All Hands On Decks

28 June 2012 | 2:05 pm | Kate Kingsmill

In her portrait shots of skateboarders, Nikki Toole aims to capture the “zoned-out” look skaters get when they’re on their boards, writes Kate Kingsmill.

There's a certain focused yet zoned-out look that skaterboarders get in their eyes when they're skating that Melbourne-based Scottish photographer Nikki Toole likes to capture.

“When you skate you don't talk to other people, you're in your own headspace, you get into a groove, it's just natural,” says Toole, who is also a skater. “If you start to overthink it, that's when you fall and have an accident, so you need to be kind of zoned-out and in your own headspace. Sometimes skaters say they think it's like a meditation, some of them think it's a way of escaping.”

Since the initial idea for the Skater project sparked off in 2008 – it's a three-phase book project examing skate culture – Toole has travelled the world and has photographed more than 300 skaters. “I started it as a bit of fun because I had this idea about how I feel when I skate and I wanted to see if anyone else feels the same. It was amazing how so many people from all over the world say, 'Totally, I get that!' They feel the same thing.”

Capturing that feeling is the reason why Toole takes portraits rather than action shots. Skater is a series of beautiful, fine art black and white portraits that capture the thoughtfulness of the skater, rather than their prowess on a board.

“There are other people out there who do amazing action shots and that's never really been my thing, I've always taken portraiture of some kind. The person interests me, the way all the details that I see that I don't notice when I'm shooting but later I notice their scars and tattoos and what they're wearing. I just think it's so beautiful to look at.”

It's a project, Toole says, that could not have been undertaken so easily ten or 15 years ago before social media. Skaters contact her with requests for her to photograph them from all around the world, and Toole now chooses her travel destinations according to where she wants to photograph skaters. “It's been a really interesting journey in terms of where we travel. You end up hanging out with the skaters.” She spends a few days getting to know her subjects, and having a drink with them afterwards, but the shoots themselves are usually pretty quick, “Because usually they want to skate!” she says.

“I just say to people, 'Can you be in that headspace?' But I also want them to connect with me in some way, by looking at me or at the camera or around the camera. I just want them to zone out. Some people do it really quickly, you can see it straight away, they just imagine how they feel while they're skating, and that's why I think a lot of them look disconnected.  It's almost like an anti-posing. They're just standing, they're relaxed and they're in that headspace and they're engaging me, rather than just passively viewing.”

Toole has photographed skaters in Prague, Germany, California, Japan and Melbourne and has found the same kind of understanding between skaters everywhere. “When you travel, if you skate, you've got this immediate connection with other skaters because you understand the same thing, that it can be quite obsessive. You have a connection because you understand and they understand why you feel like it.“

Skater – portraits by Nikki Toole runs from Saturday 30 June until Sunday 9 September, Geelong Gallery.