There are some people and names that you just take for granted without really considering that person's history or researching how they got into the position they currently hold. I remember at one point in time wondering who the hell so and so was and how the hell he got such an important job at a certain magazine or a brand. And then later learning that he had been an amazing pro skater back in the 80's or was an influential video maker at one point and earned everyone's respect through his hard work. I feel like Benjamin Deberdt could likely be one of these characters for a lot of US skaters. Ben's name has been behind a ton of awesome projects and ventures in Europe but because he's not one to really seek the spotlight or give himself the credit he deserves, he kind of remains in anonymity to younger skaters or those who don't really care to dig deeper. But with the amazing platform that the European skate scene has earned for itself over the past few years, I think it's important to help shed some light on one of the guys who had been in the streets, on the computer and at the printers bleeding film sweating ink to bring attention to the European skate scene when most US skaters didn't bat an eyelash across the Atlantic. Benjamin Deberdt is a true renaissance man and a pillar in European skateboard history. So it's awesome to be able to catch up with him today and help shed some light on the man behind Live Skateboard Media and many, many other things......enjoy.
So, Mr. Deberdt.......which came first, the skateboard or the camera?
Ah, the age old question….The egg or the chicken? Technically, I was fascinated by the family camera first. Back then, it was this hi-tech object your parents would break out for special occasions…So, when my dad taught me the basics, it did feel special. Sure enough, I used this basic knowledge to take pictures of my Second World War plane models! Now, I could show off by telling how I fell in love with skateboarding in the late seventies as a child, when my sports master type of uncle somehow ended up being one of the first to import skateboards in France. But, I would lie if it was more than the toy of the summer for my brother and I did start skating in the late eighties in a world full of neon colors and false promises. The idea that riding a skateboard was important surprisingly did hold well into the next decades.
What was skateboarding like in France in the early to mid 90's? I mean, it was tiny in the United States at that time, so I would imagine it would've been even smaller in France?
Well, the waves of popularity were similar to what you guys experienced, so it went from seeing hundreds of kids at the Bones Brigade demo on the vert ramp outside Paris to knowing on first name basis the 37 skaters left in all of Paris in a matter of two years. I can still tell you that Tommy Guerrero was wearing cuffed jeans and Clarks boots at that demo, as he was hurt…We were so bummed he could not skate.
Wow, that's awesome. Why did you end up pursuing photography other than trying to be a sponsored skater?
[Laughter] Ah, one can tell you never saw me skate in my prime! I was never remotely talented. Which, obviously, never stopped me from having tons of fun…Plus, we would see Stéphane Larance skate every weekend when we would take the train into Paris from our countryside. We knew what “good” meant. He was on the Powell Euro Brigade, or whatever that was called, and for a reason. He was lightyears ahead. I will always credit him for inventing French Tech™, which later bloomed into JB Gillet, and now Lucas Puig. Super in control and technical, but with power to it, and smoothness too. So, skating was something really really fun to do, nothing else. I actually have this theory that every generation of French skater with any hint of talent had to ponder one question: “Am I better than JB!?” And then base his decisions on an honest answer to that…Unless they were too stoned to do so.
Hahaha....damn, well that's a shame because there's probably only one person who could've answered that question with a "Yes". And his name is Lucas Puig. Anyways, it seems from your photography that you seemed to identify with the east coast movement that was happening at that time. Why?
I am still not sure, really…In the very beginning, we did daydream about sun-drenched Californian spots and empty pools, which had nothing to do with what we were living. I guess that a bit later, the “East Coast” came with a fuller package, at least to me. The East Coast had harsh winters. We did too. Seeing people skate in freezing cold outfits did resonate with our own experience, for sure. Also, this is when Slap magazine was the truth, on so many levels, and Lance Dawes always had that East Coast connection going, which allowed all those dudes to be in the mag, looking sick. The skating was slightly different, the surroundings were too, and even the general attitude seemed fresh. I had friends going to SF and coming back with all those EMB tales and the hills folklore and we were loving it, of course, but somehow New York seemed to be calling my name, even if I had no definite vision of that, yet.
So then, when did you make your first trip to the States? And where do you go first?
Long story short, in 1994, I ended up meeting Thomas Campbell, who back then was a staff photographer for Transworld, as he was visiting Paris, and we bonded over jazz music, our interest for arts and our love for photography. So, he could tell I was really into learning the skate photography thing, and he told me I should come to New York, where he was living back then, buy a Nikon FM2 and some gear, and I would be set. I know it sounds made-up, but the actual quote would be: “You’re gonna come to New York, buy a FM2, a fish-eye and a Sunpack flash, and then, you’re pro…” Thomas has always been really good as telling things like they are, while inspiring you to go for it. I will always be grateful to him for this.
So you took his advice?
So, here I was landing in NYC, holding a brand new Stereo Ryan Hickey board, in October 1995. Ready to take it all in…This was also the heydays of Alleged Gallery, Aaron Rose’s watering hole for all the arty side of skateboarding. I shit you not, on my second night in town, I was part of an intense curb sesh on the corner of Houston and Ludlow with Thomas, Dave Aron and Phil Frost, mid traffic and with police cars not even slowing down to check us out. I was living the dream… I could speak about that trip for hours! A few days later, I met Paul Leung and all his crew from Queens. And (they) were the first ones I ended up shooting with. Paul, Jay Mulhaly, Ben Allen, Ariel Cottrell…They took me in, even if I was wearing tight corduroys I stole from the girl I was in love with and a true to size Stereo hoodie, while they were super hip-hop. You skate, I skate, let's go skate…They were so sick…I remember bumping into them once at Astor, and they had skated all the way from Queens, because they had no money for the train that day. That crew was the best introduction to New York I could have dreamt of!
Damn. Hardcore, right? That's awesome.....When I look through a lot of your older photography, it looks like you were shooting with a really wide variety of skaters from Tom Penny to Peter Bici and the Cardona brothers. How did you make these connections?
Just skating, really, traveling and meeting people…You would go somewhere with a few contacts, and try to ring them, and take it from there. I remember calling Matt Field from an Haight Street phone booth, to see if my day would lead me to getting to know him…It didn’t. On that same trip, I ended up shooting with Cairo who was virtually unknown outside of S.F. and he got the cover of the following issue of Sugar…Friend of friends, skating together…Meeting Penny was a mission organized by Thomas Campbell as he was the editor of the relaunched Skateboarder mag, in 1997. Tom had retreated from skate fame in the countryside outside Bordeaux, with his mom. I rung him and organized a trip where we would pick him up there, and drive around South of France to Barcelona and back. I had anticipated the Penny stigma, and told friends along the way that we would sleep over, three guys for one night only, never mentioning Tom. It was like organizing a tour of small bars with The Beatles. No lie, two days in, every skater in France knew we were driving around with Tom. And we are speaking of a time before internet or even cell phones! The grapevine was strong, when it came to Tom Penny! Tom was so much fun on that trip, amazing sense of humor, miles away from how the “legend” would depict him. And so talented. We witnessed him do amazing things on his board during that week. Him and a young Ethan Fowler must be the most gifted skaters I have seen operate in real life over the years.
It's my understanding that you were the guy responsible for the start of Sugar Mag. Was that the first French skate magazine? And how did that come about?
Oh, no, there had been magazines before. When I started skating, there was one called Anyway, which morphed into No Way. Or the other around! [Laughter] Somehow France has always had a rich skateboard magazine offering, through the decades. It’s quite interesting if you think about it…Maybe it’s a cultural thing? But, when we launched Sugar, there was a void. Which most likely helped us take off. We also came out with it at the perfect time, one could say. Jérémie Daclin was starting Cliché. We had no idea, but they were building MACBA after remodeling Barcelona for the Olympics. A lot was about to happen, on our doorstep!
Oh wow, that's crazy!
My cousin Seb Caldas–whom I grew up skating with and then making zines with–and I were doing a super small free mag called A5 for the main distributor in France, V7, and he got approached by a publisher would had noticed a rise of popularity in skateboarding. He knew what the streets wanted: he already had a rollerblading mag! [Laughter] So, yep, we were offered the option to start a real magazine, and jumped on it. Our knowledge of pasting together text and photos in order to xerox those pages was about to be put to the test! [Laughter] We had no idea what we were doing, but were so passionate about it.
One of the photos from your retrospective here is of Peter Bici skating in Paris. I don't remember ever seeing any footage/photos of him in Paris. How did that come about? I imagine that must've been a big deal at the time.
Cause he was on holidays! If I recall well, he just came to hang out with Samir Krim and the whole crew, and having so much fun skating with us that we shot a full interview during his stay. I was living with Samir, then, so we would go skate and whatever happened, happened…And we had no filmer in the crew. This is how a lot of it has always worked from me, especially back then. Keep it natural. Not necessarily the most productive technique, but it sure made for great memories and real friendships.
You were getting contributions from some serious heavy hitters in the skate photography world at the time. Glen Friedman, Thomas Campbell, O'Meally....how did you get them to contribute their photos to a magazine that was unknown by most of the skate industry at the time?
It all comes down to how small skateboarding still was. And how everybody involved was an avid skateboarder. You would meet like-minded people on a trip and stay in touch. Even if it meant sending letters…Remember, this is when internet was this thing a few people were discussing, and you would just smile politely at them. I still have mail from Alleged Gallery with flyers, invitations to exhibitions, and letters, somewhere in a box. Thomas Campbell did introduce me to a lot of people, then the rest came from traveling and meeting more people. I am still really good friends with adolescents I met at Sants Station in Barcelona twenty years ago.
Also, the magazine was selling really well, so it allowed us to pay decently for photographs, which allowed to quickly grow a group of people that were sending us photos on the regular, from an up-and-coming Brian Gaberman to Richard Hart, Joe Brook, O’Meally and many more… Some of those guys were barely getting pics in U.S. mags yet, so they were stoked on having an outlet through us, I’m sure. Joe Brook started traveling through Europe and Sugar’s office was one of the pit stops, so to speak. He would always have the best crews, from Tony Cox to Danny Montoya. Shoot, he even ended up leaving us Scott Bourne! [Laughter] Merci, Joe!
It seems like you established a pretty important connection between France and a lot of the most significant skaters and artists of the 90's. Why did you feel that was important?
It comes down to that Thomas Campbell connection, and then the whole Alleged Gallery thing. In my excitable brain, skateboarding was the whole nine: skating, shooting photos, looking for weird spots, “being an artist” whatever that might mean. But being creative, yes, one way or another. That idea opened so many doors for me, so I always thought, and I still do think, that it was my duty to showcase all this, to show readers that there was more to it than learning tricks. It is a romantic idea, but it is still dear to my heart. Plus, I refuse to only sell the idea to people that all there is to it is being good, and sponsored and pro…I actually believe this is why most of skateboard media is hurting these days, apart from the obvious digital revolution: the lack of stories that people can relate to. “Yeah, I don’t like filming, it’s so hard, but my sponsors told me to, so I did.”
I heard a story about a Danny Way photo that you guys got from Thomas Campbell. Back then I imagine people would actually have to send you the original negatives or a darkroom print. What happened to that photo?
This was actually the cover for issue 1 of Sugar magazine. We were working on it when Thomas called saying he had just shot that very first Danny Way mega ramp air thingy. You remember how this was a Transworld exclusive, and Sturt poached it and leaked it to Thrasher? Well, Thomas was there for Sports Illustrated or something along those lines, if I remember correctly, so he had access to it and could shoot also. Soon enough, we got his package of photos and there was that print in there. The choice was obvious, it was going to be our first cover. Jérémie Daclin was our first interview in that issue, and is still mad at us for putting Danny Way on the cover, for supposedly political Europe versus Murikah reasons…But it literally occurred to me right now than maybe he was just bummed on not getting the cover for that one… [Laughter] It might have been the sensible thing to do. Sorry, Jérémie! His interview was great, though…
But, yes, back then, you would have to send an actual print, or even the original slide or negative to whatever publication you were trying to contribute to…And trust them to send those back. Being a photographer myself, I always stressed the returning part. I am sure we ended up misplacing things here and there, nonetheless. When we did the Matt Field interview, it was based on a stack of skate photos Thomas Campbell had shot of him, with some extra ones by a young Gaberman, I believe? But we had no portrait, so we hit up Deluxe for something, via Thomas, most likely. Sure enough, a couple weeks later, some mail came in from San Francisco. The most regular envelope. Small size, no padding…I thought it was a letter and opened it while talking to the graphic designer. And when it ripped, a single negative frame fell on the ground. Not even a note…Someone at Deluxe had gone into Gabe Morford files to cut one image from his negatives, and put it in an envelope for us! No wonder Gabe has many iconic images from that time lost! I know I do too…Nowadays, you turn on a five years old harddrive and hope it might still work. I have so many digital sequences gone because of that. Different times, different problems!
What's the story behind the 9/11 article you guys did in Sugar?
I was in San Francisco, mainly shooting a Ray Barbee interview when it happened…We ended up watching the second tower fall on a tv rescued from Scott Bourne’s basement, with a whole gang of Brit skaters that had just flown into town…My next day flight was cancelled as they were all, and I spent another ten days in the States. I was on the first Lufthansa flight leaving for Paris. Which was delayed for hours. I bought a notepad at the airport and wrote about my whole experience. When back in Paris, we ended up reaching out to Mike O’Meally, and he sent us his documentation of his own experience in NYC. We ran the mirrored pieces together in Sugar…Not sure what relevancy it really had, in a skateboard magazine, but it felt like the thing to do, show our own perspective on it. I still have a print of one of Mike’s photo from September 12th, on my office wall. The one of Pang, Todd Jordan, Sean Kelling, Spencer Fujimoto and the rest of the crew pushing through Downtown towards Ground Zero.
So what happened with Sugar Mag and how did you get involved with Kingpin? What did you do for them?
Sugar is still running! They just celebrated their 20th anniversary…Basically, this U.K. based publisher contacted me about being the French editor for an up-coming pan-European skate publication, that would come out in four languages. Thanks to Marke Newton, a British skater that had moved to Paris recently, I had visited London for The Side Effects of Urethane exhibition, and had been thrilled by the whole skate scene and all its art connections, and just the general creative vibe. It felt like the old New York again… So, I said yes, packed my brother’s car and he drove me to London. Before that I had arranged things, so Sugar would keep on going. I was kind of happy to leave it before getting bored of it or dissatisfied with it…It was our baby, and it is a nice feeling to still be able to contribute to Sugar once in a while, though, nowadays. As for Kingpin, it was a completely different experience of making a magazine, but it opened so many doors, once again. Remember, it was the time Landscape was about to release “Landscapes”, and I would be out and about with the likes of Olly Todd and Toby Shuall, or a young Jensen! And going for a skate at Southbank after work would mean teaming up with the likes of Fos and a young Lev Tanju. It was such a diverse and thriving scene, or cluster of scenes.
You were doing a lot of travel stories before that was as common it has become. Any crazy stories traveling with Kenny Reed, shooting with Soy Panday in India, or hanging with Reynolds and Keenan?
Traveling is part of the skating experience, isn’t it? From pushing to the next block when you are a child, to going to the next town because it has better sidewalks. To then daydream about going to EMB, MACBA or Love Park when you get older. And that is how you meet people. You show up at the spots and speak to the locals, even if you are scared first.
The traveling to far places side of Kingpin had a lot to do with the Editor-in-chief, Niall Neeson, who was hell bent on covering scenes nobody ever talked about…Our very first mission was going to shoot a Belfast story. And the only time in my life I had to jump into a moving van, A-Team style, to escape a hundred street kids on glue attack! Still a great trip…We did visit many scenes that had not seen a foreign skaters for years, like Bulgaria or Israel. In all honesty, everywhere we went, the Bones Brigade had been there first in the eighties. Or at least Rodney Mullen on a single man demo in the center of a mall. The freestyle conspiracy runs deep, Josh!
As for stories, for sure… Skateboarders tend to get themselves into really silly situations, so that’s where you end up. Going to India to skateboard, out of all places, for instance! I remember our first morning there, and Vivien being the young excitable skater rat he was, looking at every pebble as a potential skate spot.
“Let’s wait for this guys to wake up and we can skate this ledge from here!
-Vivien, I am not sure these guys are sleeping…
He was really quiet for the next two days. Which was a first. You have been there, you know how India is a slap in the face of everything you have grown up to consider “normal”. And if you think about it, going there to ride a skateboard is the dumbest thing you could think of. Still, it was a great experience, because we had the best group of people to handle it. It was something Soy invited us to do, and Mickeal Mackrodt, Jan Kliewer, Evan Collison, Vivien and Kenny were down to join. It was not a marketing ploy for a brand, it was a trip friends were willing to take together. With no filmer… Somehow a lot of skating still happened.
Yeah, India was by FAR the gnarliest place I've ever traveled. And the fact that we were trying to film skateboarding there was just truly insane. Well, then at what point did you realize you wanted to just do your own thing? And was Live the first idea you had or were you originally going to do something else at first?
At some point, the higher-ups at Kingpin got tired of me being French, IE telling it how it is and not necessarily obeying blindly to the corporate bullshit, and they fired me. This was the time I was starting to deal with my health issues, also, so I just laid low for a minute, until Sugar mag publisher offered me to start a second French mag, out of nowhere! I worked on it with Samir Krim, and our idea was to do exactly the mag we wanted, with the stories we wanted to read about. A bit like Slap magazine could have end up being, if it had lived, maybe? It was called Pause, and we had a Gonz cover and interview for issue 1, which was not bad of a start. Sadly, the publisher pulled the plug after issue 2. I believe he thought the mag was going to sell a lot right off the bat, just like Sugar did back in 1998. But the times were obviously different. Samir and I were already discussing establishing Pause's web presence, so the idea of a website quickly became obvious. I was helped a lot by Arnaud Dedieu and many more people to launch it through an independent publisher, Marbles, that allows me to do what I want with it, and here we are, six years later!
Wow....How has it been trying to build up the website and establish it as a voice for the kind of skateboarding and culture you believe in?
Well, as most people know, it has been one hell of a roller-coaster for all media in general in the past five years, and skateboarding 2.0 is no different. But we’re not trying to get rich out of it, so we are still here. The media might be different, but the stories I am trying to tell are similar. And that is all that matters to me.
Nowadays, I know it's tough to get people to help and contribute to something since everybody is just trying to do their own thing. Has it been difficult getting help with Live?
That is skateboarding best side, but also its greatest curse! People want to do their own thing, which gives us so many independent projects, small brands, odd ball personalities, but also makes us often unable to see a bigger picture, or unite for a bigger project or objective. It might even be the reason it was so easy for big corporations to scoop it all: we were already so divided that conquering was only a matter of time, and little budget. But that’s another subject!
But, with LIVE, I have been lucky to get a lot of people interested and involved, from the Parisii guys to a 16 years old Augustin Giovanonni who has been filming the new Parisian guard while growing up with them. He must be 20 now? And I’m starting to understand what he’s trying to tell me! Also, LIVE now has the mighty Aymeric Nocus, who, generation wise would be right in the middle in between Augustin and I. So that makes for a wider spectrum in what we try to cover. Aymeric is amazing, he makes me think of a young me on steroids. So romantic, passionate and opinionated in the way he sees skateboarding, but also able to open up to other visions. So, yep, that’s the LIVE team for you! Plus all the international connections we have been able to cultivate.
After the European skate scene was mostly ignored by the US skate industry for a good 25-30 years, how does it feel now to see so much attention being paid to European skateboarding? What do you think is responsible for this newfound attention that is being paid to the Euro scene?
If you think about it, from Cliché to Flip, you can’t say Europe was that ignored…Many great skaters made their mark over the years, that’s to say the least. But it sure is a different time, now, mainly –for better or worse– thanks to that internet thingy. When I went to Brazil last year, some kids were asking me about Roman Gonzales’ mustache! They can not really leave their country for monetary reasons, but they still have access to the Blobys daily life through Instagram! And that’s the main difference, I would say: nowadays, you can have access to a whole scene, through that network of friends of friends videos and posts…You don’t just have the “best guy in the crew best trick of the year” in a magazine or big video. You can research and follow their daily life. And identify with them. I believe this is why the Blobys struck such a cord: some of them were really good, but they were also a genuine crew that had personalities that seemed exotic, and funky, and “Parisian” maybe, which made them relatable to kids their age. Cool but accessible?
Meanwhile the California based companies who had 28 people on the team smith grinding rails got a 29th guy really good at smith grinding rails. And wondered how come his colorway was not selling outside of his skatepark area. So, yep, you can blame internet for the YouTube pros, and the skatepark board jugglers rising to fame, but it also allows Kevin Rodrigues to just be himself.
Do you miss working in the darkroom? And how does it make you feel to think that there's a whole generation of photographers now who have never stepped foot in a dark room? Or maybe never even shot film.
Every time I go the lab that process my films and smell the chemicals or look at fresh prints they just made for me or someone else, I do miss it. But, I have no room to have one at home, so…Plus, they are way better than I ever was or would be at it. Printing photographs is an art form. My latest exhibition was mainly printed by Manon, the daughter of one of the main guys there. It is nice to see the torch being transferred.
As for people never using film, it is not an issue, I think…You might see a different approach, but the gear used has never made for a good photograph. It matters and influences the final outcome, but the photograph you are getting is mainly what catches your eye and how you are presenting it. Tons of really boring photographs have been shot on film for decades, and some people shoot amazing things on digital, and vice-versa. Anyway, personally, I am more interested in the story, not the technicality of it. I hate photo nerds…“If you zoom in 6000% you can tell the grain is slightly oblong!” And? Find your subject and work on it. It is the only thing that matters.
Would you be able to pick out one photo from the thousands and thousands that you've shot over the years that means the most to you? Or that captures the feeling best that you've been trying to express in your work?
Oh, boy… Hmm, if we really have to go there, it might be that one of Quim in Washington Square in 1995? Not trying to cater to your audience, here! [Laughter] But, those times were so important to me, and shaped me. And I was looking at that contact sheet recently, and the frames before that one are so bad, and poorly thought of. There is even a fish-eye version of it! That one, or the two frames I actually shot like that, stand out so much. In a way, you could tell I found my style, right there, maybe? Or at least made a step toward it…Also, the image sums it all up for me. The camaraderie, the laugh, it’s all there. Plus, it’s Quim. I was writing and reminiscing recently about the times spent with Mike and him back then. So, maybe that one, yes, or the ones of the Circle Board with Mark. He is such a defining figure in who I have been trying to be over the years, and being able to document that moment felt very special. If you ever asked me for something that represents skateboarding the best to me, I will say that museum performance he did back in 1998, documented by Cheryl Dunn, and Skin Phillips. Someone should edit it to Dill in Feedback. “It’s not a sport. It’s loosely, loosely based on sportsmanship. It’s an art form. It’s style, its technique. It’s about what looks good!” Someone should do that, and Aymeric and I could watch every morning while drinking coffee. Crying a little bit…Then Augustin would send a WhatsApp message about going to République. [Laughter]
Damn, that's awesome. I feel like that's the perfect spot to end the interview right there......BUT I had one last question.....In the 25+ years that you've spent documenting the culture of skateboarding, what would you hope that people might take away or learn from your body of work at the end of the day?
In the last year, I have been working on zines and art books, under the This Was Just Now moniker, and in most of them, I have been mixing old and recent photos, testing out one idea, which is that it still is the same experience, whether you are going to République every evening after school in 2018, or were taking the train into NYC to skate Brooklyn Banks on the week-ends in 1995. You meet all those people you were not really meant to, according to social rules, and you don’t know yet, but some of those boys and girls will still be around in twenty years. And that’s the message I want to convey…This is no gym class, this is life! And some of us might look better living it, but we are all in for the same ride.
Interview by Josh Stewart