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On Growing Up Skateboarding and Taking Badass Portraits With Alana Paterson

To label Alana Paterson simply as a photographer or a photojournalist would be doing her work a disservice. Part of what makes it so striking is her immersive approach to her subject matter, as in her year-long adventure documenting the female team members participating in a First Nations basketball tournament. Skwxwú7mesh Nation Basketball: Photographs by Alana Paterson is the name of her latest series, which will be exhibiting at the Polygon Gallery from April 13th until May 12th as part of the 2019 Capture Photography Festival.

Although Alana prefers to keep the focus on her subjects, it’s hard not to wonder about the person behind the camera. Fortunately, the Strathcona resident recently agreed to indulge us with an exchange on her personal experience with sports and discrimination, takeaways from her quality time spent with young female athletes today, and speculations on what the future holds for both…

What were you like as a teenage girl? I was a skateboarder so I wore big clothes and smoked a lot of weed. Ha. My mom says I was a busy person but my time was never really structured. I was just on my own program… “out the door”, as they say. I was into all sorts of things but skateboarding was the most definitive thing in my teenage years for sure. It was my sport and my community. It was when there was pretty much no such thing as a female skateboarder. I guess I decided that that didn’t matter, or maybe that’s what attracted me to it. Who knows? But I was pretty much obsessed with it…as all skateboarders are, for well over a decade.

“The environment I am most myself in doesn’t have much to do with photography. When I’m out shooting I’m just trying to be a sponge and listen and learn, which is a great thing to practise.”

This series deals with feminism and racism in sports. Can you tell me about a specific time that you encountered these issues, either during your time with the basketball team or (if you are comfortable discussing it) in your personal life? Well, last week I had an older gentleman I was asked to photograph say to me, while referencing my career as a photographer, “I suppose your partner has to support you financially.” Ha. I can’t tell you what the girls’ experiences are because that’s their story to tell, but I definitely faced my fair share of sexism growing up skateboarding. When I was growing up skating there were maybe two pro females, Jamie Reyes and Elissa Steamer. I saw pictures of them in magazines from time to time and what they were doing, and that was considered the limit of what a girl could do on a skateboard. Since then the level of skateboarding has exploded (that’s probably largely due to the internet and not having to rely on male dominated outlets for visibility). All of a sudden you can upload a video of yourself doing a nollie-heel in Canada and then Shelly in the UK sees it and she’s like, “Holy shit, there are girls that can nollie-heel?! I’m gonna try one.” Progress in female skateboarding over the last 5 years has been remarkable. They are progressing so much faster than ever before and it’s all about visibility, community, mentors, et cetera.

What preconceptions, ideas and intentions did you have entering this year-long project and how did those change over time? What was the most surprising thing that you encountered during this process? You always go in with a certain image or formula in your head and sometimes that doesn’t come together or you find something way better. My biggest surprise has been the reception of the work. It’s been really something else.

What sort of input did the subjects of your latest portrait series have in how they were portrayed? Well, Justine Sobell, the sports co-ordinator for the Squamish Nation, had seen the project I shot on women’s hockey and she asked if I would want to come down and do something similar. Obviously I was basically already in my car running reds on my way to go talk to her about it. What a beautiful idea and an amazing opportunity! We didn’t really have any idea where the images would end up. She just knew she was looking for new ways to keep the girls excited and engaged, and what better way than to show them back to themselves as athletes. When I started shooting with the girls we just talked about being in front of the camera, what that was like, and how they wanted to be seen. We decided on neutral expressions in order to look bad-ass and that was pretty much it. From a technical perspective, I chose to shoot flash on film hoping to mirror 80’s and 90’s sports imagery – a time when women and certainly indigenous women were not getting coverage in the sports world.

What sort of conversations do you hope to start with this latest series? What was the most valuable lesson that you took away from these young women? In all of the series I’ve shot on female engagement with sport it’s been about creating visibility first and foremost, but also about starting a conversation. Women make up 7% of sports people seen or heard, and only 4% of coverage is primarily female. That is despite the fact we know, beyond a doubt, that keeping girls engaged in sports benefits their mental and physical health and their self esteem. They are more likely to graduate college and be employed in male dominated fields. 90% of high level female executives were in engaged in sports as teenagers. If you are a female CEO or higher up then your chances of being in sports as a young person goes up to 96%. This is all common information, a light Google search away, and yet internationally as young women grow up the quality of their sports experiences sharply declines. The facilities are not as good as the boys and the playing times are probably not optimal while trying to squeeze them in among the boys’ schedules. The availability of good coaches may be lacking and the best coaches tend to go to the boys leagues that have more money. Equipment and uniforms aren’t funded for as many girls’ programs as boys’, so their ability to grow and enjoy the sport is diminished. We know what sports can do for young women and yet society drags its heels in recognizing and fighting for girls to be supported in their sport. Drop-out rates in teenage girls continues to be 6 times higher than that of their male counterparts. And that’s pretty much the conversation I’m hoping to start.

From shooting with this team of girls I learnt what community engagement on the ground looks like; the tireless efforts of the coaches and programmers who believe in the benefits of sport for these young women and what it looks like to keep young girls successfully engaged and feeling valued in their community and sport. Watching the younger ones show up from their first day shy and unsure to three months later full of self confidence, developing skills and athleticism….ah, I could go on forever…

What can we learn about you – Alana the woman, artist and journalist – from viewing these pictures of young female basketball players? I don’t know. I know its unavoidable for questions like this to be asked but I prefer to have it be about them and not me.

From skater culture, to politics, sports and nature – your body of work covers a wide range of subjects. What environment are you most interested in exploring next? (Or, what environment are you most yourself in, and why?) I’m really not sure where I’m headed next as far as a personal project. Right now I am wrapping up this show at the Polygon and going where the assignments take me. I am always looking for something to engage with though, and you just really never know when lightning will hit with the next idea or you’ll get an amazing invitation, like with this project. The environment I am most myself in doesn’t have much to do with photography. When I’m out shooting I’m just trying to be a sponge and listen and learn, which is a great thing to practise. By no means do I have it nailed, but that doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with me. I’m certainly not thinking about if I feel like myself or not. I’m thinking about how the person in front of me is feeling. My most true self is probably when I get to put my camera down for a couple days and enjoy some time with my partner and my dogs and my old boat, Cape Annie.

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