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Concrete Girls – Charlotte Thomas interview

We talked to Charlotte Thomas, the woman behind 'Concrete Girls'

Due for release on June 29th, Concrete Girls is the result of 5 years of work by photographer and skateboarder Charlotte Thomas. Born and raised in Hereford, Charlotte skated throughout her youth before a debilitating accident left her unable to actively participate in skateboarding. This provided the impetus for her to pick up a camera and begin to document the scene that she loved, with the result of this process being a coffee table book detailing many of the faces that make up the UK’s female skateboard scene.
We caught up with Charlotte not long after a pallet of freshly printed books had been delivered. Read on to find out more on the process involved and how to get your hands on a copy.

Can you give us a little background on your own skateboarding history please Charlotte? I remember seeing you around at Hyde Park in Leeds whilst you were studying, but you’re from Hereford originally so how did you first come into contact with skateboarding?

I started getting into skateboarding at the age of 16, I’d just started college in Hereford and through friends of the family I was introduced to skateboarding.
There wasn’t really anywhere to skate in Hereford at the time, except for a wooden skate ramp in Whitecross, which was really difficult to skate for a beginner – it was massive and broken, so when you fell off you would get splinters – not that much fun!
Beyond that, there was also Maylord’s underground car park and B&Q car park that were spots in Hereford, but at that age I was intimated by the other skaters so I tended to go out when it was quiet so as to not to be seen. I was a bit of a loner to be honest.
It was only when I moved to Leeds in 2003 that I came into my own.
Hyde Park was my old stomping ground, I’d be there everyday without fail.
I think I can say that my studies suffered due to skateboarding back then too, sorry dad!
I was what you’d call a “slammer”: I would try so hard to skate that I would slam so hard over and over again the guys would be often picking me up off the floor, and my legs would be covered in bruises! But with years of practice I managed to get my head (and my body) around it in the end. My nickname was “Charlie Boardslide” for years, because that was the only trick that I could do at that particular skatepark until my trusty heel flip came about!
After 8 years in Leeds, I moved to Barcelona for a while and lived with Maria Falbo, a fellow skater. Here we just spent months skating and enjoying the freedom! I think every skater in their mid-twenties should do a stint in Barcelona, it’s amazing!

What kind of stage was the female skateboard scene in the UK at back then?

To be honest I was the only girl skater in Leeds for 8 years (or it felt that way at least). Lois Pendlebury was a northern lass but she was studying at Birmingham University I think, so I didn’t get to meet her until my last few months in Leeds. There was also another girl called Jess but she only skated a few times, she got injured really early on, plus she loved smoking weed, so she never had any motivation [laughing]. Ness and Kerry were also there sometimes but I only ever skated with them a few times. So in the main it was just me.
We didn’t have Social Media back then or fancy mobile phones so hearing about another female skater was through word of mouth.
That was really it, I skated with guys the whole time. The scene in Leeds was huge at the time and there were a lot of people who worked in the skate industry who lived in Leeds or in the surrounding areas, plus a lot of the local guys were getting picked up by skate brands or being sponsored so it was an exciting time to live there.

Claire Alleaume – ollie in – Fastlands, Birmingham. Photo: Charlotte Thomas

Were you already shooting photos at that point? Or was that something that came along later?

I would take pictures on my Polaroid camera and those disposable cameras you can get from Boots but it wasn’t serious, I was just capturing my friends for memories really. I started photographing skateboarding properly after my injury.

What happened?

I was skating the new Hereford skatepark and fell from a ramp onto my spine; I broke my coccyx and split my spine, which meant I couldn’t skate anymore because if I landed on it again my spine could split either further, which is obviously pretty serious! After that injury I became depressed, I’d always suffered from mental health problems which I mention in a lot of my interviews, but this particular time was the start of the dark times.
I was really missing skateboarding, it was my life, it was all I thought about; my social life, my fitness, etc. I was proud of who I was and I was totally lost with out it, I felt as though I’d lost my mind to be honest. One of my friends suggested that I start shooting skateboarding during this period. At first I was intimidated as you need a real eye and understanding of skateboarding to photograph it and I didn’t think I’d be good enough. I thought I’d be laughed at or told my work was crap!
That didn’t last though as I quickly remembered that skateboarding is fun and expressive so I started to shoot my friends in Hereford first and then began meeting up with the Leeds crew I knew who all now lived in London and started to photograph them. I would call myself a ‘skateboard lifestyle photographer’ rather than a standard skate photographer though as I love capturing the whole day, the people, their smiles etc as well as getting a great skate photo. That’s my style and what I love to shoot.

At what point did this project actually take shape as a thing-in-process and what was the initial inspiration for you to undertake this?

I started the project in 2013. I was living with my mum and one day I just said to her ‘I’m going to make a book, documenting the female skate scene’, and having the experience of photographing Stef Nurding for you guys, I was really inspired me to push forward with this project as I loved everything about photographing skateboarding.
It was a very slow process, I originally made a list of every girl skater I knew in the UK and sent it over to Lucy Adams to check, as I value her opinion and knew if I had missed anyone that she would know. Unfortunately as time went on some girls would decide they didn’t want to be a part of the book as they didn’t agree with the “Girl Only Vibe” and others would cancel trips or just be generally hungover! The girls in the book are the ones who were dedicated and willing to help me create my art.

Stefani Nurding. Photo: Charlotte Thomas

Aside from the act of documenting the UK female skateboarding scene and the people involved in it, where else did you draw inspiration from Charlotte?

My inspiration has mainly come from skateboarding magazines, my favourite skate photographers such as Ryan Allan and Arto Saari and from fashion.
Having worked in fashion as a shoot producer I learned a great deal about capturing the story and composition, which I could naturally bring to my work.
I also love Pinterest, it’s amazing for inspiration, Desillusion Mag and What Youth and Brixton’s output in general. Mark Oblow is a real hero too!

You shoot a lot of fashion-related photographs too, did that influence how you went about shooting for and selecting the images that have gone into the book?

Well, Concrete Girls is definitely not a fashion book, but working in fashion has taught me how to make someone look their best in a photograph, how to use natural lighting, to look for a smile. I have a documentary style I think, I like to capture people naturally, most of the time the skaters don’t know I’m photographing them, I try to be invisible. It’s only when we are trying a trick that we work together.
In the book I have some beautiful smiles.

Crew deep. Photo: Charlotte Thomas

From your own perspective – what is the cultural purpose of Concrete Girls? What story are you telling with this project and why?

The project was a chance to make friends and give back to the one thing that has given me so much freedom and confidence throughout my whole life. I didn’t feel the UK scene was getting much attention or that people even knew just how big it was in other parts of the world. I thought it would be a nice subject to capture.
Also everything is digital now and so throwaway, you can put a image on Instagram or a video on YouTube but it will get forgotten about within minutes and also get lost in amongst the millions of other images and videos being uploaded even minute by other users. Producing a book to me, gave the girls some importance, it was my chance to add to skateboarding history, it is something you can keep forever and can’t get deleted so it can take pride in your home.

This is no small undertaking – independently publishing anything, let alone a high quality coffee-table book like this one must be both expensive and time-consuming – can you tell us about some of the logistics involved?

Capturing the images was the easy part, however arranging trips and meeting up was difficult at times, as the good old British weather wasn’t always on my side so I would waste a lot of money rearranging hotels or public transport. I don’t drive either so the whole project was done through traveling on trains and mega buses!
My step dad Roger would take me on the longer journey trips, he would use them as a mini break away for him and my mum, so it was a win-win for everyone!
At the beginning of 2017 I thought the project was never going to happen, I had contacted every publisher in the UK and Europe who I thought would suit the content but I kept getting a no.
Cindy Whitehead, an OG Vert Skater from the US brought out a book titled, ‘It’s Not About Pretty’ and I thought I’d drop her a message explaining my situation to see if she could help. After a few emails back and forth she agreed to publish the book for me. A huge ‘thank you’ needs to go to her for taking a chance on me and believing in the project.
The project from start to finish took 5 years, I had to fit trips in around working a full-time job, fostering a dog for a year and dealing with health issues but I’ve done it and I’m so proud. I wanted to give something back to skateboarding: I call it my retirement piece.

Lois Pendlebury and Helena Long. ‘Zombie Surf Party’. Photo: Charlotte Thomas

I’m assuming that you knew most of the skaters in the book before embarking on this project, right? How did you go about organizing who to shoot and where?

Through Social Media I found a lot of girls but I mainly knew most of them.
I just contacted them via Instagram and explained that I was aiming to produce a book and asked if they wanted to be in it and then if they did, we would discuss cities and spots and meet up. Simple really.

Most of the female skaters that I’ve spoken to about the recent growth in participation have pointed towards ‘visibility’ as being a key factor in getting new women interested in skateboarding. What are your thoughts on that and how does that fit into what you’re trying to achieve with this project?

Yes I agree, seeing more and more girl skaters definitely has encouraged this boom and I think Social Media has had a huge part to play in this. The wonderful thing about Social Media and the Internet in general is that you can build a community like Girl Skate UK have done and see women skating at all levels. It’s great that you can see women skating at a high level but it’s also great to see girls starting out and being able to follow their journey, seeing them develop and get better.
Skateboarding is meant to be fun so I think that’s how it’s portrayed these days. It’s less about getting sponsored or becoming a pro for the women and more about making friends and trying something new.
The current situation is definitely exciting though, which is why I’ve decided to do a Volume 2 because everyone I’ve met so far this year deserves a book of their very own too as they are also a part of this amazing scene!

Photo: Charlotte Thomas

How have you seen the women’s skateboard scene develop over the years that you’ve been involved in it? What do you think are the most significant changes that have happened over that time frame?

Mainly that when you turn up at a park now there will be more than one female skater, it’s just normal now, back in my time we were rare it was like being famous! Women are getting more acknowledgement now in the magazines and with brands within the industry too. The confidence in the sport has improved and there is a real community now. There are even crews now too, which is so 90’s, Nefarious Crew are in the book, they are from London and are so cool!
I think we can thank Social Media, people like Danni at Girl Skate UK and fashion for this. For putting the scene on a platform for people to see the incredible talents of these women. It’s very exciting!

I’ve always thought that skateboarding as a whole benefits from having a strong female component to the culture – what are your thoughts on that?

Yes I think so, I guess being a female skater I don’t really know it without a female component because I’ve been part of it for well over decade. Having such a large scene now encourages women with less confidence to get involved which is a great thing.

Stef Nurding – boneless one, Tottenham. Photo: Charlotte Thomas

So the books are back and you’re finally releasing it in June; are you happy with the finished product?

Yes it’s out 29th June. I’m really proud and happy with the overall product, however the one thing I’m slightly upset about is not being able to include everyone. Since I’ve started to promote the book and being asked to do talks and events, I’ve met so many girls who I would have loved to have been in it. So I’ve decided to do a Volume 2 and hopefully a trilogy!

You have an exhibition planned to coincide with the launch I believe – can you give us more details on that and how people can attend?

I’m holding a gallery exhibition at Unit 5 gallery in East London, on 21st June 2018 – Go Skateboarding Day! It will be in the evening (6pm – 11pm) – I will be showing prints from the book, there will be free beer, hopefully a skate ramp and some food. It would be great for everyone to come along. The details will be announced soon on my Instagram @concretegirls and on the site at concretegirls.com

What equipment have you used to shoot the book?

I started shooting on a standard Canon EOS 1100 but I saved really hard for a Canon 5D Mark 2. I also shoot on 35mm film too. I don’t like the polished look, I see skateboarding as a very raw thing, so I try to get this across in my work.
I don’t use flashes or anything.

Where will the book be available?

At the moment it’s only for sale on concretegirls.com on the 29th June 2018 priced £25.

Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the following people:
Mum & Roger, without these two humans there would be no Concrete Girls.
My boyfriend Thomas Cole who is an amazing human, without his support and love I would have lost track on the finish line and for putting up with me and my stress levels during this project.
Thomas Harrison, Leon Walton, Rory Martinez, Jamie Liam Humphrey, Chris Parson, Simon Burlo, Manhead, Dave Walker, Avid and Thomas Brown for making me a skateboarder and welcoming me during my time in Leeds!
Tara Brady, Vicky Higgins, Kate Peddie, Mel Jago and Rachel Green – My Leeds University house mates for putting up with my dirty skateboards being all over the house. My Dad and Brother Adam. Anna Svan, Lou Smith and Sophie Hewitt. Cindy Whitehead and Ian Logan and all the girls in the book. Thanks for believing in me.

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