Knowing that our boy Tristan “Gutstains” Afre was tight with photographer Zorah Olivia, I approached him about interviewing her for Defgrip. Pairing a BMX photographer with a skate photographer sounded interesting to me. Luckily they were both down!
Click below for the interview and some photos.
Tristan – You’ve gotten a pretty good amount of buzz going the past couple of years, how do you keep from letting it go to your head?
Zorah – So to not let things go to my head, I remind myself that everything is fleeting. I’m just enjoying everything as it’s coming in the moment and not thinking too deep about any of it, being thankful for all of it in whatever capacity it’s coming in. Just as money is going to come and go, I’ve seen it with photographers and artists in my family…there will be a year or two where so many jobs are coming in, everything is good and you don’t have to worry about finances. And then the next minute, all the jobs are dried up or the photo industry changes. I remember seeing it when things were strictly film, then digital came in and it was really affecting people in my life. So I try to keep that mentality of being thankful for what it is right now and being okay if things start slowing down. But for now I really love where everything is going and I just want to keep pushing it farther and just ride the wave.
What’s your creative process when you’re out shooting?
So when I walk up to a spot, I kinda look around and see where the light is coming from, figure out where to put the flashes, is it going to be a long lens shot, a fisheye shot… If its long lens where can I put my flashes where they will be out of the frame but still be effective. And usually I will kind of just sit back and let the skater figure out what they want to do. Because either we’re going to go to a specific spot to do a specific trick or we both just got to the spot and think, “What would be sick here?” Kind of just let them warm up, previsualize how I’m going to shoot it as I’m watching them and then I’m like let me see you do it once. So at that point when I see them do it, I’m like sick that’s exactly how I want it to look and we shoot.
Describe the perfect atmosphere or session for making a good photo…
I think the most important thing is being able to vibe with someone and connect with them on a personal level. I feel like my best work comes when I’m able to tap into the personal side of someone and just having this energy between you two that makes me feel like I’m doing something important. I always feel really fulfilled being able to get a shot with someone that’s really there with me and just as excited as I am.
At this point in your career, what’s something you wish you could go back and tell young Zorah?
I would go back to my ten-year-old self (who was gifted a Tony Hawk skateboard), that one day you’re going to be photographing him. And it’s just going to be you. You’re going to be the only photographer there and it’s going to be the scariest day of your life. But you can do it and you’re there for a reason. It all comes full circle. And I would also say, all the moments when I was in college feeling kind of lost and not being able to find what motivated me the most, I would go back and tell my younger self that everything is going to be fine. Just be patient and let things roll because it might feel like your world is crashing around you at the moment, but one day you’re going to wake up and be like “Oh my god, life is beautiful and look at all these opportunities that are coming to you”, so just stick with it.
What’s the most surreal moment you’ve experienced shooting skating?
Photographing Tony Hawk 1 on 1, I never in my life thought that was going to happen. I don’t even know where I can go from there. When you think of skateboarding you think of Tony Hawk; none of us would be where we are without him. So to be the primary photographer with him, even if it was for 2 hours, was the craziest experience of my photo career. And it was for sure the scariest shoot for me because I only had two hours and don’t have much experience shooting vert skating. He already told us that he was recovering from being sick, so if he lands the trick once you either get it or you don’t. So a lot of the stuff I shot was first try and that’s it, move on to the next thing. And not having an assistant or anything; shooting in a massive indoor warehouse and having to sprint around and change the lighting really fast, not really having time to make sure it’s correct or looking as best as it could, that was the scariest thing for me. Just because I’m so hard on myself anyway, like after the fact I’ll look through and be like “Goddamnit I wish I got that better or I wish the flash was over here, I wish I would have moved over an inch or two”, etc. But the fact that I even had that experience and got the images that I did, I just can’t wait to share them with the world.
What are your thoughts on the current media landscape?
Its definitely confusing and I feel like I’m not as educated as I should be when it comes to what images I should hold on to or what I should just post on Instagram. When you post on Instagram and put it out into the world it loses value. So determining, should I just post this or should I try to get this into a magazine? Even though we’re seeing a decline in print media, there’s still a lot of really amazing independent publications coming out that I feel could turn it all around. It’s the same thing with that era of photographers who grew up shooting film, they saw a drop and then now people are shooting film again. Everything kind of comes back and recycles. So even though we’re seeing a period of print media suffering, it’s going to come back because I hate to say it’s nostalgia but people are eventually going to think magazines are cool again. Which is ridiculous because it shouldn’t even be an argument, but I definitely don’t think it’s the end of print media in general. Its an honor to be able to contribute to Thrasher and to see that they’re still doing so well in print. Its really encouraging and I think it’s just going to encourage other people to create their own publications.
In general, how has your reception from the industry been?
It’s been surprisingly welcoming, which I think people are surprised to hear. I feel like the skateboarding industry is so small, yet so big at the same time. Word travels really fast and even if you don’t think people know who you are, they do. They’re paying attention. My whole life has revolved around skating since I was 10 so to be able to be in a room with my idols or these highly established industry people, it’s the most surreal feeling. But at the same time, I feel like this is where I’m meant to be. For example, last night I went to a video premiere for Daewon Song and one of the main TM’s for Adidas was outside with some of the team, we Introduce ourselves and he’s like, “Oh you’re Zorah, I’ve seen your work. Really good stuff.” And I’m like what the fuck that’s so crazy. At a certain point, I feel like gender isn’t even part of the equation. If they see you’re legit, you respect skateboarding and you’re doing it for the greater good, who fucking cares? So I definitely feel respected. I’m still super nervous kind of figuring out my place in all of it, but in general I feel very welcomed. And I think they’re moreso just curious what I’m about and I’m really eager to show skateboarding who I am; that I’m here to stay and all I want to do is elevate skating and skateboarders.
Do you want to be known as a female skateboard photographer or do you want to be known as just a photographer?
I really just want to be known as a photographer. I reference Annie Leibovitz and Sally Mann all the time. You don’t hear people say Annie Leibovitz is a female photographer. It’s an Annie Leibovitz, she’s just a fucking photographer. She shot for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Vogue; she’s just respected. And that’s the difference, I just want to be a respected photographer. Not pigeonholed into being a female photographer for female skateboarding. And I think a lot of female skateboarders feel the same where they don’t want it to be this gender divide. It’s super important now, especially with our current political landscape, to be an advocate for women’s rights and educate yourself of the inequalities that are very much present in our reality. Because the fight is still very much real and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. There’s definitely a threat towards women, to trans individuals, to gay people; it’s something that people need to educate themselves on for sure. But in the same light, we should all be fighting to be equal. Just to have it be skateboarding. Not male skateboarding, not female skateboarding, just skateboarding. And that’s the same approach that I have as a photographer in this industry, I’m just a human. I just want to be a photographer, that’s all I want.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I feel like I’m already seeing it with women that i meet through skateboarding, they tell me that they were inspired to start shooting because of my work. Which is mind blowing that it’s even being said because I feel like who am I to be an idol in that way? It’s a very surreal feeling, something I’m still getting used to and it’s very humbling. If anything, it inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing. Really, I just want to inspire future generations to pick up a camera. I didn’t have some magical in, I just had a passion for photography and a love for skateboarding and the two kind of came together in this harmonious way. I just want women to know that it’s possible and that we can all create an environment to support each other rather than it being this competitive energy. I just want it to be a big collaboration. And I definitely felt that in Seattle with a lot of women that were in this mentorship program I was teaching. And it wasn’t even young girls, it was women in their 20’s, 30’s. They were like, “We saw your work, we’re big fans. You made me want to pick up a camera and try”. And just being able to pass on knowledge. I never thought my photography would end up having this teaching element to it. Especially because I have social and public speaking anxiety, but now I actually really enjoy teaching and it’s opened up photography in this whole new light for me. And that’s more fulfilling than anything. To be able to get a shot that will end up in print or maybe one day I’ll get the cover of Thrasher or something, that would fulfill me too but being able to genuinely inspire and have that connection with someone would be the best thing to come of my career.