] And as I shot more, I got invited to tons of places. People would say “Come to Russia” or “Please come and photograph us in Chile,” but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to all of them. I was working all year to make money just to do these six-week trips.
Was it difficult finding such a diverse spread of skaters?
I shot people of all ages and all levels of skating, but there’s not a lot of professionals in the book, because I found they were so conscious of their branding. You could see that expression on their face, that they’re thinking, Do I look cool? Am I representing my sponsor properly? So there’s very few professionals. I wasn’t really worried who I photographed, as long as you could skate. And, it worked out, it was almost 40 percent women and girls.
Did you find that skating is still a predominantly male scene? How did that vary around the world?
There’s definitely a different vibe, a different attitude in some places. In Prague, I didn’t see as many female skaters. I’m sure they’re definitely there, but, say, in Berlin, most of the people I photographed were women. It might have been a bit of a comfort-level thing to have a woman photographing, and it was a lot of word-of-mouth. In Australia, there’s a huge number of girls who skate. I think girls are getting more into it now, and there’s a whole thing that’s just rearing its head about how girl skaters don’t get paid as much or get good prize money in competitions.
How has it been going into these skating communities and shooting as a woman?
I think there was definitely a different response to me than if I were a guy. My partner, Andy, came with me on all the trips, and people would think he was Nikki. I’d go, “It’s me,” and they’d go like, “Oh, and you speak funny as well.” [Editor’s note: She has a Scottish accent.] I’m pretty short, like five-one, and I was kind of a novelty, but I think it served me a lot. Some people didn’t find me as threatening, which is good especially when you’re photographing children. A legal guardian has to always sign off on their kid’s pictures, and they see you as being less “stranger danger” if you’re female, which shouldn’t be true, but that’s just the way it goes. There were other people that I think didn’t take it seriously because I was a girl, and you know there’s always the macho guy who has a different response to me. But that’s a very tiny percentage. The skate scene is really lovely, and I would say 9 times out of 10 people were really open and generous.
This interview has been edited and condensed.