Spotlight on Mike Belleme

TID:
 
How did skateboarding influence your photography?
 
MIKE:
 
Well, I should start by saying that from the time I was twelve until about age twenty when I started getting into photography, I was completely, utterly and unwaveringly obsessed with skateboarding. I literally skated every day of my life with few exceptions through those years. I had sponsors and traveled constantly and didn’t even care about girls or partying or any of that stuff that everyone else does through their teen years. I just wanted be a pro skater and worked my ass off to try to accomplish that. The goal for sponsored skaters and young skaters trying to come up is to get video footage and photos of hard tricks. So the visuals are very important to all skaters. So, like a lot of skaters, I got into photography because I was so focused on getting good skate photos of myself and wanted to get some of my friends as well. Being a skater has very much influenced me as a person and who I am as a person influences the way that I shoot. It has made me more bold and fearless in how I approach things. There are constant confrontations with cops and business owners, and you just get used to that, so I don’t have the same fear of approaching people that a lot of people have. Being a skater has certainly influenced how I’ve approached my Kids of Hate and Love project. It’s amazing how many subtle nuances and taboos are involved in skate culture and knowing that stuff has enabled me to know what to look for and how to represent it.
 
TID:
 
Is this a complete body of work or a work in progress?
 
MIKE:
 
I don’t think I will ever consider this a complete body of work. I haven’t been working on it as consistently in the last year or so, because the things I’m looking for are much more specific now. But I still skate at least a couple times a week and hang out and travel with that crowd a lot, so it’s hard to just totally drop the project. Some of the guys in this story have been my friends for over half my life and I will continue to be friends with these people forever, so I’m sure on some level, this project will be life-long. Maybe doing this interview will be the motivation I need to jump back into it more seriously again.
 
 
 
TID:
 
Looking back on this work now, what do you see?
 
MIKE:
 
I see a lot of holes and aspects of skateboarding that I still don’t think I’ve found a good way to represent: especially public perceptions about skating and the constant struggle with the police. I only have a couple photos that get at that. But as a whole, I do think that it does a pretty good job of representing the community that defined me for so many years and still does to some extent. Looking back on it, I see a lot about myself. In a way it’s like a self-portrait because for years all of my decisions and actions were governed by this community and what was considered acceptable or cool within this group. Skating has a very complex social structure. Even though I’ve been at this project for over four years, I still feel that I haven’t told the whole story yet.
 
 
TID:
 
Tell us about this portrait. Does it represent anything?
 
 
 
MIKE:
 
Well I can’t say that it took a whole lot of thought. Word quickly spread that my buddy John had gotten the FUCK IT tattoo and I knew right away that I needed a photo of it. Then I hear that he split his head open on his birthday falling into his fireplace drunk and got stitches in his head, so I knew it was time to get the shot. But aside from the shock value, I think it gets at something. This whole project is really about the question of ‘Who are skateboarders?’ Obviously, there are all kinds of skaters, but it takes a certain kind of person to get ‘FUCK IT’ tattooed across your chest; I believe that if he weren’t involved in skating, he probably never would have gotten that tattoo. I think it’s an influence from the ideas about what’s cool as defined by the crowd that he surrounds himself with.
 
TID:
 
How about the photo of the shopping cart. What was happening here?
 
 
 
MIKE:
 
The two guys in this picture have known each other and been close friends of mine for about twelve years, so we have had a lot of nights like this while traveling together. It's hard to describe a drunken sequence of events like it's logical or makes sense. Mic jumped in the cart and Eric took off running. I did my best to run behind them with the camera to my eye. When they slowed down, I got this shot. One of the only sharp photos I got. It made the edit because it shows the kind of bond that occurs over years of spending a lot of time with the same group of people. Since this is such a personal project, a lot of the editing comes down to how a photo makes me feel. These are two of my closest friends in the world and it was a moment that had me laughing so hard I could barely keep the camera still, so to me it's just a good memory that I was able to capture. Aside from just thinking that what was going on was really funny, I was probably thinking something like 'Focus, you piece of shit camera!' In a moment like that with only a street light about 40 feet away as a backlight, I'm mostly focusing on focusing.
 
Traveling is a huge part of skating. Even though most skaters are perpetually broke, they are always on the road. Once you get to a certain level in skating you have friends to stay with in almost any major city in the country. So this photo was taken during a trip to Savannah. Skate trips are usually planned around skateboarding, but partying tends to quickly take over as the priority and majorly cuts into skate time. Documenting this aspect of skate culture has been the easiest because it is so prevalent. When I shot this photo, we were leaving a cookout/party at a friend’s house and going back to the house we were staying. It must have been very late, because it was Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, which is a huge party holiday in Savannah, and we were the only ones out on the street. We saw a shopping cart in someone’s yard and hijacked it to carry our beer. The next half-mile or so was complete mayhem. My friend Eric was pushing my other friend, Mic in the cart and they wrecked going around a corner and broke a few bottles of beer in the street. Shortly thereafter, a cop rounded the corner behind us with the blue lights going and pulled over our shopping cart. He said he’d been watching us for several blocks. Eric explained to the officer that we were almost home gesturing with his corn on the cob to the house we were headed for, and we were let go.
 
 
 
TID:
 
What have you learned about yourself as a photographer through working on this series?
 
MIKE:
 
I was pretty surprised to find out that I can shoot pretty well when I’m drunk. I don’t drink very much, but sometimes on these road trips I will party with these guys and get a little carried away, but still really want to document everything. The first time I did that, I got mad at myself for getting drunk because I was mostly there to shoot and I thought I wouldn’t get anything, but the next morning I was pleasantly surprised. Thank goodness for autofocus. Mostly though, I’ve learned things about myself as a person. There are so many things that I love about skating, but I have some qualms about the ways that skateboarding culture can often limit people and repress individualism. For me personally, it’s taken a long time to find myself after years of just identifying myself as a skater and trying to fit in with that crowd, and to this day there are things about myself that I don’t like that are direct influences from skate culture and all of the pressures that come with that. Doing this project has helped me identify who I am, why I am the way I am, and who I want to be.
 
TID:
 
How did people react to you when you made images of them? Were there any points of conflict, and if so, how did you handle it?
 
MIKE:
 
There has never been any conflict at all. Skaters are totally used to having cameras around all of the time. At first people would ask to see what I shot because they thought it was going to be a action photo of them doing a trick, but then they'd see photos of them on the ground in pain or yelling out of frustration instead. They got used to it though and started to understand what I was doing. I've showed this body of work at the gallery attached to the local skate shop and everyone seems to like their photos a lot. They all rip my photos off my website and use them as Facebook photos and such.
 
 
TID:
 
You said, "Doing this project has helped me identify who I am, why I am the way I am, and who I want to be." How has this helped you achieve this?"
 
MIKE:
 
Before I got into skating, my big thing was African drumming. I dropped that pretty quickly when I got into skating along with all of the sports that I was majorly involved in like basketball and soccer. At the time I was pretty impressionable and just wanted to fit in with whatever group I was involved with. The skaters said drumming was hippie shit, so I dropped it along with a lot of the music I was listening to like reggae. The sports were "for jocks" so I quit all of that. Part of the reason for this was because I was focused so intensely on skating that I didn't have time for that other stuff, but mostly, I think it was the cultural taboo aspect. When I started working on the photo project and looking deeper into the culture of skating, I had this existential moment of realizing how much of myself I had left behind when I started skating. I had forgotten some things that were a big part of my upbringing and personality. In doing so, I was able to start to piece my identity back together. It was like looking at myself under a microscope and saying ok, this can stay, this has to go, because there were also things about skating that shaped me that I liked. Skating gives you amazing tenacity and determination and a large group of friends that care about you. The project just helped me to see what was obvious and right in front of me, but I had ignored it for years. I don't know if my friends would say I've changed a whole lot since having this realization, but I feel like inside I have changed. I'm going to show my hippieness here, but you could say I got back in touch with my inner child.
 
 
 
 
:::BIO:::
 
Mike Belleme is a freelance photographer living in Western North Carolina. He is constantly on the search for opportunities to learn about our culture, other cultures and issues of importance or interest through photography. Much of his work focuses on alternative and fringe lifestyles. He lives in a tree house in the woods outside of Mars Hill with his girlfriend, Kristen. When he’s not shooting, Mike enjoys skateboarding, woodworking, gardening and playing in the mountains. His clients include
New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired.com, Time.com, AP and CNN. 
 
You can view his work here:
 
 
 
EDITOR'S NOTE: 
 
This week's post was a guest interview by Erin Brethauer, a staff photographer turned multimedia editor at the Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina where she has been working since 2007. Originally from the Milwaukee area of the great state of Wisconsin, she graduated from Marquette University and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2005. When not working on daily assignments for the newspaper or her own personal projects, she loves to travel, spend time with friends and learn new skills.  She is the current president of the North Carolina Press Photographers Association and her work has been recognized this year by the Magenta Foundation as a US winner in the 2012 Flash Forward Emerging Photographer competition.  Bio photo by Marcus Yam.
 
You can view her work here:
 
 
And learn more about the North Carolina Press Photographers Association here:
 
 

Next week we'll take a look behind the contruction of this powerful image by Kevin German of Luceo:
 
 
 
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