TNC Interview | 2020
Jenny Sampson

Skater Girls

jennysampson.com

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Jenny Sampson's follow-up to her acclaimed collection of tintype skateboarder portraits (Skaters, Daylight 2017) focuses on female skateboarders. Although historically a male-dominated sport, there have always been girls in the skate- boarding landscape. By turning her lens on these members of the community all over California, Washington and Oregon, Sampson hopes to increase visibility and honour these girls, young and older, who have been breaking down this gender wall with their skater girl power.


Hi Jenny thank you for talking to TNC, how is everything going?

Hi! Things are going. I’ve been keeping myself occupied during the last 159+ days. The last couple weeks have been slightly intense (in a good way fortunately).

Congratulations on the Skater Girls, what does it mean for you to be bringing out this unique book?

Thank you! Making the portraits for this series and then turning that work into a book has been a blend of joy, stress, humility, pride and inspiration. I witnessed the excitement and wonder of my subjects when they saw their portraits being made and now, even though the book hasn’t come out quite yet, the press has been incredible and the response from the skater community and beyond has been better than I could have predicted. The work appears to speak to a lot of people for different reasons, which is wonderful. 

Can you tell me a little bit about how Skater Girls came about?

When I began making tintype portraits of skaters in 2010, I really didn’t know a whole lot about the culture –I, like many, had stereotypes swirling around in my head (a lot of the skateboarder stereotypes aren’t all that positive, though I always had an affection for them despite the stereotypes). But I did know that there weren’t a lot of girls skating because that was what I saw at skateparks and everywhere else we see skaters. I would go to skateparks and watch skateboarders skate and hang out; I’d set up my darkroom and equipment and attempt to make contact with any of them to make a tintype. I mainly saw guys but there were also girls here and there. I was always so happy to see them, but they were still few and far between. 

In early 2017, I saw a group of gals at the Emeryville skatepark (Northern California) and I was beside myself. I remember that day was an especially tough one for me for whatever reason and I pushed myself harder than usual to get their attention. And then, wow, beyond my wildest dreams, we spent the next couple hours together. Meeting that group impacted and inspired me in ways I couldn’t have known. It was a turning point–I experienced a sudden and unquestionable purpose and that was to seek out and photograph the girl skaters. 

By that time, I had done a fair amount of online research on skaters (watching videos, interviews, documentaries) and spent hours at skateparks just observing and talking with skaters. There were so few girls represented through the main and easily visible online avenues. Even when I began doing specific girl skater searches, it was tough. In hindsight, as time passed and as I pursued the girl skater work and developed relationships with the people in this community like Kim Woozy (Skate Like a Girl) and Cindy Whitehead (Girl is NOT a Four Letter Word) among others, I witnessed female skaters getting increasing national and international attention. It felt incredible being around all those folks who were having so much fun and exhibiting unadulterated support. I always felt honoured to be there, hang out, cheer on and document these skaters. 

"I’ve always loved chemistry and photography --I learned to process film and print photographs in the 6th grade (about 11/12 years old) and wet plate offered me a closer relationship to photography." 

What would you say were some of the biggest lessons you learnt from your first monograph Skaters back in 2017?

I learned that despite the stress involved, to keep moving forward –that things mostly work out and some things won’t and just keep going. Things don’t happen unless I make them happen. I also learned that it’s never too soon to begin promoting the book and reaching out to my network. I have to say, though, despite these lessons, despite knowing how to do things differently, there are no promises that the same struggles can be avoided.

Where did the inspiration come from to create a book that focuses on female skaters?

I think the inspiration was there before I was cognizant of it. It was destined to surface; it was just a matter of time. Nearing the book deadlines for Skaters in early 2017, I came upon the group of female skaters who I referred to earlier. After they told me about an organization supporting girl skaters called Skate Like a Girl and their event in the coming weeks, I decided in that moment that I would seek out Skate Like a Girl. I also remember thinking to myself “when I finish shooting for this book [Skaters], I am going to focus only on photographing the girls.” An entire world of just girl skaters? Oh. My. God. Thinking about the book was kind of a no-brainer because I was really happy with Skaters –it was well received, and I just knew a book with only girls could only feel better. I should add that around this time, word was out that the Olympics were including skateboarding for the first time as a Summer Olympic event. Skateboarding was getting further and further into the consciousness of the mainstream. I sensed and witnessed the changes. I knew I had to put everything toward this work.

With films like Skate Kitchen and Papaya Films short film 'Shred' there is a growing interest and respect for female skaters and the contribution they have made to skate culture. With Skater Girls being one of only a few books to showcase female skaters does this add any additional pressure on you?

I don’t think so…well perhaps a little bit! I love this community of skaters and I am thrilled to give them exposure to a wider audience. And I am honoured to be among the few books out there on this subject. There are a handful of women I’ve met in this community who speak so fluently and eloquently about the ‘girl skater movement.’ I learned tons from my observations over the years, and I’ve learned much more from watching and listening to these folks who’ve played such a significant role in creating a safe space that is accessible to any kind of marginalized person. Helping introduce and inform a wider audience about girl skaters –and skaters in general—feels good. By the way, there are two other books on girl skaters being published this year. It’s the skater girl year! (The others are Sierra Prescott’s Shredders and Carolina Amell’s Skate Like a Girl.)

"Don’t think about the type of equipment, just take pictures –and look at them!"

Do you think more can/should be done to highlight and understand the role of female skaters?

Yes. Despite the major advances female skaters have made in the last 15 years, there remains the constant issue of gender discrimination –and not just in skateboarding but in most sports settings. The movement towards equality is robust and permeating the skater landscape, and it will have to continue for years. One to remember, too, is that these folks are just skaters! They love to skate; they are fierce and fearless and playful and love what they do, AKA skaters.  

You are a renowned tintype photographer, what was it about this style and process of photography that interested you so much?

Initially, it was seeing a contemporary tintype. (Rayko Photo Center (RIP), made by Michael Schindler.) It was beautiful, holographic, tactile and it simultaneously looked old and new. Then while taking my first course, it was the “magic” –watching the plate clear in the fixer. I’ve always loved chemistry and photography --I learned to process film and print photographs in the 6th grade (about 11/12 years old) and wet plate offered me a closer relationship to photography.  I got hooked immediately and despite the amount of equipment and planning necessary to make a tintype --something I avoided before taking up the process-- I loved the immediacy and quality of the finished tintype. As it pertains to photographing people, this process has taught me the value of interacting with strangers and friends alike. This investment of time and collaboration required to make a tintype is something I cherish.

Has your approach to your work changed much since you started out?

In some ways, yes. Perhaps the biggest change is my diminishing fear of approaching and talking with strangers and working more slowly and contemplatively. 


Is it ever hard to let go of your work?

Well, I think I am pretty good at compartmentalising, so I think not. I don’t necessarily feel like it is necessary to let go, too. As a catering chef, it can be easy at times for me to be working with my photo brain still going. I admit, though, the stress involved in making a book makes compartmentalising more challenging --and then specifically this time around with the attention brought to Skater Girls, it is tough to let go.  

Do you have any advice or tips for anyone thinking of getting into photography?

My advice is always the same -- make pictures. Take pictures. Use your phone, use a camera –any camera. Don’t think about the type of equipment, just take pictures –and look at them! Experiment. Be patient. Find and engage with a local photography community. Have fun!

Also, don’t get to bogged down in what others are doing, necessarily. It’s important to discover your own voice and that can be difficult in these times with the onslaught of visual social media. 

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Skater Girls?

Oh, good question. I hope this book inspires curiosity –curiosity about skateboarding, photography, women, humans, hope and possibility. (Is that too much?!)

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