Swapping a seat on Paris’ cramped underground for a beach-shack in Hossegor in the peak of Indian Summer is a deal most people would be interested in. Although interestingly enough, I found myself signing for the exact opposite trade back in September 2018.
As a resident of South West France, it’s a well known fact that 9 months of the year are dedicated to complaining about the lack of people and sunny days, or the overwhelming abundance of both, leaving only a few weeks to actually enjoy the fruits of paying an inflated rent, and having to cope year-round with a Wi-Fi infrastructure inherited from the late nineties. But all of this didn’t mater too much, as I stepped on the train that would soon be leading me to the French Capital in order to meet Sarah Meurle.
I didn’t know much about Sarah prior to my arrival in Paris. We had been introduced to each other once or twice due to mutual acquaintances and the fact she skates for Poetic Collective. The creator & mind behind the brand, Tom Botwid, was actually the last one who introduced me to Sarah. It was on a freezing Berlin night, just after she had been given the Best European Female Skateboarder of the Year Award in 2017. With the spotlight on her and the media storm that usually marks the week of the Bright Tradeshow, I opted to give Sarah a bit of room and preferred keeping conversation for another time.
Although here I was, thinking it could have been a good idea to get to know her better when I had the chance: I now have 48 hours in town and Sarah’s planning looks rammed: she’ll just be landing from Canada, having just finished curating the 28th issue of SOLO magazine that she will premiere tomorrow night near Place de La République and to top things off, she is meant to be filming for an upcoming Nike video & with the Poetic Collective boys at the same time. It looked like a hectic few days ahead… Although when searching for an explanation for the lack of stress induced by my current situation, the answer probably lied in the reassuring fact of sharing common interests with my future interviewee. With Sarah being a seasoned photographer and overall great creative eye, I’ve been following her work for quite some time now, and was looking forward to the conversations we would be having over the weekend.
Hailing from a small village called Blentarp, located in the Swedish country-side near Malmö, you wouldn’t think skateboarding would be the first hobby to cross Sarah’s path. Although her encounter with the wooden toy happened early on, and when she started telling me about how she started out, her story felt oddly relatable and should be to numeral people.
“As I was growing up, there was a wave of skateboarding happening in my town: A couple of kids who were a little older than me used to go skate around the school, and when I saw it, I was like “this looks super fun and I want to try it”. I then started with a friend of mine who happened to be in my class. Later on, we borrowed my aunt’s VHS camera to film each other. We used to record on the band, rewind it manually and re-record on it to do our edits. My friend stopped skateboarding not long after, but I stuck with it.”
“When I was 16, Bryggeriet in Malmö opened up the skateboarding high school there, which I naturally joined and that’s where I was first properly introduced to photography, and what you can actually do with photos.”
Being a full time professional skater can become a time consuming duty that revolves around airports, hotel rooms & rushed lunches, leaving very little time to get into any other activities, let alone photography in the traditional sense of the term. Yet, if you’re familiar with Sarah, you know she’s everything but a one-dimensional individual: After graduating and working/traveling for a couple of years, she felt there was still more to gain from the medium. Prior to taking a BFA in fine art photography, she went to a one-year pre- educational fine art photography course outside of Malmo. “They had a whole lab there, and I got really into it. Before that I had never thought of photography as a material activity, as I had shot analog for a long time but never before worked with the negatives in my hands.”
Spending hours in the lab and the dark-room was a game-changer for Sarah who started experimenting with different formats and developed an affinity for the imperfections offered by film photography.
“One time when I was starting out, I developed some black & white film. It was one of the first times I was doing it myself, and I didn’t have everything figured out, so I just crumbled the negatives together with the chemicals, and the crumbles became an interesting part of the picture.”
“I’m interested in mistakes and the random results you can get from them.”
“Earlier on when I was starting out, I used to open up my camera to let some light in. I don’t really do that anymore, but my camera currently has a hole in it, so light comes in sometime anyways.”
When browsing her website in search of answers to what Sarah’s craft actually is, I discovered an apparent tension to minimalism: neatly composed photos of empty cityscapes. Subtle close ups of trees and rock formations. Abstract mixes of colours and textures that made me curious about her photographic process and how she ended up with such mysterious results. One could assume that Sarah’s two passions would naturally collide and lead her to pursue skate photography in a serious way.
“I’ve always been around skate photographers and they do a much better job than me, so I’ve been shooting whatever else is around, because you see a lot of things whilst you’re skating and whilst you’re just out. Although, when you see a nice spot, or some setting that’s nicely lit, and you feel inspired, taking skate photos is nice. It can be great when you do it your way. I’ve actually been doing it of late. When I do, I usually shoot both: a digital photo and one on film, and if it works out, I use the film one.”
Curating a whole print magazine demands a unique vision, and the SOLO staff saw that Sarah had all it straight away. At 29 years old, she has spent numerous years traveling around the globe with some of the world best skateboarders, whilst always carrying a camera on her and staying informed about what’s at the edge of art. By giving her carte blanche for their 28th issue, the German magazine gave birth to one of their most diverse issue yet.
“I wanted the issue to be a mix of inspiring skaters that I think should have interviews, but also people who are outside of the traditional world of skateboarding media.”
“I wanted to do an interview with Johanna Juzelius. She’s from Göteborg and she’s never had a print interview. That was a set thing from the beginning. I also really wanted to feature the Skate Witches. It’s a black and white zine created by two girls out of Seattle and Vancouver focusing on womens & queer skateboarding. They have a different opinion than the male-centred general view on skateboarding and I really wanted to do something with them.The feature with Alexis Sablone also came quite naturally, because she was in Malmö working on this architecture piece, and I’ve been friends with her since quite a long time.”
Handling the reins of the magazine enabled Sarah to shine a light on personalities and subjects who seemed inspiring to her, such as Lisa Whitaker (creator of Meow skateboards), skater/photographer Laura Kaczmarek or Louisa Menke and her documentation of the Palestinian skate scene. But it also opened some doors that she would have never thought of as a kid. This was the case when meeting her long-time hero, and mother figure to many in the skateboarding world, Elisa Steamer on trip to Spain:
“Elissa and I both ended up on this Nike trip as I was working on the content. It was the first time I met her, and I really wanted to have her in the issue. I shot of portrait of her and she was into the idea, but I felt I was just too much of a fan to do a good job with it! I mean she’s the first female skateboarder I knew. “
“Elissa an idol! I used to watch her part in Tony Hawk Pro Skater on loop: we didn’t have skate videos at the time, and her part in it was the only footage I knew of her.”
“It was so strange to meet someone I’d been looking up to my whole life. So I felt like it would be better to have Stefan Schwinghammer (SOLO’s editor) do the interview with her and he ended up doing an amazing job with it. Then at the end of the summer, I went to the SOLO office for 3 days and we went through all the material and started putting the layout together.”
Our first day in Paris is marked by meeting up with fellow Nike team rider Savannah Stacey Keenan. The meeting is set at Place de la République — is there anywhere else to meet in Paris anyways? After a quick round and the mandatory rude reflection from the café’s waiter, we set off towards the banks of Canal St. Martin. If you’re in the 10th and fancy a place to have a break from the constant hectic scenes at sunset, don’t search any further: It is simply glorious. Whilst watching the sky switch to its pastel palette over the calm waters, we spot the Poetic Collective team: They are all wearing shirts with Sarah’s face on it, and we decide to follow them on their way to the gallery where the magazine launch is taking place, as Sarah apparently just rocked up. The good side of organizing an event 50 meters from France’s most infamous plaza on a sunny day is that you’ll never have to worry about the crowd not showing up: The event has just started and the small wooden floored building is already rammed. Prints of Sarah’s photographs are hung to the walls, Stefan is running left and right handing magazines to everyone and the Aperol-Spritz are flowing, setting the tone for our night that would be continued Chez Justine — what seems to be the standard procedure on every skate trip to the French capital.
On the next morning, we are joined by the legendary Michael Mackrodt and Paris based videographer Augustin Giovannoni. Luckily enough, the weather is on our side: we’ve been blessed by a few sunny days and we take this opportunity to jump on the line 8 in direction of Créteil. Having seen Sarah in Poetic Collective’s Paris edit, I knew she had already skated the Hotel de Ville plaza, which is soon confirmed by how dialled in with the place she is: In no time she’s flowing around the infamous flat-ground with the speed and style that characterizes her. We spend a few hours within the area, which truly is an odd piece of modern architecture and turns out to be a gold mine for spots. I’m impressed by how on it Sarah is: Yesterday’s late night seems to have no effect on her motivation, and by mid afternoon, she’s already got two clips locked. As we stop in a nearby park to grab a bite, I take the opportunity of this rare break to ask Sarah her point of view about the place of women in skateboarding, and the evolution of mentalities since her early days.
“When I first started, there was already some kind of organization encouraging women in Malmö. They had girl-nights at the skatepark… but I always preferred going out and skating with my friends from my hometown and they were all boys.”
“When you’re 13 you don’t really think of skateboarding being something political or something important in society. I just always felt like I wanted to do the same things that boys were doing… I mean I was the only girl in the soccer team, had two older brothers… so I always kind of fought for it in my own way.”
“But it wasn’t always the easy way to go. It seems different now that there’s a whole lot more women skating, more role-models, and it’s more accepted by the general public that girls can be strong and tough. Nowadays skateboarding has become so much bigger, and in that way it’s becoming more open, not only to girls, but to guys and non-binary persons who want to get into it.”
As I wait for my train back to Hossegor in the giant ant-farm that is Gare Montparnasse, I finally find a moment to properly get into Sarah’s SOLO issue and reflect on this busy weekend. After spending a few days around Sarah and seeing the dedication she put into the curation of the issue, it is obvious that she’s a fervent defender of diversity within the skate culture: She might not be the most vocal person and you probably won’t see her going on a rant over social media, but exposing less documented stories through the pages given to her in one of Europe’s most prominent skate magazines is just as inspirational. On top of this, Sarah carries in her attitude a message that is as important as the words on these pages. When talking with her, it seems that there’s nothing more natural for a woman than hanging with the boys and getting dirty in the streets. Skating without caring about people’s preconceptions seems to be her way of stating women’s legitimacy within the culture, turning what once was a macho influenced culture into a more welcoming place for people of all origins and identities.