The Lonely Wanderer: Atiba Jefferson on the Evolution of Photography Through Skateboarding

There is little Atiba Jefferson has not shot within his chosen realms. He’s captured some of the

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There is little Atiba Jefferson has not shot within his chosen realms. He’s captured some of the most iconic skate images in history and he has gone on to shoot the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Ice Cube, Lil Wayne and many more. The talented photographer found himself in Hong Kong to present his “Lonely Wanderer” exhibition with HVW8 and WOAW, which was inspired by the Panda Bear track of the same name. “If you… look back… would you… look back… what have you done… have you done… was it… was it worthwhile?” The cascading keys and haunting vocals of the track helps illustrate Atiba’s emotions when traveling around, as photography can be a lonely job at times.

It is difficult to pin down the category the Los Angeles-based photographer falls into, as it touches upon the diverse areas of music, fashion and sports. Along with a catalog of commercial work for big clients such as Nike, adidas, Pepsi and Mountain Dew, Atiba has built up a very impressive portfolio, which many photographers would aspire to call their own. From his experience as a staff photographer for the LA Lakers and Transwold SKATEboarding, he managed to capture historic moments that still resonate to this day. Furthermore, as a founding member of The Skateboard Mag, his images of figures such as Andrew Reynolds, Eric Koston, Tony Haw and Jason Dill helped shape the image of skateboarding in general. It allowed people to recognize the sport as an art form and way of expression, rather than its stereotypical connotations to trespassing and delinquency.

Jefferson aimed to show a diverse body of work in “Lonely Wanderer,” with a slight emphasis on basketball culture as the sport is so prevalent in Asia. He finds delight in how his work can speak to so many people from different backgrounds. We took the opportunity to sit down with him, discussing his noteworthy portfolio and what the future holds for a photographer that has shot an abundance of culturally relevant subjects.

The Universal Language of Photography

“You go to the hotel room, check in, you meet new people but come 6:30, I’m just a weird guy lurking at his own photo show. But it’s also flattering. It’s fun. It’s exciting.”

Can you go into the inspirations behind “Lonely Wanderer” and what that Panda Bear track means to you?
It’s just a great song. He’s a very, very good friend of mine. The record is great. The title is a big part of doing things like this. It’s always really weird to do a photo show that’s not in your hometown. Not that I’m concerned with it being full of people, I don’t normally show a lot. I don’t do photo shows often, I’ve only really done them with Tyler. I feel a little weird about it sometimes, like self-conscious, but when I do them back home, they’re kind of big parties. We usually try and have bands play and I know all my friends are going to show up so I know it’s going to BE a party. But when you come and do these on your own, it’s pretty lonely. You go to the hotel room, check in, you meet new people but come 6:30, I’m just a weird guy lurking at his own photo show. But it’s also flattering. It’s fun. It’s exciting.

Your work speaks out to everyone around the world.
Yeah, that’s why I try and make a whole mixture of everything. There’s a lot of basketball in here because I feel basketball culture is really big in China and being an American and being a basketball fan, it’s flattering to see how popular it is because it’s something that, to some people in America is not that cool, but for this whole country to really embrace it [is cool].

From when you first started shooting until now, has there been any points in your career where you felt like it was not for you?

I think a weird thing for me is, as I’m getting older, skateboarding photography is hard. You’re basically a glorified criminal. You’re documenting trespassing, destruction of property. Do I want to deal with cops at 38? No. I don’t want to jump fences and deal with that. But I’m a skater and I always say that as long as I’m skating, I’m going to shoot skating. As for photography, the thing is I’ve never looked at photography as a job. I’ve always enjoyed photography so I’m not working. It’s just second nature to me because I’ve always enjoyed it and it’s always something that I’ve wanted to do.

The Doors Skateboarding Opens

“You’re basically a glorified criminal. You’re documenting trespassing, destruction of property. Do I want to deal with cops at 38? No. I don’t want to jump fences and deal with that. But I’m a skater and I always say that as long as I’m skating, I’m going to shoot skating.”

What avenues does skateboarding open in photography?

I think skateboarding is such an influential culture. Especially American culture, but now worldwide culture. I’m in Hong Kong showing this stuff because of skating. I think skating to me is an art form and it’s self-expression and it’s also your environment. You go to a skate spot that’s on the street, you see real shit. You see homeless people. You see crazy people. You don’t see that if you’re in a gym, playing basketball indoors. You don’t interact with real life. Skateboarding has also taught me about art and music. It’s just like a big influence on so many things. Especially now that skating is cool; when I was a kid, skating wasn’t cool. You’d be beaten up if you were a skater. Skating is everywhere now - Justin Bieber skates. Anyone who skates, you’re my bro. I love it. It’s so funny though, the types of skaters that would be so embarrassed about certain people who skate.

How would skate photographers set themselves apart?
Now it’s weird because the focus isn’t on magazines anymore. I think being a skate photographer is all about… you have to be shooting good skating. You could be the best photographer in the world, but if you’re shooting average skating, no one’s going to pay attention. So to me, it’s really about getting with the best skater. You could take a bad photo of the best trick and that’s going to get run over taking the best photo of a bad trick. Nowadays – being a photographer, period – I wouldn’t know. People ask me, “How did you get started” and I don’t know.

Did digital photography change your perception of this art and craft?
Yeah, but I’ve always been very into the progression of equipment. I started working with 35mm and then I went to medium format, and then I went to 4×5. I don’t like to shoot one way; I like to shoot all ways. I’m stoked I was around when digital photography first got invented. Now it’s on everyone’s phone, but I was around when it was not cool. To me, they all serve a purpose. I’m carrying a phone camera on me right now. Do I wish I had my digital? Sometimes. Do I wish I had my film on me? Yeah.

After shooting pretty much everyone in the spotlight, is there anything more you want to capture?
[Laughs] We were just talking about this. Obama. Tyler was just like, “If you want it, make it happen.” That would be amazing as there’s always someone. Aphex Twin would be insane to shoot. I just shot Marshawn Lynch yesterday, he was a big one on my list of people to shoot.

The list still growing?
I shoot things that I’m a fan of, I’d love to shoot Drake. Someone that’s doing something fresh, as a photographer it’s always cool to get something of them. I grew up and saw a lot of cool things as a kid before I was a photographer and I’m so heartbroken that I didn’t get to shoot it. Like I saw Nirvana play, I saw Fugazi play. I grew up on Ice Cube so to have shot him, I’m super stoked. I’m stoked that I shot The Neptunes in their heyday, because I look at my friends who brought their cameras to the Nirvana show, like “holy shit,” because I saw it but I didn’t shoot it. I’m always excited, especially with music; I mean Animal Collective, they’re one of my favorite bands and I’m very honored to have shot them a lot over the last five or six years since I became friends with them. If you’re constantly looking to find different subjects, that list will always continue to grow. There are a lot of old dead people I would have loved to shoot. I’m lucky to have shot Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins, because those are people I saw 25 years ago when I was 13 and I didn’t have a camera, but I’m still stoked to have shot them now.

Timeless Photography

“The first time I saw them they played for like three people. I was blown away and I followed their music and they’re actually skaters so they recognized me at a show, and they play to 10,000 people now. I saw them play to three and I didn’t bring a camera with me that night, and boy I wish I had. You never know.”

So it gets to a point where you just need to keep a camera on you all the time.
That’s the biggest thing. There’s a lot of photos I would not have had if I didn’t have a camera. You know I look back at like really funny photos that you just have, that were all just a point and shoot. I think that’s the funniest thing about photography. I have a photo of Beckham at a Lakers game. I didn’t SHOOT him, it’s more like “cool, I have a photo of Beckham.” It’s a lot of times where I just shoot something and it’s like, “At least I have that.”

You don’t know the significance until sometime after.
Absolutely, you never know. Whenever I see a band, I always take a couple of pictures. You know when we saw Nirvana, they were opening up for someone else. Even when we saw Explosions in the Sky, they’re a really big band in the States, the first time I saw them they played for like three people. I was blown away and I followed their music and they’re actually skaters so they recognized me at a show. They play to 10,000 people now. I saw them play to three and I didn’t bring a camera with me that night, but boy I wish I had.

I guess it’s easier now with phones.
Before, that was the whole problem because film was so expensive when I was a kid. You would shoot a roll in a week and you would shoot a couple photos of your friends skating and when they were getting closer to you, and would want to shoot it but you’d ask them to wait because a roll would cost 10 bucks and would cost 10 bucks to process and in high school… 20 bucks… you’re not getting 20 bucks often.

Have you ever thought about switching it up and going into something like photojournalism?
Of course, that’s always a thing a lot of people ask me. Like, “Why don’t you shoot fashion?” Well, I’m not a fan of that. Photojournalism, those photos are intense. When I think of it, I think of war photography. Those guys are fucking crazy. From National Geographic dudes all the way to dudes who are not in community-controlled environments. I think at this age, I’ve found my niche and I am a niche photographer. I found a niche, I’ve carved it, and I’m so happy to be doing what I’m doing. I don’t really feel a need to change it up. Personally I think there’s so much I could improve on; in this world that I need to just work on keeping it going.

Apart from the HVW8 exhibition that you’re doing, what’s next?
Nothing right on the radar really. I don’t do a lot of this stuff, so it’s pretty rare. I mean, more and more lately Tyler’s really pushing me to do this kind of stuff, but I have a backup company called Bravo, so I’m just working on that. It’s part of a bar called Black and that’s part of a beer company called St. Archer. I have a lot of entrepreneurial stuff that I’m working on besides my photography. I do really want to start working on a book. I’ve never felt that way before but now that I’ve been shooting for 20 years, I feel like I have a body of work. I didn’t feel like that until about four years ago. I just think as a photographer, the longer you do it, the better your work is going to get. Even for this show, some of the stuff is old, but a good amount of it was shot in the last four years and I think that’s what’s cool. Some of the stuff has been seen before, because you get those iconic images you’ve shot that people really like and you know, gravitate towards.

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