Words and interview by Jacob Sawyer. Portrait by Hugo Snelooper. All photos by Benjamin Deberdt
French photographer Benjamin Deberdt has dedicated his life to dynamic images which capture the essence of skateboarding. With an ever-prolific career spanning over 25 years, his excitement to still document and present what’s happening around him is testament to his love for skateboarding, photography and all both cultures entail.
We first met Benjamin when he moved to London, having co-founded Kingpin Magazine. Prior to that he had already worked for TransWorld, started the French publication Sugar and travelled the world shooting some of the most interesting people to set foot on a skateboard.
Knowing the depth and beauty of Benjamin’s archives, we’ve talked about exploring them together for a long time. Due to him being knee-deep in book projects, zines, gallery shows and maintaining Live Skateboard Media – whilst simultaneously looking after his family, we waited for the perfect time to arise. Benjamin has regularly chosen to work on the streets of his Parisian home documenting the now, never missing a beat. Even when scheduling a time to speak, we held off for a couple of days because Benjamin and Soy Panday had unfinished business in the Bastille.
It took some time for the stars to align and the photos to be liberated but we are so glad they did. What Benjamin has gifted us is the tale of three cities. London – where we met, New York – where his trusty Nikon FM2 was first purchased under Thomas Campbell’s tutelage and, finally, Paris – his city. The city where it all started and continues.
We connected to speak about a wealth of photos from many different time periods, and it’s evident Benjamin’s eye as a photographer is as on point as his eye for talent in bloom. The images and stories he has gifted us make up three chapters, one dedicated to each city. This first instalment focuses on Benjamin’s relationship with the city of London, each one chosen to represent what he found compelling about what was happening here at that time.
Mark ‘Fos’ Foster lays back a front rock at Harrow in the midst of Live From Antarctica, 2005.
We open with Slam alumnus, Fos – the creator of our Slayer graphic, rocking the inspiration shirt, caught in a trademark manoeuvre. What’s the story behind this day?
This is 2005 which means I wasn’t living in London anymore. I’d moved back to Paris after two years but I still had a room and I’d be back every other month to meet deadlines for Kingpin. I’d use those days to go skating for fun but also to shoot photos. Fos was one of the people I’d skate or hang out with. On that day it was Fos and Seth Curtis who you can see in the background wearing a neon green t-shirt. The three of us took the train from Euston after skating Euston banks for a minute. This day was my only time there [at Harrow], maybe we were doing something on Fos for the mag and it was his idea to go.
This was shot when he was filming for the Heroin video, Live From Antarctica and his part in it opens at the ‘A Surface Inbetween’ show, by the creative minds behind the first ‘Side Effects Of Urethane’ show which prompted your move here. Was Fos one of the first people you met in the U.K.?
Kind of. My connection with the U.K. and London skate scene was through Marke Newton who was also working at Slam at one point. I was living in Paris, we met through skating and he was making moves with his art. We did a little story about his work in Sugar magazine which I was doing back in Paris. We started to hang out and became friends and this is how he ended up inviting me to the first ‘Side Effects Of Urethane’ show.
It was at the Jam Factory in Bermondsey, in 2001. I came for the weekend and we had a little collage together. I was amazed by the energy of the whole event; building these crazy ramps for a weekend and everyone who was invited. The first show had people like Bobby Puleo and Marc Johnson, some people I knew from New York already and some people I didn’t know yet like Toby Shuall, Pin and Badger [Rich Holland] who were building it out.
The energy of it reminded me of my time in New York in ’95/’96. You had this crazy mix of skaters, skaters who are artists and people making things who don’t even consider themselves artists. It reminded me of what Alleged Gallery had going on in New York. Even in New York, I was between the two worlds. I’m not going to pretend that every skater in New York was an artist, wearing weird clothes, hanging out at Alleged but you still had that respect. At gallery openings you would have all of the skaters from the city showing up. Skaters would be wearing Nautica hoodies and be all hip-hop but they’re still going to show up.
I felt the same energy at ‘Side Effects Of Urethane’ and I was really interested in it. Within a year of that show, the idea of starting Kingpin was presented to me and I decided to say yes and move to London. I didn’t want to leave Sugar at some point [later], being bummed on it, because we had a really good thing going on. I figured it was best to leave when I was really happy with it, knew it was going to keep on and it’s still going over 20 years later. The mag was organised so it could continue and I was off to London, I moved there in September 2001.
Rob Mathieson backside nosegrinds into the bank of a long lost gem, 2003.
“The clichéd skate photo is the lone hero nosegrinding into the sunset, maybe there’s a pigeon gracefully attacking at the same time.”
This is a great photo of Rob and a perfect snapshot of this spot and time; having skated from Covent Garden to Holborn Viaduct and getting down to business with a trick. This was around the time of Static 2 influencing some heavy sessions there.
This is just after that whole time. Legend has it that Bobby Puleo set that thing off when he did a nosegrind into the bank. We went there on a mission to shoot Nick Jensen. He did a frontside bluntslide into the bank, we shot a sequence and it ran as a spread in Kingpin. There was a crew skating and Rob was doing sick backside nosegrinds. I shot a photo, obviously, that’s what you do right? Rob was one of the younger guys, a teenager who was ripping. I don’t think that photo was ever used anywhere.
Everyone would be at that spot so much. Olly Todd put in some fruitful hours there. It enjoyed a heavy localisation, after laying dormant for a long time, and then it was gone.
That’s how it goes, city life. Spots become trendy and they’re things which have been there for years. In Paris, there’s these banks by the Seine which have been skated for a while now. They’re very close to where I went to university and I’d always look at them, and want to skate them, but I wasn’t skilled enough.
These banks had been there forever; in 1991 we would be looking at them, then 15 years later everyone is skating them. Now, every single trick has been done and it doesn’t really make sense to meet there. It’s one of those spots where everyone will go for fun now but back then it would be, “Oh no, Benjamin wants to shoot a photo there?” It was a mission, no-one wanted to skate it. Now everyone is psyched, it’s pretty funny.
There’s evidence of at least three other people there.
I wonder if you can decipher what board is lying there?
My money is on it being a Habitat board. I love this photo for the tale the jackets and the board on the floor tell. Everything flung down and its straight to skating the benches.
Yeah, everything. For photos, you’d usually make it look all nice: jackets and bags out of the way, homies moved to the side so nobody looks silly in the back. The clichéd skate photo is the lone hero nosegrinding into the sunset, maybe there’s a pigeon gracefully attacking at the same time. Sometimes it’s nice to have a photo where everyone is there, it’s more realistic to the experience of skateboarding. Most of the time, it’s a group thing.
Tom Knox firms the cold for this backside tailslide, 2014.
We’re leaping ahead in the timeline a bit here. This is Tom Knox post-Eleventh Hour, freshly on Isle and about to get on New Balance.
I was staying with Nick Jensen and wanted to document him working in his studio. It lined up that he was working on a graphic for Isle whilst I was there. When I showed up, he was designing what basically would be Tom Knox’s first pro boards. Back then, it was kind of Vase-themed collage and the other one was part of the ‘Curiosities’ series where the board these shelves filled with different artefacts from a person’s life. We went to Nick’s studio, where he worked with Chris Aylen, and they started to build this thing.
As I was shooting photos, I asked where all of these little objects came from that would make up the board graphic. It turns out that each one was stolen from Tom’s room by his room-mate. It had been weeks and things had been taken from his house and he hadn’t noticed at all. I was amazed, like, “Who is this guy who hasn’t realised all these things are missing from his single room.” It’s not like he’s living in a giant house with tons of stuff laying around, he’s a skater living in a skate house. I’d never met Tom and had an impression, from this story, that he would be a super disorganised, stoner kid with no idea what was going on.
This is the exact opposite of Tom, and who he is, so that was super funny.
The next day we went skating with the crew. Chris Jones and Nick were there too. It was one of these winter days and it was Halloween so I was there to cover an event, officially. It was starting to get cold, grey and miserable. I had a just small backpack with a camera and a couple of lenses – no flashes because I was just there to shoot one day.
It was starting to get dark when we got to this spot but straight away I saw it could be a sick photo. I had to push the film, everyone had loads of clothes on and we were freezing. I had to tell Tom that if we were going to get the photo he needed to wear something light coloured and he said he had a white t-shirt on. I asked if he really wanted to do that but he was fine. He did the trick in the freezing cold whilst I’m wearing a North Face jacket, shivering. The poor guy had to skate in a t-shirt but the photo came out pretty good. Thanks Tom.
It was a great moment. I was only there for a couple of days but it was great to see Nick going at it with Isle and to meet the whole crew. I love Chris Jones’ skating so seeing him skate in person and everybody interacting together was a nice feeling. That is actually the last time I was in London, I can’t believe I haven’t been back since. I’ll have to organise it again, someday.
Chris Massey and Ragga the cat in the Cawdor Crescent kitchen.
“The best photos happen without a reason to.”
This is a heartbreaker but I’m stoked this is in here. Massey and Ragga the cat at the old Cawdor Crescent house. I’m happy to still be talking about the two of them.
What’s the name of the cat?
His name was Ragga. Massey, [Dan] Magee, French and Marshall [Taylor] moved into that house; then Ragga turned up and it quickly became his house too. I was living with Massey when this photo was shot and we were both working at Slam. What brought you out to Boston Manor?
I’m not sure. On the contact sheet there’s a photo of his two VX cameras lying in his office corner, I’m guessing he was editing and finishing the Landscape video, Portraits . I’d been out a couple of times with the guys who were filming for that. I’d have been there to get some photos for if we were to talk about the “making of” the video, later down the line [for an article]. It wasn’t planned, he needed to go back for something. The best photos happen without a reason to. It’s good to have it.
It’s an awesome photo. This was when Massey would work at Slam each day, go filming straight after work and then put in the time in his room, late at night, figuring out and editing the video.
I remember those guys working on it super hard. See, I was never out shooting skating in London a lot because I was dealing with the ins-and-outs of making a magazine. It was mostly office life and I would shoot trips.
Whenever I was in London, and wasn’t working, I’d either be skating or hanging out and occasionally shoot photos. We had Dom Marley and other guys who were out in London who would be shooting every day. We were taking photos from all over Europe anyway so it made more sense for the mag for me to go and do that. London already had heavy documentation.
Dom was out literally every day.
He was killing it. He’s so funny, man. It was a great period. I loved the energy of the whole thing. Big city life – so many people who are all completely different yet they come together because of skateboarding. It’s one of the best things about it. You realise you don’t have to be exactly like every other person to be enjoying something and enjoying each others company. I was so deep into all of it, it was nice to see it happen, to see how dedicated everybody was. It was fun and to now have this photo of Massey is special.
Chris Massey and Joel Curtis clocking footage for Portraits.
“At the time, you scrap it but looking back it could be the best photo on the roll of film now that twenty years have passed. This is one of those.”
Another Massey snapshot that perfectly encapsulates the time, out on the streets with Joel Curtis but out of action on a crutch.
This was a Landscape filming mission and I tagged along. They were filming a trick in this small courtyard which was a bust. If I had pulled out my flashes, they would have been busted in five seconds. I didn’t shoot photos of the trick so they could film it for the video. They had been working on it for so long, there was no point in me spoiling it for them. Joel managed to film his trick on the rail there, not a line obviously because Massey is out of action. This is us leaving afterwards to go somewhere else or maybe to head home.
Another great one to have.
Yeah, it’s one of those moments where I was talking to someone else or had fallen back – then I saw them ahead and knew I needed to get this photo.
At this time, I remember Massey had rolled his ankle with a standstill 360 flip challenge on the Slam shop carpet.
Oh man, really? Right in the middle of filming.
Sometimes you take photos and you’re disappointed by the framing or the colour of a car in the background is off and you’re not very excited about it and then, later down the line, you remember you have the photo. Especially now I’ve been shooting for so long and I’ve been sorting out my archives, or pretending to do so.
You realise that you needed the one photo for the magazine, or whatever you were working on, but next to it is another photo. Maybe the guy in the background is making a silly face so you never use it and then, years later, you look at and realise it’s Lucas Puig when he’s fourteen so it takes on new relevance. Maybe, at the time, you scrap it but looking back it could be the best photo on the roll of film now that twenty years have passed. This is one of those. Rest in peace, Massey.
Olly Todd dipping his frontside rock into some foliage, 2003.
“I took him to every red brick spot in the suburbs of Paris and it worked. He thought they were perfect whereas every Parisian wouldn’t want to skate them at all.”
This is the same exact period of time and Olly was out filming, shooting photos constantly. Truly professional. This is a photo which never ran, right?
This day was just the two of us, wandering around the city, looking for stuff to skate. We weren’t with Massey or a filmer, it may have been after Portraits had come out. I have no recollection of why we were there, maybe I was just trying to get a day out of the office to hang out with Toddy.
He did this one super quick but it’s the same thing, a nice time capsule. I loved Toddy’s skating and he’s so much fun to shoot photos with. Actually, this could have been when we were working on an interview I shot with him for Kingpin, but never used.
He came to France for that too?
Yeah, he had a few things in London and ended up coming to Paris. There was the whole connection with Soy Panday too. It’s when Soy and Vivian Feil had their apartment and everyone would stay with them. That trip was before Portraits [was finished] because one of Toddy’s last tricks in the video is in Paris.
I remember not shooting a photo because it was impossible to, for whatever reason, and I was bummed. He’d fully blown his ankle out and was just doing it for the video. He was in so much pain. It was the backside 180 fakie 5-0 transfer on a granite ledge back into a bank which is gone now. Too many cars got hurt by flying boards at that spot.
Shortly after moving back to Paris, I was still working for Kingpin and invited Toddy to come shoot with me. He came for a week, I guess and staying with us: my wife Maria – who is Spanish, and I. It was an amazing culture shock. Toddy is the ultimate Englishman, at least to me. We were making tea one morning, he asked for milk, I explained we don’t drink milk and he was baffled. We fed him some Spanish food for breakfast and he was super polite and pretended to enjoy it but I could tell he wasn’t thrilled. He survived though. We had a good time and he got a lot of sick photos in Paris, he was on a tear back then.
Just like the Tom Knox photo, this is Toddy in a zone where a lot of amazing skateboarding lies ahead.
For sure. He ended up skating these weird spots that nobody else would. I took him to every red brick spot in the suburbs of Paris and it worked. He thought they were perfect whereas every Parisian wouldn’t want to skate them at all. We got a lot of cool stuff.
Olly Todd’s wheels are some of the first to make a mark on A Surface In Between
More Toddy, high up the wall at the ‘Side Effects of Urethane’ gallery installation in 2003. Is this the inaugural session?
This would have been one of the first, big sessions. Daytime, because that was shot without flashes and everyone was skating, having time to enjoy it and figure it out. That space was once a school or something, the roof had windows so that’s why there was so much light, enough to shoot this and get all of the people in.
I shot it from the balcony. This was the follow up to my first experience in London. At this point I was fully living there, not far from this show. I’d take a quick bus ride and spend the whole day there hanging out with all the skaters. That thing was amazing. I found a contact sheet and I took a portrait of everybody who was there hanging out one morning: Stefan Marx, Jerry Hsu, Bobby Puleo, Will Lemon, Travis Graves – a whole bunch of people who made it out there. It was such a good energy again.
Justin Strubing flew out for that too.
Oh yeah, Strubing, I have a portrait of him on that contact sheet too.
My wife actually asked me to get married there.
At the show?
We had spent the whole day hanging out there. I think we maybe had one extra glass of white wine and she ended up proposing to me.
Wow, that’s a skate event you’ll never forget.
I know, right? The funniest part is that afterwards, we kind of started spreading the word, everyone was really happy for us but then there was this massive shift. All of the girls found out that she’d asked me and they were kind of psyched on it. A lot of guys in relationships were like, “Oh shit!” You could tell that some were very worried they could be asked too and have to make a decision.
Put on the spot! I suppose the emotional connection to that time makes Toddy’s kickturn a bit more poignant.
It was a special time. We decided we would get married there – this was in spring or summertime. Then we moved back to Paris in September and got married.
Alex ‘Pin’ Osborne and Toby Shuall taking time out while working on A Surface In Between
Two epic humans right here. Pin was in town from Cornwall to work on building the show.
They were taking a break from building the installation. I went to visit the space where they were building the ramps and wooden sculpture designed by Rich Holland, I passed by a few times while it was being put together. This is them cutting out for a lunch break and me tagging along. I knew Toby Shuall already from skating and seeing him at Southbank, Slam and everywhere else. Pin I knew already through Fos and him visiting once in a while, I’d met him when he was working on projects like this and the build for the first ‘Side Effects’ show.
It’s another one of those photos I’m very happy to have now. I actually have a lot of cool photos of everybody working on this thing; photos of Toby and Marcus Oakley carrying huge pieces of wood, doing the hard work.
Two carpenters, although Toby wouldn’t follow in Pin’s footsteps until a few years after this. This is reminiscent of the Tobin Yelland shot of Chris Pastras and Jason Lee in the coffee shop in San Francisco.
Yeah, that would’ve been a Stereo ad and it’s one of those photos I was really interested in. I always enjoyed Tobin’s work and his depiction of everyday life over there. Maybe back then, if you were organised and lucky enough, you could manage to scrape a plane ticket to America every four years. Every time someone would come back you would have all of this info about what people are wearing, the music they’re listening to, what people are hating on – little things you valued but now you would see it on Instagram in the next five seconds. Back then, everyone who would visit somewhere came back with the treasure of information, plus you would look at the photos in the magazines which backed it up.
Tobin’s photo stayed in my mind, the whole classic American diner configuration. It was very different from my own experience so I saw that moment with Pin and Toby and shot a few photos. Sometimes you wonder why you shot something a certain way, or framed it differently, and then you realise years later what inspired that decision. I only shot three photos over that lunch but I’m glad I did to have it and be talking about it now. Toby looks so happy.
“Sometimes you wonder why you shot something in a certain way or framed it differently and then you realise years later what inspired that decision.”
It’s a full-circle thing, from capturing the energy you felt in New York and experiencing it again years later.
Pretty much. With these two people you can tell that what they do, or how they live, may be completely different but they’re working together on this thing which won’t make them any money, and will probably break their backs, but they still want to do it.
That’s always inspiring to me, people coming together to make something happen. It’s one of those moments. You shoot it, you’re happy and then you bring it to a magazine and they ask why you want to run it, especially a skate mag. You explain the thing that’s happening, and the energy surrounding it, but they want product placement and news on who is turning pro.
Yeah, you obscured the iPath tee with a Cherry Coke
I know, I totally ruined it. I’ve actually done that kind of thing on purpose so many times. People would be wearing some horrendous sponsors logo.
“Oh no, look what happened, there’s a tree in front of your t-shirt… Sorry about that.”
Or I’ve chosen to shoot black and white because the outfit is so wrong.
“Thank me in ten years.”
Yeah, you’ll thank me later that the tree jumped in front of my camera.
Later on, when a person tells you it’s their favourite photo. You’re like, “I know, right? Somehow, the 28 flashes of a fisheye photo on your colour-coordinated, terrible clothing sponsor isn’t your favourite photo ten years later...”
Not that I haven’t shot terrible, colour photos with multiple flashes. We’re all guilty of it.
Rich Holland aka “Badger” making sure the paint is ready for action at A Surface In Between
Rich Holland caught working at the same show. He’s checking on the paint here?
Yeah, he’s making sure the paint is dry before anyone tried to skate it. It was no surprise that this thing was absolutely unskateable. A few people managed to get some good tricks on it but it was super hard to skate. It looked beautiful though and everyone had fun trying to make something out of it. I was stopping by every day, it was lucky timing on this one capturing Badger checking on it and perfect light.
This is another image of somebody working on a project in the early days which would be something they continue to excel at. From ‘Side Effects’ and ‘Moving Units’ to the the immense skateable architecture projects he’s working on now, like the installation at the Museum of Modern Art in Finland and Nike Headquarters in the Netherlands.
Exactly, I actually hit him up recently to say, “When are we doing this book?” – just on everything that the ‘Side Effects’ show did and how it was the jump start for so many other things to happen, later on, for so many people. He’s ended up designing and building things all over the world. You could have documentation of an early movement with it.
Maybe there was an article in Kingpin but maybe not. Kingpin ran a pretty strict, anti-art line with me back then. It was considered a “cool London thing” that “cool London guys” were doing but skate media is so funny. Everybody waxes poetic about creativity, all skateboarders being different, but usually it’s when some pro skateboarder has learned to turn on his camera two weeks ago and now thinks he’s the next Robert Mapplethorpe or something.
In reality, there are all these amazing people doing really cool things but you don’t want to talk about it because they’re “not skilled enough” on a skateboard, not sponsored or “cool” enough. Basically – not brand anointed.
“Here’s a 30 page article of some dudes, who have no idea where they are, because someone bought their ticket – skating one plaza.” Then you get half a page to run a story about 200 people getting together, building something and making something happen for themselves. Why?
The scope of this show was super ambitious and well-executed. From riding around the corners to the perspex panels in the walls, the evolution was insane.
That one was and it is an art installation, no matter how you want to look at it. It wasn’t a quarter pipe and a ledge to something, it was an undertaking. Full-on design around an available space, featuring something which wasn’t even designed to be easy to skate.
They could have built something everyone could have skated, which was a predictable demo setup, but it was something else. If you could manage, you could maybe skate it but that wasn’t even the point. The point is to skate it but not to be able to do all of your tricks first try. It was a different setup and a different state of mind.
So, this is a farewell to your residency in London in an image
Yeah. Not that day, but shortly afterwards, Maria proposed and we moved back to Paris. I was still working for Kingpin and for a year or two I had a room in London, meaning I would’ve been shooting more because I wouldn’t have to be in the office every day. After that, I was back in Paris full time.
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