Hometown: Baltimore, MD
Zorah Olivia first got hooked on skateboarding from watching her cousins play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as a young kid. Now she shoots the man himself, along with a long list of skateboarding’s biggest names. Growing up with photographer parents, it’s no surprise she was drawn to capturing life from behind the lens, and now, at the age of 26, Zorah’s natural talent and work ethic is paving the way for the next generation of female skateboarders and photographers. Let’s meet her!
What’s one of your favourite photos you’ve taken recently and why?
Lately, I’ve been documenting COVID-19 church signs in the Deep South and working on a mini-series about my experience in social isolation. My nephew was living with us for the first two months of isolation, and I shot portraits of him to try to understand COVID-19 through the eyes of a child. The church signs started as a way to get out of the house and drive around. I took a photo of one recently that said, ‘Praise or complain, I choose praise.’ It just feels like everything is coming full circle, like I’m meant to be back here in South Carolina to shoot photos of what’s going on here. People in the South are acting like wearing a mask is a political statement; you could cut the tension with a knife. We’re all just living in very real and terrifying times right now and photography is the only way I can make sense of it all.
Who or what are you inspired by at the moment?
I’ve always been inspired by the photographer Sally Mann, more so now than ever. Sally Mann is known for a wide variety of work but her series about her family has always stood out to me. They’re raw, intimate portraits of childhood and motherhood. It’s especially inspiring as we navigate through social isolation. It’s forcing me to come back to where it all started, to find inspiration in those around me.
Tell us the story behind one of your favourite portraits?
Back in January, I got photo passes to shoot photos of King Princess live at the Wiltern! Usually with photo passes, you have access to the photo pit for the first three songs. For some reason though, the Wiltern has a policy where they don’t let photographers up front. So, I snuck up the front anyways and ended up making friends with some hardcore King Princess fans that bought VIP tickets. They let me squeeze in next to them and I shot photos the entire show. King Princess flashed the crowd at the very end and I was the only person to get a photo! I also have a shot of her holding her mic as if it were a strap-on and she’s making direct eye contact with me. It’s all I could ever ask for in an image. All hail, Miss King.
How did you first get into shooting skate?
I started skateboarding when I was ten years old. I spent hours going through Thrasher magazine and CCS catalogues, studying the images. That year, I went to Woodward skate camp and returned every summer after as either a camper or intern through my college years. When I was 16 years old, they added a digital photography program and offered me an internship. I would scan slides from the early days of skate camp, set up shoots with pros and learned how to handle lighting with my shots. As I was born and raised in a family of creatives and artists, picking up the camera was a natural progression. It was amazing to go back to Woodward these last two years as the first female photography VIP and share my vision with the students.
What was the biggest challenge you had when you started working with skate photography?
I was really intimidated by incorporating flash in my early work simply because I was self-taught. Rising to the challenge, I bought my own TTL flash kits and started small. I reached out to Michael Burnett and Atiba Jefferson at Thrasher to see what setups they use and started there to see what would work for my style. Once I started experimenting with flash, I realised it wasn’t something to be intimidated by but something I could use to change and evolve my work. Now I always use flash while shooting skating.
What was one thing that was crucial in getting you where you’re at now with photography?
In 2014, I moved back from SC to Baltimore as I transferred colleges for a more photo-centric curriculum. One of the summers in between classes, I looked for internships out in LA. The only response I got from my inquiries was from Kim Woozy who was running an all-female action sports media website. She called me the same day and we talked on the phone for over an hour about women and LGBTQ skateboarders and how important it was to support and elevate those communities. Before even meeting me in person, she invited me to shoot Women’s Park and Street events at XGames in Austin in 2016. This was my first introduction to the female skate community and I felt like I had instantly gained a new family. I was the only photographer covering the women’s events at the time. I couldn’t understand why the other photographers didn’t find those events relevant.
If you could jump on a plane right now, where would you go and why?
I would first fly into Amsterdam and stay for a bit; it’s been seven years since the last time I visited. There’s this incredible tattoo artist in Amsterdam that I’ve been wanting to book an appointment with. I’m also eager to fly back to London! And Israel… I have an entire list.
Whose three people we should keep an eye out for in either skateboarding or photography?
My dear friend and immensely talented portrait photographer from London, Charlotte Hadden. Her photography inspires me more than she realises. And my California skate family, The Worble! If you haven’t heard of Man Ramp by now, you’re welcome. And also Jenny Sampson—she is one of the few photographers whose primary technique is collodion wet-plate photography. I met her in Seattle while out on assignment, and she has also dedicated her work to documenting and shooting portraits of skateboarders.
What’s the one shot you missed and still think about?
Ah shit, I still think about shooting photos of Tony Hawk. The Worble and I had two hours with Tony at his facility in Carlsbad, CA to get the shots we needed for Thrasher. Each trick was only done once or twice before we had to move on to the next item on the list. The ramp had a very narrow wooden ladder and because I use flash in my action shots, I spent a lot of time climbing up and down the ladder and resetting lights and moving into spots to get good photos. In between my set-ups, they skated and every so often I would see a trick they were doing as I was moving equipment around and lament that I wasn’t shooting right at that moment. I did, however, walk away with numerous shots.
What do you want to do more of when isolation is over?
All I want is the peace of mind that it’s safe to travel. I want to fly back to Cambodia and skate with the kids at Skateistan again. I want to apply for an artist visa and go back to London. I wanna give my Mom a hug. I really miss hugging and kissing. It’s honestly the little things that I want more of when this is all over. I miss my friends who are scattered all around the world, I just want to be able to see them safely. Right now the most important thing is to think of others first. We’re doing our part by staying home… as shitty as it can be sometimes.
What are you most excited for?
Dog park dates in LA with my rescue pup, Remi. I’m excited to give my friends endless hugs. I miss skate sessions with The Worble and shooting photos of my friends. I can’t wait to hold hands with women, get lost in kisses and fall in love again. I’m excited to go to concerts with photo passes and get tacos and margaritas from Rodeo on Sunset.
What’s a story that needs to be told?
In the last few weeks, we have seen at least three major news stories concerning the treatment of people of colour in our society at large. This, coupled with the fact that COVI-19 is disproportionately affecting those communities, speaks to a large problem we have here in our country. We need to be standing up for those marginalised people, much like skateboarding has done for women’s skaters in the past few years. I encourage everyone to learn more about the barriers people of colour in American face daily and evaluate their own actions and reactions to these situations. We’re all in this together and we need to come together!