National Geographic’s 240-page “SKATE THE WORLD: Photographing One World Of Skateboarding” contains nearly 200 photos spanning six continents. For issue #140, Giovanni Reda spoke with Jonathan Mehring, the man who spearheaded this massive undertaking. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation:
openning spread of "PLANET VOYAGE", from The Skateboard Mag #140
Mr. Mehring, give me a brief description of your career in skateboarding, who you are, and where you came from?
I was first published in 2000 [with] a photo I shot in my hometown of Charleston, Virginia. I moved to D.C. and started working for Slap Magazine shooting skateboarders there in 2000. Went to Philly and did a couple years in Philly, then LOVE park got shut down and I moved to New York. I've been based here ever since.
It’s pretty cool how you kinda worked your way up the coast. You went from Virginia, to D.C., to Philly, to New York. Where you going next, Boston? You're gonna be in Canada before you know it!
I always had my eye on New York, actually, but it just took a while to get there.
You did this book with National Geographic. Explain how that all came about.
Well, I met an editor from National Geographic Books at a Christmas party in 2009. I didn’t know at the time that she was an editor, but I was telling her about a trip I’d done for Skateboarder to Kazakhstan. I think I also mentioned the Trans-Siberian Railway, and so she was interested in these travels I was doing through skating and asked if I thought there was a book project somewhere in that material, and I said “yes.”
So, after a few years of back and forth with National Geographic, there was some hold up because they needed a sponsor. That was in 2009. The reason for the hold up was that National Geographic had never done a skateboarding project, so they said “Well, you know because of this, you have to find a sponsor to help fund the book.” That took a long time. In retrospect, I'm glad it took a few years to happen. I think it ended up being a lot better than it would have at the time.
Who came in to sponsor it?
Levi’s. Basically, that was the right place at the right time. The book was still on the back burner and I met up with Levi’s just randomly, and ended up doing a job for them and mentioned the project and they thought it fit what they were doing and so they were all for it. So that’s how that happened.
The book is mostly all your photos, but there are some other contributors, right?
Exactly. Basically there are places I wanted featured in the book but hadn’t been to myself, and so we decided to break it up more or less by continent.
I mean, you pretty much have been on every continent.
Antarctica is not in the book, but otherwise yes I have.
Except for Antarctica because there is no cement there. You have been on six out of seven continents pretty much.
So, you could have shot the whole thing yourself.
I could have, but at the time there were certain areas that I felt needed a presence. Like South Africa, for example. There is a huge skate scene in South Africa, [but] I’ve never been there. Also Skateistan, I’ve never been to Skateistan. You can't do the book and not have Skateistan.
Of course. I know you have your own style of shooting, every photographer, granted we are all skate photographers and we are all similar in a lot of ways, but everybody has their own voice. How do the other contributors fit in with your vision of what you see?
Well, basically I just Googled around and asked editors in various magazine locations, and through contacts of who was covering center areas.
Who did you get to contribute in South Africa and Skateistan?
A lot of people have one photo, two photos. [Some] people have more than that. Sam Clark, who has covered a lot of South Africa, Libya, and some other countries as well pretty extensively, so he has a number of photos. Chad Foreman did a really awesome job of photographing Skateistan. Most of the photos from Skateistan are his.
You wrote the intro, right?
There are thirteen essays which I wrote, and Tony Hawk wrote the foreword.
Thirteen essays! You’re back in school. I thought you got into shooting skateboarding to not write essays.
You know that I got Cs in English, too … that poor editor.
All the photos look amazing and National Geographic is known for their amazing photography. You just opened up a new lane for them, so who knows what else is going to happen?
Who knows? I know I don’t know what’s around the corner.
So when is it supposed to hit the presses?
It’s on the shelf on October sixth and it will be available wherever books are sold.
What's the plan? Are you going on tour and are you going to be doing photo shows?
Apparently, book tours are becoming a thing of the past, according to my P.R.
Yeah, but I really think you should do some photo shows.
Well I’m gonna do an event here. I’ve been talking to some sponsors about doing like an art show release event here, so that’s probably gonna be that week of October.
Being a skate photographer, one of the perks of our job is getting to travel. You know you can go to any city on the planet not knowing a soul, and pretty much find a place to stay.
Exactly. I mean that’s a major element of the book.
That whole experience of traveling, it gets more and more exotic. I remember your Amazon trip when Jaime Owens [Editor of Skateboarder at the time] was telling me, I was like, “But wait what are they gonna skate there? It’s a jungle and they’re on a boat!”
There were spots though. [laughs]
There were spots. That's the thing, it's everywhere. Was there a moment when you were like, “I'm gonna go to all these rad places and I’m gonna eventually do a book”?
No, I never thought that.
Never? That was never in your mind once?
I never … you know what? Until probably 2004, all I cared about was shooting tricks.
And then I got bored of shooting tricks, and then basically when I started atSkateboarder I think that was the big transition which you were privy to some of …
Wait. Who helped you get that job at Skateboarder? Who was that?
I think this guy Giovanni Reda might of helped put in a good word for me. Good guy to keep around.
Yeah, he is good in the pocket. No, but anyway, 2004, you just wanted to shoot tricks.
Around that time, I moved to Skateboarder and I just needed something new and that’s when I really started traveling because I got a taste of it at Slap. But I don’t know if it was the budget, I don’t know what the problem was. It may be I just hadn't realized what I wanted at the time, but basically I felt the freedom to be able to do those types of trips with Skateboarder, and so I started traveling way more. I think it started with a trip to Argentina, which was with a random crew.
Is that where you had the cover? Did you shoot that crazy quarterpipe thing?
Oh, that was in Canary Islands, that was later. The cover shoot that was from Argentina was Jerry Hsu on that golden rainbow rail.
Oh yes, I remember that.
That was one of the only memorable photos from that, but it was a pretty successful article.
As quick as you can, rattle off a lot of the places we are gonna see in the book.
Let’s see, in this hemisphere: Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, United States, Canada, most of Europe, Denmark, Ukraine, Canary islands, Ethiopia, South Africa, maybe Afghanistan, China, Australia, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Taiwan …
So what is the one place you look at it where you're like, “Damn, I wish we had this place?”
I mean, man the editing was …
It was. I mean, luckily I didn't have to do the editing, you know?
You're just like, “Here you go. I’ll let someone else do it.”
Yeah. I mean it's hard to even answer that because so much was cut when I was just like, “Oh my God, we have to show this,” and it’s just like, “Naw.”
“Somebody's got to kill the babies” is the expression.
Exactly. So, I actually learned a lot. It was really interesting and awesome working with Nat Geo and their editing staff because basically their photo editor said, “Send me everything good that you’ve ever shot.” I sent him thousands of photos, and he narrowed them down to hundreds. And then I went down to D.C., to their office for a meeting, and we went through the hundreds he had selected. I helped because they know what a good photo is, but they don’t know about skating, so I was like, “This trick works better than this one because …” Anyway, so I helped on that end and it was a good working relationship: me, the photo editor, and the designer. Also, the layout was actually a major dictator into what photos were selected, even up until the eleventh hour.
How many pages is the book?
It’s 240 pages, ten by ten.
That’s a nice big book. Some spreads, some square?
Well, it's ten by ten, so spreads got a one-to-two ratio, which is actually kinda tough. Most people shoot to the 35mm frame, especially these days, or square, but there are some square photos.
So there’re a lot of borders?
There are some borders, not a ton, but there is a lot of three-quarter pages, you know, that kind of thing.
Were you just like a Nazi about the cropping? “Don’t crop the photo!”
Yeah. Obviously, you know you have to crop in regards to the spot. And that's something that gets missed by people who don’t skate and so that was like, I definitely had to be completely strict about that stuff.
So, yeah, you walk in and they just have a skater in the sky.
“Guy in the sky.” It wasn’t that bad, but I did talk about that phenomenon.
So, after this experience of working with Nat Geo, do you see yourself going down that road? Like, you're very well traveled, I’ve seen your non-skate stuff and I feel like you can definitely have an eye where you can go to some city and see all the cool stuff and shoot it amazingly well. You could say, “We’re going to Sri Lanka for the Goat Festival.” Or whatever the fuck they have down there and shoot that.
I am shooting that stuff. I love shooting gatherings of many types, cultural stuff, that kind of thing really draws me in and I’ve even planned skate trips around those events so I could get there, you know, like, Kumbh Mela in India. I would love to do that stuff for money.
So what’s next on the horizon for Jon Mehring? First of all, before you even answer that I hope you just always shoot skateboarding.
I always will.
Till the day you’re dead.
I think I really like shooting skating.
I love it.
I definitely have been burnt out in the past for periods of time, but I really just come back to it because it’s in my core, you know what I mean? I can’t really help it and so as long as I’m not only shooting tricks one hundred percent of the time, I think I like a lot more aspects of it these days. And I like a lot of other things too, if I can mix it up then I’ll be good. Also, I just signed on with Nat Geo creative. So, I don’t know what that is going to lead to, if that will lead to some more assignments or not. So that’s kind of exciting.
It’s also an example of—I’ve actually talked to Jim Thiebaud about this—that skateboarders are the most creative people on the planet …
… and if skateboarders put their mind to something, they can do anything. If you're doing a book with Nat Geo, which is huge, whatever else you’re going to put your mind to you're gonna be able to do it. Just make sure you're always around skateboarding, that’s all I’m saying. What is the message of the book?
The message of the book basically is something that most skaters realize, I think, that skating is a global language. You can go anywhere and have a friend with a skateboard, and it transcends all kinds of social barriers, cultural barriers, language, race, religion, class; all the stuff especially in certain cultures where those things are really important, maybe more so than in the United States. But it doesn’t matter with skating, and that's what I think is a really amazing thing about it.
Yeah, I agree with you, and that’s amazing that you're actually really showing that by going to all these different places. It is true and like I was saying before, skateboarders rule the world. If we put our minds together we can promote world peace. That’s pretty much the message of the book, which is amazing, especially in times like today. Now listen, this is my suggestion to you and you could take it or leave it.
I think you should go on tour to schools.
Just saying, because it's like skateboarding is a very huge force. You know it relates to people on different levels and again it's like that feeling of satisfaction that’s like something you do for yourself, you know? But that's great, man, that’s awesome. It’s not just like, “Yeah, I just did this cool book. It’s cool I traveled around.”
There is a message there, I’m really proud of that aspect.
Does it still also have a little bit of “fuck you” in it? Because skateboarding is a little “fuck you.”
You’ll have to buy it and find out.
You're going to make me buy one, you son of a bitch? You know what? I am gonna buy one. Do you get any money off this?
I got an advance.
So that’s a “no.” You're like, “Yeah, buy it because once it goes over the advance then I’ll get some money.”
Yeah … It’s going to retail for 30 dollars.
That’s a pretty good price for a coffee table book. What’s the title?
Skate the World, Photographing One World of Skateboarding.
So you just Google it, it'll pop up and you can preorder it.
Would you say it’s more tricks?
It's a majority of tricks. It's a mix: there are portraits; there are art photos; artsy, landscape shots. But a majority are tricks. The skateboard is the hero of the book; every shot is a skateboard.
Pick up issue #140 from the Store for the full 10-page feature by Giovanni Reda and high quality reproductions from Skate The World of Jonathan Mehring's photography.