Yoon Sul skate photographer interview by Jono White

Words by Jono White
Photography by Yoon Sul except where mentioned

Eric Koston and Yoon Sul by TJ Gaskill

The photographers adage, ‘I’ll make you look good, baby”, seems to be thrown around more than a proposal from Ross Gellar, especially in reference to scantily clad models in a nice cosy studio in North East London. In polar opposite land, the same message still resonates but is seldom said. The humble skate photographer suits up and goes to battle the with you. Climbs the fences with you. Gets kicked out of spots with you. Takes a bailed board to the face with you, and yet still manages to make you look fucking gnarly, baby.

With this in mind there seems to be a distinct lack of Terry Richardson’s in skateboarding, glamorised and taking credit where credit’s undoubtedly due; raking in those Benjamins. The Berrics is claiming back the kudos though through Shoot All Skaters; a video series that doff’s the cap to those behind the lens. We caught up with The Berrics’ resident f stop manipulator and skate photog vet, Yoon Sul, to talk a little more about The Berrics, his anomalous introduction to shooting and some moments behind enemy lines.

Danny garcia – Back Smith

“It was more getting run over by a car than a crash,” he starts, after being asked about his unlikely revelation which would ultimately spark his fervor for photo’s. “I was ditching school at the time, to skate, and I was rushing back to the bus stop to meet my mum in front of school. As I was skating back to the bus stop, I hit a pebble and did a superman to the pavement. Next thing I see is the grill of a Mercedes Benz, and right after that I was staring at the cars under belly. As I was crushed by the Mercedes Benz, I was being choked by a fuel line, and fluids from the car were going into my eyes.” For a few kids, and their mums alike, getting hit by a car whilst skating might put an end the, well, skating. But it was this Mercedes that got young Yoon’s mind working in a different direction.

“When the woman driving the Mercedes Benz realised she ran over a human being, she backed up, so technically, I got run over twice. When I was free from being crushed by the Mercedes Benz, I was blind from the choking and fluids. I kept trying to see, but all I saw was black, and I heard the lady driving say, “I thought he was a basketball?”

“Minutes passed and I still couldn’t see anything, one minute alone was an eternity. I was blind for about 5-8 minutes” he recalls. “It’s true when they say if you lose a sense, you gain more strength in another because my hearing was crazy. I could hear everyone whispering that I was blind and that I wasn’t gonna see anything again. That freaked me out, and I started to imagine things in my mind I would miss seeing, from sunsets, to my family’s faces. It was like a quick montage in a movie where someone’s about to die and their whole life flashes in their eyes, except mine weren’t working.”

Lizard King – Front Nose

It was whilst he was strapped up on the gurney that he had an epiphany. Unwelcome thoughts about things he was going to miss seeing if he were still blind skulked in. “I guess something clicked and I needed to shoot photos of things I loved seeing.”

Ironically, this isn’t the only positive Yoon would draw from getting hit by a car. “Being run over was the first time I thought about photography, and the lawsuit from that accident helped pay for college, where I studied to become a photographer.” Shout out to that Mercedes driver.

It wouldn’t be until a few years later that the skateboarding and photography moons aligned for Yoon. He tells me, “I enrolled into Art Center College of Design for photography. I wanted to shoot fashion and hot women barely wearing anything and live something I imagined to be a rock star life. Instead, while I was studying fashion photography, it made me sick and gave me that butterfly in the stomach feeling. It was so shallow, and the people involved, especially the professors who were well established fashion photographers, were crazy narcissistic brown nosing gold brickers.”
It would eventually be skating with Danny Supa that gave Yoon the accidental nudge into skateboard photography that he seemed so destined for. “When I was over the whole fashion thing, I was skating a lot with Danny. I began to shoot him for just under a year; some skate stuff, but more portraits and lifestyle for classes at Art Center. I then began to print all those photos of him. When I was finished printing everything, it really looked like an interview. I took the prints to Seu Trinh, he took them to Transworld Skateboarding, and the week I graduated, it was a 10 page interview with a fold out poster.” With copies of that issue to hand out during his grad show, it was at this point he realised he just figured out his life. “Funny how skateboarding, one day nearly getting killed, actually saved my life.”

Sierra Fellers – Kickflip Nosegrind

Although this transition reeks of right-place-right-time, the conversion from fashion to skateboarding would never be as simple as – actually, that blows, I think I’ll just try this – Yoon says. “There’s no comparison with studio photography and skateboarding photography. You’re guaranteed the shot with studio photography, half the time with skateboarding photography you ain’t getting shit!” It’s pretty rib tickling then that it was a still life photo of Bastien Salabanzi’s new Etnies shoe was to be the final piece in a fucked up puzzle that would see Yoon begin to reap the benefit of getting hit by a car all those years back. “I made a lot of money for that one shot, and I did think, “hmm…I can make some money with this!”, but that was pre-recession. Funny thing was, as soon as I finished shooting that shoe, I hopped onto a plane to go on a Nike SB trip, where there was more money to be made. Ahhh the good ol’ days.”

The trials of shooting skating won’t come as a surprise to those who occupy street spots, whoever you are and wherever you’re from. The universal security, weather, mood trio is as common in pro-tography as it may be shooting Joe Kickflip. Yoon’s right when he says, “Skateboard photography is probably the toughest in the photo field”, and what make’s the job even tougher is when you have a guy like Lizard King who is about to wallride an overpass 20ft up. That Transworld cover (May 2009) reaffirms why skate photography is the most demanding photo gig on the planet. “Every time I shoot a hammer-from-the-gods”, Yoon says, “I’ve got that butterfly feeling in my stomach like I’m about to jump off a 100 feet cliff into a little ass pond. It takes the shot to feel like you survived. Once the trick is landed and the photo is on my view screen, an awesome feeling of relief comes upon me, and I always want a cigarette,.”

Yoon continues, recalling a particular time whilst shooting Neen Williams. “He wanted to heelflip over this massive rail with a 17 stair drop. Usually it’s a struggle, and becomes a battle. I met him at the spot on a Sat morning at 10:30. I brought a lunch, and plenty of water, because I was expecting to be there for a little while, and cleared my book for the rest of the day. He immediately ollied it first try, which in my mind is a feat in itself. I know for a fact, I will never be able to do that in my life. Then I expected the battle to begin. He went for the heelflip, caught it right away and landed, but got a wheel bite and fell off after he landed. I was in shock. He ran back up immediately, same thing happened,I believe he then waxed his wheel wells after that attempt. He ran back up and then did it, beyond perfectly and rolled away in silence.”

Neen Williams – Heelflip

With this caliber of throw down a day to day occurrence, I gingerly ask if he’s ever missed the trick. “Once you fuck up, word travels fast – especially in the skateboarding world, and when word gets out you fucked up a shot, you become that dude and people begin to lose that trust you can get the job done. I once heard a story about a dude shooting a trick, and once the guy landed it, the photographer opened the film back and there was no film in the camera. That’s the last time I heard any story about that guy…”

Stowing away from the harsh elements of LA (yeah, right) is a luxury Yoon can afford these days. With the Berrics boom and an abundance of skaters willing to sling themselves down Koston and Berra’s stairs, Yoon’s found himself shooting more inside than out. “Working at the Berrics is more controlled”, he tells me. “A skater can have the park all day long to get a trick and usually they get it. When in the streets, time is limited. So many things can get in the way, from cops, nature, cracks, people etc. It’s more of a guarantee at the Berrics.” This guarantee has correlated with a rise in trick quality and quantity, amalgamating in kids stowing themselves away in rooms slipping deeper and deeper into a Berrics black hole. For a sport so inherently tied in street roots, Yoon finds this slightly concerning. “Experiences in life are the things that inspire everyone and it’s too bad everyone’s on their Iphone missing it!”

This being said, it looks as though everythings going to be okay for our unsung heroes. With the eagerness of Generation Y and the platforms to share media, opportunities to get noticed have mushroomed, so long as you’re prepared to get bruised and kicked out of schools in the process. When asking Yoon about his plans and future prospects he jokes about swapping roles with Berrics filmer Chase Gabor. “Chase is a fucking work horse, who’s really good at what he does and without him the Berrics fails [laughs]. I can’t deal with that pressure. I can see more of a Spike Jonze kind of a thing happening maybe. I love movies, and I love telling stories, and after many years of shooting, I really understand light. Who knows what will happen. I do have a Canon Eos 1dx and that thing films. For now, I’ll stick with one frame at a time.”


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