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From the World May 4, 2024May 21st, 2024

In Conversation with Magdalena Wosinska

Interview by Robin Pailler

One look at Magdalena Wosinska‘s portfolio and it’s clear she’s a very successful photographer specialising in the commercial field.

From portraits of Joaquin Phoenix, George Clooney, Jane Goodall, David Lynch, Alanis Morissette, the list goes on. To brand campaigns for the likes of United Airlines, Wrangler, American Express, Levi’s and CVS, Magda’s deservedly achieved global recognition in her field.

Which is why some may find it bewildering that Magda’s origins as a Polish immigrant, emigrating to the United States in 1991, began firmly rooted within skateboarding. In fact it’s skateboarding which led to Magda picking up a camera in the first place. She’s actually been shooting skate photography for almost three decades, and most recently got her first cover, courtesy of an Austyn Gillette back smith for issue 49 of Solo Skate Mag.

Yet until that point, Magda was essentially an unpublished skate photographer. It’s actually taken the release of her new book Fulfill The Dream, for her to fulfil the dream of being a (self) published skate photographer. What makes Fulfill The Dream stand out however, isn’t necessarily the skate photography. It’s how deeply personal the book is. It would simply be too easy to produce a generic album of skate imagery. Instead Fulfill The Dream is a raw, no holds barred account of a young girl, arriving in America in the early nineties and trying to integrate within a scene that essentially refused to accept her. It’s both a written and visual memoir of a woman struggling to find her identity, her femininity, her self worth and her roots. From heartbreak to drug addiction, love and death, Fulfill The Dream is a visceral insight into the last thirty years of American skate culture told through the eyes of a female outsider.

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First and foremost, what led to you deciding to make the book?

I think I always kind of talked about it. And I thought about it in the back of my head, I didn’t know how much it was a reality, because I didn’t know if I had enough good stuff for it. Because a lot of it has to do with my first photos I ever took when I was 14. And I didn’t know if those are worthy, but then I was like, you know what? If they’re not worthy of being published, that’s okay. Because they’re my first photos. And it’s just the part of the journey and the evolution. So I was thinking about it for years and years and years. It just had to be the right time. And the time was now because it just felt right. You know, it was very cathartic. And I needed to also close that chapter in my life. It was like a sense of not belonging, you know?

How much time did you spend debating being as personal as you are? Because you’re incredibly open in the book about your battle with femininity, identity and drug addiction.

It’s super raw. But I think I’ve always been like that with a lot of my work. Once I got to a place where I felt safe enough to just express my true self, then I never went back. I don’t understand why I wouldn’t ever say what I’m about, because I’m just judged all the time anyway. So what am I gonna lose? You know? Everybody’s judged and critiqued all the time. So I have nothing to lose. Because if I don’t say it, and I’m not true to myself, someone’s still gonna critique to me. And so you’re true to myself. And it helps me get out all these things that I had to suppress for a long time when I feel like I didn’t have a voice or a choice, or a chance to speak. Maybe that’s why this was the right timing for the book, because I started the photos when I was 14 and now I’m 40. And you kind of stop giving that much of a shit about what people think. And this is what’s my healing process and maybe it could be beautiful and help other people heal to or allow them to realize that vulnerability is so healing.

You obviously had this dream to be a skate photographer, hence the title Fulfil The DreamYet when you read the text it seems you never really felt like you were actually going to achieve that. But since you have to some degree, was there a specific turning point where you look back and you’re like, “oh, actually, I have been successful in achieving this”.

I didn’t ever achieve the idea of being a published skate photographer, until I created that for myself. I made the book and now I’m a published skate photographer. It wasn’t like magazines took a chance on me or something like that. More recently now they would, but back then they didn’t. So there’s no turning point, or there wasn’t a moment in my career where anything changed. Because, the hustle never ends. There’s no such thing as “making it”, you just keep going and going and going. But as far as the specific part about trying to be a skate photographer, I created my own platform to be published, which is this book and so if that’s how I fulfilled the dream, so be it you know?

I think it’s also really interesting how you use the book to talk about immigration, coming from communist Poland to America. What led to your family immigrating to America?

So the (Berlin) wall fell in 89′. We moved in 90’ and it was just trying to find and seek out a better life. More chances and opportunity. My parents were both psychology professors. And if they got a sponsorship with an American job here, we could go to school for free. But also, as my Mom was a part of the government system as a very well respected professor, she was – not really by choice – but was kind of put into the Communist Party. So when the wall fell, my parents were considered traitors, they weren’t really looked on fondly. But it’s not like they really had a choice, because that’s what they were doing for work. So it’s not like they were on the side of communism, they just kind of got pushed into being like, ‘you can’t say anything against it or you’ll lose your passport and your job and your ability to travel. There was a lot of threatening and blackmailing with my parents, to be able to stay in a position they did, and as long as they were in line with what the government wanted them to be in line with. So by the time the wall fell, it wasn’t like all of a sudden, Poland became great overnight, or communism ended, because it was pretty terrible for a few decades after that. It’s only now that it’s coming to this beautiful fruition with this amazing light of the people and the art and the film, and the movies and the music and the culture just shining. You can tell now that it’s a great place when you see businessmen from all over the world, including America in a hotel lobby. When people are going back to Poland from England and Ireland. People aren’t running away. But when we moved in 1990, everybody was trying to leave.

Although do you think people are a little bit scared about its proximity to Ukraine?

I mean yeah, we share a 300 mile long border with Ukraine, don’t we? As well as the Belarus border. It’s pretty crazy. But everyone’s been so welcoming to everyone from Ukraine. I think 3 million Ukrainian refugees came to Poland. America only let in 500,000. There isn’t a feeling of fear there necessarily, even with us sharing the border.

Having spent the majority of your life in the United States, do you identify more as an American than Polish?

I don’t. I mean I’ve lived in America and I’ve done very American things my whole life. But I don’t feel American because, even now, more than ever, when people say, ‘Oh, you’re so intense’, I respond with , ‘No, I’m passionate’. When I go to Poland, I’m exactly like all my girl friends in Poland. But I’m so intense in America. And it’s almost considered to be a negative thing because I have, such a reason and such a strong idea of why something is the way it is. And I think that that’s a positive thing, a passionate thing. But in American culture especially, it makes people uncomfortable. So they want to say something about your character as being overwhelming or intense. “Your energy is too much. You’re too much. You’re too much. You’re too much”. Well, when you come from a country where you’re never enough, because you’re just trying to survive or there isn’t enough so you can survive. It’s like, that’s what you do. It’s an ancestral thing. It’s a coping mechanism, so its definitely, more than ever, even now in my 40s when I feel more Polish than American. I just have an American lifestyle. But I have a Polish soul.

As someone who’s been part of the skateboarding scene for almost 30 years and has documented it for almost three decades. How do you think the skate scene has changed from when you were 14? From witnessing the Zoo York days, for example, to shooting the cover of Austyn Gillette for Solo?

It’s so much more curated. It’s so much more considered. It’s so much more, ‘this is now just what we do and what we have to get done’. Maybe it’s a lot less fun. I mean, I know skaters are still have fun skating like Austyn loves skating, you know what I mean? It’s like, forever. But he also started skating when he was 8 years old. And now he’s 32. But I think a lot of things that people get into it now, is because they’re like that it’s competitive. And they’re athletes, and they’re super humans, and they want to go to the Olympics. Back then we were all just trying to find a family to fit into. Back then there was not even a question for skating for Nike, because that would be considered selling out because that it was a huge corporation. It wasn’t a skate brand. I remember the first time somebody in Arizona started skating for Nike, and that they were trying to have a skate team. We all laughed and thought that those people are posers because it was not DIY skating. But it changed a lot. I mean where it’s at now, it doesn’t make it bad. It’s just so different. Back then it was not cool if you skated, you were a rebel, you’re getting arrested, you’re running from cops. You were looked down upon. No one really took you seriously. You wore certain clothes, you listened to certain music. You were an outlaw. You were an outcast. And now it’s so normal and so cool to skate.There’s so much acceptance with it.

Right. And whilst that’s got to be seen as a positive thing in the sense that there’s now female sponsored skaters and queer acceptance, which is obviously amazing. You can see how brands are kind of using that to portray their inclusivity. 

Totally. Skateboarding was so homophobic back in the day and it was not very accepting of women. If you were a girl at the skate park, you were a pro-ho for the most part. And I was like, “what’s that?” I didn’t know what that was. I was 12. I didn’t even know what sex was. I was just trying to hang out with the AM’s and the pros and trying to shoot skate photos. I’m not trying to have sex with these people. I don’t even know what that is. Why am I put into that category? I’m here to try and skate with you guys. And now it’s cool and supportive. I mean there was definitely people that supported me back then. But there’s also moments where there wasn’t people thatsupported me at all, and they just run into you and tried to push you, knock you down enough times to just get discouraged and not come back to the skate park.

Absolutely. How do you think skateboarding has shaped you as a person?

I mean it definitely builds a certain type of character resilience. Not only from the culture, but from the skating, You can’t fake skating, right? You either know how to do a three flip or you don’t and you either have style, or you don’t. You can’t google how to be cool. You can make a fake song on the computer with a million things that are brought to you from a million different sources. You either know how to skate or you don’t. So it shapes you because you have to fucking dedicate yourself and you fall down over and over and over. And it might take you half a year to a year to learn how to ollie and then your whole world opens up when you learn. So I guess patience, resilience, you know?

Important life traits that shape you and your career I guess. I mean your photography isn’t just skateboarding anymore is it?

I mean it stopped kind of being skateboarding in my 20s when I moved to California to shoot skateboarding because I didn’t really get a chance. I kept knocking on the door, knocking on the door, knocking on the door. And when you’re super young and you’re not one of the big skate photographers. No one knows who you are. And you’re a girl. “We’re not taking you on tour.”

And now you’re getting the cover of a skate mag.

Yeah, totally. But it only came through friends, connections and respect by building a career elsewhere. I mean, it’d be cool to shoot the cover of Thrasher.

Yeah right. Do you feel there were any defining moments? Or perhaps photos in that book or moments that really stand out to you that are important milestones?

There wasn’t any specific photos or milestones. I tried to make the book very cinematic, so it reads like a movie. But it was kind of like the journey. It was one step, to the next step, to the next step, to the next step. I think if I was to say there’s feelings that were involved by looking at the photos, those where looking back at the pictures of myself and how young I was, and how scrawny I was and how, and how so desperately I wanted to be accepted. So I just dressed exactly like the guys and I had really short hair and baggy pants. I tried so hard to be a guy to fit in. I could feel like I’m accepted in this world of misfits, even though I still stood out as a girl. And I could belong to them. And also, nobody would mess with me sexually if I just looked like a dude. Because I was always around guys, so who knows what could happen? When all you do is skateboard and party and drink all the time. So it just makes me sad for this young version of me. I guess that was my individuality at the time. But it was so heavily influenced by being a boy. And I wish I could have just been a girl doing that exact same shit with the boys because nowadays, I see girls and they skate in mini skirts. And I didn’t wear shorts for the first 10 years of skateboarding because I was so embarrassed about the bruises on my legs, and I thought they made me look like I was sickly.

You had the book launch in LA recently? How was the reaction to you finally showcasing it to the world?

It was so nice to just give it away. It was cathartic. There’s a lot of pain to these experiences and a lot of beauty and a lot of acceptance and a lot of non acceptance. But it was so nice to just create the story and give it away to the world. So if other people can relate to it, they know that they’re not alone. And then just for it to no longer be mine. But for it to be for everybody else. And I always said I made a book for myself first, for skaters second and for the world third, because a lot of people when they publish a book, they want to make sure it’s commercial and that is sells, and that it’s going to reach everybody. And I was like, at the end of the day, this is universal. It’s just a universal story of all of us trying to find love and self worth. And it could be through science or skateboarding, or surfing. It could be through anything. It could be through taking care of a parent. But it was just really nice to give it out to the world and the response has been so positive, especially by the skaters in the skate community, that I never thought 25 years ago would give ashit. Thrasher is also doing something with it. And Chad Muska writing the foreword and posting about it today and Ed Templeton posting about it. Just having so many people’s support. I think 300+ people came to the opening and there was a line around the corner, ands all the books sold that night. I was like, ‘holy shit’. I had no idea that people care. I was prepared for people to just be like, ‘oh, cool, just another blip in this crazy wild life we have, where we’re just overstimulated with information and pictures and photo books. And it seemed that glimpse stopped for a millisecond and everyone kind of paid attention. I can’t be more grateful for that.

Amazing. Looking back now what advice would you give that scrawny little immigrant girl from Poland having been through everything you’ve been through?

I would tell her that she didn’t have to try so hard to prove herself.

Well I think it’s a towering achievement Magda and I hope that it inspires future generations to have that mindset. I think, now more than ever, people are seeking constant validation in the world that we live in. It’s so sad because what it does more than anything, is restrain people from really expressing their true selves. I think it crushes true creativity, because instead of being creative, you’re trying to adhere to what you think should be accepted by other people.

Totally. And we were doing that back then, but on the scale that there wasn’t instant gratification. You just wanted to belong. Now it’s like, you just want to have validation with a like on Instagram and it’s so sad because that’s not what it’s about. I think people should just keep their head down and work hard at what you are excited about, as long as it makes you happy. Stop making shit for the world to respond to. Make shit for yourself to live and have emotion through.

You can order Fufill The Dream here.

If you’re in Paris this summer, Magda will be present at Yvon Lambert for a book signing on 21st June 2024.

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