Kolkata Skate

This suite of photographs tells the story of students and teachers sweating it out in an abandoned warehouse that is the home of an informal skateboarding school founded and run on a volunteer basis by NGO Splash Asia director Aaron Waling in Kolkata, West Bengal. A quick visit to one of Kolkata Skate’s weekly Saturday sessions to donate some used skateboarding equipment turned into a much deeper involvement.

Immediately fascinated by this tough bunch of kids and their inspiring mentors, I ended up skateboarding with and documenting them for several Saturdays during my summer 2015 visit to Kolkata, both with my digital camera to capture the action in the warehouse, and with my large format 4×5 view camera, to make detailed portraits.

In addition to my visits to the richly textured, spray painted warehouse where the skateboarders practice, my activity there led to dinner at Aaron’s house; a visit to his NGO that builds infrastructure to get clean drinking water into local area schools; and a meeting with his partner in the skate school, advertising agency owner Sudhyasheel Sen, enlivened my visit to India with great conversation, and new ideas about how to use my art to help others.

Sudhyasheel taught me about Help Portrait, a global movement of photographers founded by Jeremy Cowart, Kyle Chowning, and Annie Downs, who make and donate portraits to those who can’t afford professional photography. He suggested that I turn my involvement with Kolkata Skate into a Help Portrait Project, and even helped with the logistics of getting the images printed for the young skateboarders. I have often wanted to share my photographs made in India with the subjects of those images, but as a traveler with no fixed itinerary or address, I’ve found it very difficult to follow though with these intentions. My involvement and collaboration with an organization like Kolkata Skate made this possible with Aaron’s and Sudyasheel’s support.

The students featured in these photographs mainly come from the impoverished slum neighborhood surrounding the warehouse where they practice. In this dense neighborhood, the only open space is the abandoned industrial land surrounding the warehouse. The basic necessities of life are far from assured in this environment, and recreational activities like skateboarding are a luxury that few would imagine. The sheer joy of the kids as they escaped the cares of their difficult lives for a short time to engage in something just for the fun of it was absolutely contagious. Giving these kids prints of the portraits I made of them during my visit was one of the biggest highlights of my summer 2015 trip to India. The concept of Help-Portrait has stayed with me, and no doubt will find its way into my creative process in the future.