Photographer Mike Belleme has been skateboarding since he was 12 years old. When he was in high school, he says, he didn’t care about girls or partying. All he wanted to do was skate.
It’s one of the reasons he got into photography. With dreams of going pro, he and his friends needed to shoot pictures of each other pulling off impressive tricks.
Years later, when he was committed to making it as a photojournalist and commercial photographer, a colleague urged him to start documenting the lives of the skaters he hung out with.
“People often say to shoot what you know. My approach for most projects is to shoot what I want to know or am interested in learning more about,” says Belleme, 27. “But skateboarding is definitely what I know.”
He was so caught up in the daily grind of skating that the idea to use it as the subject of a long-term documentary project didn’t occur to him until it was suggested in 2009.
Since then, he has been trying to capture the essence of street skating and what he sees as a disappearing subculture. He says it’s a far cry from what’s typically portrayed on television and in glossy magazines.
“I don’t think your average skate action shot has a lot to say about what it means to be a skater,” Belleme says.
Instead he focuses on the sense of camaraderie that develops in the tight-knit community and the range of emotions skaters go through. He hopes his approach helps people - himself included - understand more about what drives them to push the limits.
Belleme says unlike most athletes, street skaters don’t tend to take contests very seriously. They place more value on the videos they produce with their friends.
To them the sport is about urban exploration and creatively using obstacles found in the architectural landscape. But most cities have laws that restrict or prohibit street skating.
In Belleme’s hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, skaters recently pleaded with city council members to lift the ban on skateboarding downtown as a means of transportation.
The proposal was voted down 4-3. As a result, skating has increasingly been pushed to the outskirts of town.
“Much of what we do takes place hidden away,” Belleme says. “Even if it’s in plain sight, passers-by could never understand the dynamics of what is happening in front of them.”
Since skateboarding on city streets would lead to hassles or fines, a group of skaters in Asheville has transformed an abandoned concrete building foundation into its own mecca.
The site, with the freedom it allows, appeals to the skaters more than the local skate park, and Belleme says they have permission from the owner of the property to be there. They take pride in maintaining the spot and building it up from scratch.
“I think we really enjoy the experience of digging around in rubble and finding the resources to make a ramp or ledge,” he says. “It's almost always from found objects.”
Belleme has no plans to stop shooting the skate scene he grew up with any time soon. He has known some of the people in his photographs for more than half his life.
One of the most memorable moments since starting the project came when he and his friends were skating at a loading dock in Asheville.
A woman stuck her head out of her apartment window and threatened to call the cops. She eventually came down to confront them.
“But after talking for a while she totally let her guard down and just hung out with us and cheered us on,” Belleme says. “It was amazing to see, because that so rarely happens.”
- Brett Roegiers, CNN