Skateboarding has gone global. Marble ledges, untouched plazas and lenient security in China and Russia beckon pros. Skatistan in Afghanistan encourages kids, girls specifically, to utilize a skateboard as a tool for empowerment. The construction of skateparks and donated boards in South America and Africa are spreading the sport like wildfire.
Photographer Jonathan Mehring knows all of this better than anyone. His new book, Skate the World, a collab with National Geographic and Levi’s, showcases the sport’s worldwide reach. He focuses on skate spots both legendary and secret and shows that skating has no boundaries (besides a little gravity).
We recently got on the phone with Jonathan to discuss his new book, how it came about, and what it’s like to search your own name at a Barnes & Noble help desk.
How did this all come together?
I had a conversation with Nat Geo in 2009. I had a meeting there after the subject of possibly doing a book came up at a Christmas party at my parents’ house. They’re family friends with a book editor from Nat Geo — that was totally random. At the time, I had no idea she was a book editor, I thought she was just one of my parents’ friends. But at the party we started talking and she was asking a lot about what I was doing. She saw the initial promise and opportunity.
So, that Spring in 09′ I went down to Nat Geo for a meeting and it went really well — I thought it went really well. Everyone seemed excited about the work but there was no real direction at that point. There also may have been some resistance from the business side of things…
Anyway, it just wasn’t there so it got put on the back burner. Susan and I kept talking every six months or so. I was keeping her in the loop. And while I continued doing magazine assignments I had some sort of book in the back of my mind so I kind of shot differently from then on. I didn’t know exactly what I was working toward but I knew there was something there.
So you’ve been working on this thing for a while?
You could say I’ve been working on the book since then . But specifically this last year, for sure. Maybe year and a half.
When you say you were shooting differently, what changed?
I started shooting a lot more of the general scene. People hanging out, what’s going on other than just the trick. So like, I started caring about other stuff. The kids we met, how we were traveling along, people grabbing at a board to try it out. Before I would just go home and put the camera down once the trick was landed. Early on all I cared about was the tricks.
Eventually I kind of got interested in the culture and lifestyle that happened with everything else. And as it turns out that has its own appeal to the general audience.
For someone not familiar with skating, that culture and those lifestyle shots are pretty interesting.
Most people who don’t skate could care less about the tricks (laughing).
A lot of the work in the book does have a different aesthetic than your typical skateboard mag or a video.
Most of the shots in the book were taken between 2008 and now. That’s really when I kind of had that stylistic change. There are one or two shots from 03′, maybe 04′ — but 2008 was when that conscious shift kind of happened. Maybe I just found my groove at that point. It’s hard to describe exactly what the shift was but it stuck.
In the last five or six years skating has been legitimized. Your book showcases how skateboarding is a global thing now and not just an America thing…
or California thing
Exactly, your book is a big part of that. Skating isn’t necessarily the counter-culture sport that it used to be. It’s becoming globally acceptable.
I guess the book was written in a way I think that skaters will enjoy. But people who don’t know about skating or might think one way about it — I hope that after they read it they’ll come away with a different perspective. If it’s their first introduction, if people think they know about skating, I hope this book shows them there’s more to it.
How did Levi’s get involved?
I was really pushing and Nat Geo was already on board except they needed me to find a sponsor. No one on the photo side was staff for them, so no retainers were involved. That being the case, they asked that I find someone to supplement the cost… that came up a few years ago.
Were you freaking out at that point? Nat Geo was on board, which is huge but you need to front the bill if you couldn’t find a sponsor.
I reached out to a few companies and didn’t really get any response at all. I was kind of playing the waiting game. Then Levi’s came up and I thought, “they don’t have a team, they’re building their skate program, this could be perfect.”
They wanted to promote skating but with no team they were just out to promote skating in general, it was a great fit.
I thought that was an interesting pairing.
Yeah, they’re kind of taking this philanthropic angle and guys don’t really know what to make of it (laughing). Guys that have been in the industry forever and are used to doing things their way are like, “Huh?” but people are accepting them now.
Anyway, I had a chance run in with them [Levi’s]. They hired me to do a shoot in Le Paz, Bolivia, that was in the Spring of 2014 for a skatepark project they were doing. I brought up the book and they hopped on board as my sponsor.
This being a photo book with your name on it, you welcomed whoever to join in. That’s rad.
Well it wasn’t whoever. There was a method to the madness. We decided early on that this wasn’t going to be my story per se. It was more about the culture of skating overall and so I soon realized we’re going to need to pull in other people [photographers]. I’ve never been to Skatistan, I’ve barely been to Africa, and certain skaters needed to be in there — like Danny Way and Andrew Reynolds, for example — who I’ve never shot really. I had 70% of the content and as long as I had over 60% I get my name on the cover.
How did you get Tony Hawk on board for the foreword?
I haven’t met Tony but we have a bunch of mutual friends and I emailed one of them asking about him doing the foreword and they pushed it along… he said “yes.”
I don’t want to say this all fell into place…but it seems like it all fell into place.
It just happened man, it’s crazy. It was a long road, for sure. But right place, right time happened more than once. What is it? The law of attraction, right? They say, “If you keep a goal in the back of your mind long enough eventually it’ll come to fruition.”
When’d you start shooting photos?
Pretty much when I picked up a camera in high school. I did the whole college art school thing after that, but I was always shooting skating for fun. Probably halfway through college I kind of had it down and I thought I might be good enough to get into a magazine so I started sending some of them prints. For six months I didn’t get a response or any feedback at all, really. I was going for it man, sending at least a photo a week. I was sending originals man, fuck it. It was like no holds barred. Then after six months one of them hit me up and was like, “Hey man, your stuff’s looking better” and I was like “Holy shit, they actually called me!” Shortly thereafter one of the magazines did run a couple photos.
They say it’s who you know and whatever but I didn’t know anyone, dude.
For the photo industry at large that’s unheard of, right?
Seriously, no affiliation or connections. Nothing. I was lucky in that regard. At the time I thought that’s how it was done. I now know that’s not always the case (laughing). Not that that never happens but…
What’s in store next for you?
I’m not ready to drop another book or anything but I’m definitely gonna keep shooting skating and moving forward.
How’s it feel seeing your name on the shelves in Barnes & Noble
Dude…I can’t tell you how weird it is. So, to me it’s a photo book. I went in there and cruised the photo book section and couldn’t find it. So I was like, “ahh fuck, maybe they don’t have it.” But I had heard from Nat Geo that Barnes & Noble would have it, so I went up to the information desk and was like, “Hey, do you have a book by Jonathan Mehring.” That was the weirdest shit I’ve ever said, I think.
They’re like “Oh yeah, it’s in sports,” Of course it’s in sports. I was kind of bummed on that but whatever. Skating is called a sport now but I don’t really consider it one. Anyway, I went to the sports section and found it. It was in sports but the sub-section was “Outdoor Sports and Survival.” which is where I think it should be if it has to be in sports.