‘Skateboarding is creativity. It’s time to let it flourish.’ An Interview with Hannah Bailey

Photography by Hannah Bailey (Neon Stash)
Interview by Oisín Tammas

Not our words, but those of photographer, journalist and all-round creative, Hannah Bailey. For over a decade, Hannah has fired on all cylinders, elevating women’s skateboarding and shining the spotlight on more diverse perspectives in action sports. Hailing from Scotland, her work has taken her all over the world – from visiting Cambodia, Afghanistan and South Africa as Communications Manager for THE SKATEROOM partner NGO Skateistan; to reporting on the world’s biggest professional competitions. Her camera always on hand, Hannah’s eye is trained like nobody elses to find ways forward, amid the perpetual tug-of-war of mainstream and non-traditional skateboarding.

Hannah, thanks so much for talking to us. Let’s start with the question all artists dread to answer: who are your influences?

You know, ten years ago that question would have baffled me. At school, I was told that I was the sporty one. I wasn’t creative, I couldn’t draw. So in that sense, even if I had artistic influences, I never had expectations about becoming a professional photographer or working in this creative way. It was only when I found skateboarding, that I was able to unleash that. But today, I can look at my work and say I’m inspired by Man Ray and that surrealist movement. I’m inspired by Diane Arbus and how she captures people. And by Lynsey Addario, a war and documentary journalist who has done a lot to propel women into that profession. There’s always a deeper level to her work, and that’s something I try to do with my photos too. It’s never just a picture, it’s about the impact it has on the person who sees it. Can they understand and resonate with the image on a deeper level?

You said skateboarding gave you a creative purpose – how did you find yourself in that world?

I had started dabbling in film photography in about 2010. I still didn’t think I was creative, so I let the film do the creativity on my behalf. I had 36 shots, and I liked the unexpectedness of the process. The light leaks, the graininess, it really fuelled me. I began to realise that creativity could be flawed, creativity could be ‘not being able to draw.’

“If we can get rid of the ‘how women should look’ crap, that Avril Lavigne stereotype, then these communities can flourish.”

I started working in the action sports industry, in communications, and eventually found myself working at DC Shoes, where I came into contact with pro skater Lucy Adams and the UK women’s skate scene. I was coming along to events with them as a comms officer, but I’d always bring along my film camera and take photos. One day, Lucy rang me and said ‘Hey, you seem to be into this stuff, want to come along to Sweden with us.’ I was invited inside as a Creative. Thinking back, that was a big phone call.

So you started meeting and working with women in skateboarding – what was the landscape like back then?

I saw that there was a serious lack of coverage of women skaters in the media. It was like there was no belief in that side of the scene. I went to the 2013 X-Games in Barcelona to watch the women’s division, which had just been reintroduced to the event, and I could walk right up to the course. No security, no media; no one bothered with it. And right in front of me was Mimi Knoop, Kim Woozy, Elissa Steamer, Lizzie Armanto, pretty much every woman who was a part of that scene. I went up to Kim to ask if I could interview somebody, and she immediately lined everybody up for me. I even got to interview Elissa Steamer.

“I marched into my boss’ office and told them that I had to go build a skatepark with Tony Hawk. They were just like, ‘yep, go!’”

I was in awe, but I also realised right then that If I could learn this world, represent it right, then I could help elevate it into the mainstream. It showcased genuine people inspiring society. I thought, if we can get rid of the ‘how women should look’ crap, that Avril Lavigne stereotype, then these communities can flourish. But honestly, I still struggle with this today. I don’t get many requests from core skate media to feature my work. But perhaps I am on a different mission.

Well, your mission saw you work for 2-3 years as Communications Manager at Skateistan, our longest standing NGO partner. You clearly made yourself known.

It honestly came along at the perfect time. It really resonated with my mission and what I’d been working on in my personal work. I was working in London at the time, around 2014, seeing how it felt to work at a big corporate communications agency. I got a call from the Building Trust International in Cambodia. They had already worked with Skateistan on a mobile tuk-tuk which would allow them to do skate classes out there. Now they were getting ready to build a skate bowl. They said ‘Tony Hawk is coming, do you want to join?’ I marched into my boss’ office and told them that I had to go build a skatepark with Tony Hawk. They were just like, ‘yep, go!’ So then one day, once I got out to Cambodia, I found myself standing next to Talia, who was Skateistan’s Programs Director at the time. And she told me they were looking for a Communications Manager. Six months later, I moved to Berlin to take on the role.

In one sense, that was a big shift from the corporate comms world. On the other hand, it seems like the perfect fit.

I’ve always worked for clients who I felt did good in the world. Today, for example, I work a lot for Patagonia. I’ve never wanted to waste my time. Working for Skateistan was next level, it connected my passion for encouraging girls into skateboarding, as well as telling the project stories in a creative way. Those were the best years of my life so far. The photos I have from my time working with them are some of the shots I am most proud of, from the little girls skateboarding in Mazar and Kabul in Afghanistan, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Johannesburg, South Africa. All of them having fun, feeling strong, trying something new, and uniting in a community of girls and boys together. Skateistan understands that creativity and sport go hand in hand. That was something that my traditional school didn’t see.

So with a decade of experience as a photographer, journalist and communications professional in skate culture, what real progress have you seen?

Skateboarding has changed. I’m kind of overwhelmed by it. I don’t know where the turning point was, but I spent ten years trying to pitch women in skate to media and brands. There was always reluctance for the general culture to accept that skateboarding was of interest beyond teenage boys. But a wave of change has happened. And no matter what you think of the Olympics, it’s doing wonders for the non-traditional side of skateboarding.

“You could see how important that hour of skating was to the children there. It wasn't just about getting on the board, it was a chance to switch off and be creative.”

The mainstream media are interested in featuring these sorts of stories. For example, the feature I did for National Geographic in Greece on Free Movement Skateboarding and the women’s scene out there. That, plus The Guardian photo series I did on women’s skateboarding last month – it wouldn’t have been possible before.

How was your time out in Greece?

It was my first time in Athens and my only trip out of the UK to shoot since March 2020. I have known of the work of Free Movement Skateboarding for many years and always wanted to support it through my photography. Due to COVID-19, they had to adapt their regular sessions. So we went to a local children's home and I photographed a couple of sessions there. You could see how important that hour of skating was to the children there. It wasn't just about getting on the board, it was a chance to switch off and be creative. It was beautiful. Another thing I did when in Athens, was go (or you could say trespass) with Will (Free Movement Skateboarding) and Denia (Skateism) to the abandoned 2004 Olympic Canoe Park in the south of the city. We wanted to put together a piece about how skateboarding uses infrastructure even after it’s long forgotten.

It’s a nice image. The abandoned courses of past Games, finding new life at the hands of the most recent Olympic sports people: skaters.

Yeah, you know with the Olympics featuring skateboarding for the first time in Tokyo, I knew much of the narrative would be out of the hands of the skaters and people might only see competitive skateboarding. So, I wanted to try to help put the power back in the hands of the people who skate, to give them the chance to tell us why they do it and how they feel about it.

It’s going to be an interesting decade to come, that’s for sure. Where do you see skateboarding going, and how do you want to develop your own career alongside that progression?

It’s funny, people who are not into skateboarding have been asking me, ‘why are all the medals going to 13 year old girls?’ The truth is, if you look at the timeline of women’s competitive skateboarding, it’s obvious. Women were only introduced into Street League, skateboarding’s biggest competition, in 2016, thanks to the work of Mimi Knoop. That means that girls can genuinely consider a competitive career in skateboarding now, they have that impetus. So these girls take up skateboarding at 7, 8, 9 years old, and train hard, and by the time the Olympics comes around they’re 13/14, and ripping. Before that, and before the announcement of skateboarding in the Olympics, there was no serious structure or funding for women’s skateboarding in a competitive sense. We can only guess what will happen in the next two Games.

“Skateboarding is about creativity, it's about celebrating different perspectives. That’s the greatest chance we have for progression.”

In the smallprint of the Olympics’ gender report, they say they’re also interested in addressing the media gender balance. This means they want to ensure more women, non-binary and transgender media professionals are invited to report on the Games. Not to say mainstream sports journalists are doing a bad job, or that those skate photographers we all know and love didn’t do great work this year. But there is so much room for more diverse eyes. You know, before 2020 I spoke to Getty, World Skate and the IOC, and I said we needed to have women photojournalists there. They all agreed, but as far as I know, nobody was able to get over to shoot this historic moment for our side of skateboarding. So going forward, I want to push for more diverse people to see their creative careers in skateboarding as credible. Skateboarding is creativity, it's about celebrating different perspectives. It’s time to let it flourish. That’s the greatest chance we have for progression.

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