Benedetta Bassi has been documenting the Italian roller skate scene from day one. Her black & white photography gives her images an outstanding and intimate mood. Benedetta is not only interested in the skating but especially in the feminist aspects, the concept of inclusivity and sisterhood, and also watching women taking up space in skate parks. With this ongoing interview series we want to spotlight photographers that showcase the growing roller skate scene around the world and learn a bit more about the humans behind the lens.
Hi Benedetta, please introduce yourself.
I was born and raised in a small county of the Italian North East, a place that doesn’t sound familiar to most of the people, but that, between the 80s and early 00s, has been a very popular counter-cultural centre for the punk h/c and anarchic Italian scenes, as much as in Milan or Turin. It was during these years and in these places that I received my political and personal education. These influences determined how the rest of my life went, as well as my approach to the art of photography. In my photography profiles on the internet my bio is always one short line: “anarchist and feminist is all you need to know about me”.
When did you get started in photography?
I started to take pictures when I was 18 years old, but it wasn’t until a decade later that I came to understand which was my path in photography: reportage and documentation. I take pictures because I feel the urge to tell stories through my gaze. This is why I never thought of turning photography as a regular job. I’d like to keep being passionate about it, rather than being forced to tell stories that bore me or don’t interest me.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that if I’m asked to do a reportage I would do it for free (it also depends on who’s asking): that would mean not giving value to what I do and also not being professional to who pays the bills thanks to photography. What I mean to say is: I don’t want photography to become my main occupation. This way I’ll always be able to choose whom to work with.
How did you come in touch with the roller skate scene and what did draw you towards documenting it with your camera?
I came in contact with the roller skate scene back in 2015, through roller derby. Some of my former teammates were moving their first steps on ramps and I followed them with my skates (which hasn’t been successful) and a lot with my camera.
Among these athletes there was Irene (@doom_skates), who organized the very first CIB Italy meetup in a small indoor skatepark in Udine. I can declare I’ve been documenting the Italian roller skating scene since day one. What fascinates me the most about the roller skate scene is that is born, more or less consciously, on feminist instances, like the concept of inclusivity and of sisterhood, or the concept of reappropriation of spaces like skate parks. The CIB claim “I’m not here to flirt” is a great example that tells us a lot about the expectations of the skate community towards the female presence. Roller skates themselves are not just a tool for practice this discipline, but also a symbol of assertion. There’s still a lot of sexist prejudice around roller skates because they are still linked to the imagery of figure skating, so they are seen as something for “girls” or “ballerinas” in a way that doesn’t portray them as athletes (which they are!). To better understand what I mean I’ll tell you this: Italian figure skating clubs offer families the possibility to enroll male kids for free.
Quad skates are a tool of emancipation and self-determination because of the way they are used, which overturns stereotypes and constructs. The claim “skate like a girl” speaks more than a thousand words! Finally, what I like is the fact that this discipline was born around a disparaged tool until now. And it really gives little to no space to various mansplainers that can’t find ways to express themselves about something they don’t know – but they try anyway, but this is another story.
Tell us a bit about the Italian roller skate scene.
I think that the Italian roller skate scene has grown exponentially after that very first meetup in 2015. It was easy to predict. Every meetup the number of skaters were twice or three times as before. Many girls with different energies, but all very determined to progress and create this new discipline, together. The enthusiasm was tangible, contagious. When I look back at all the photographic material I produced, I can almost see the progress of each skater I got to know better, and it’s a beautiful thing. The tricks change, the imprecisions become certainties, every one of them developed their own, unique style.
There’s one who’s more technical, another girl who’s braver, another one who’s an acrobat, one who likes to jump only …
During these years many crews were born, like the Rolling Nutrias in Padova, the Rebelot Quad Squad in Milano/Monza Brianza, the Aerial Rollergirls in Bologna, the former Mezzepippe in Trieste, and many other crews who don’t have names .. yet. They all meet to skate together, as this is an individual sport that finds its maximum expression in groups of people that practice it together, in a collaborative and non-competitive way.
You’ve also been traveling around Europe. What were great skate trips you have done?
Doing a skate tour is like touring with your band: you travel, you arrive where you decided to arrive, you skate, you meet people, talk, party, sleep and leave again. Irene and I have been on three skate tours together.
The first one was Praga-Aarhus-Copenhagen, Malmö, which has probably been the most adventurous. We travelled only with public transportation, very slowly, and we’ve been hosted by people that we knew but also people we never seen before, friends of friends of friends, all of them welcomed us with open arms, what luck! In Copenhagen we slept on a squatted boat in the middle of the river that surrounds Christiania. Approaching the boat has been an experience … We only had some GPS coordinates and a small rowing boat! In Aarhus we met Caro (from Persistir Pilchas), with whom a beautiful friendship and many collabs were born! I like her very much as a skater, because she skates on anything and everything. If you want to skate you can’t do ramps only, you need to look at the street you take every day with different eyes and imagine all the things you could do with that obstacle, metal pipe or set of stairs.
Those are the hardest pictures for me, because you never get to have a clean composition, but they are also the pictures that satisfy me the most, once I understood how to deal with space and composition.
The second tour Serena/Seitan (a roller skater from Rome) joined us. We traveled through many cities of Austria and Czech Republic by car, looking for weird/unknown skateparks. We were meant to go to Slovakia too, but we had to interrupt the trip because I had an accident. Luckily, we were just two days away from the end of our trip!
The third time Irene and I went back to Prague for a CIB Czech Republic meetup and it has been amazing, because we’ve seen spots that we would have never found on our own, also thanks to our host Kamila (@cosmicpayback). We met lots of great people and spent a lot of time together, so it’s been easy to familiarize ourselves with places and skaters.
Last year I went to Rome alone, to meet Serena and we travelled through many spots in many neighborhoods of the city. The most suggestive place was definitely the skatepark behind the Colosseum, which was not open yet, although it was ready to be skated (bureaucratic problems, most likely).
We took a bumpy road and then climbed over the fence to enter. We had to be ready to run, in case the security showed up … it’s been fun! And a great gratification that we managed to do it! By the way, that park is now open, in case you’re wondering.
Do you always have a concept when you are shooting?
I do. My goal is to document the roller skating community. What people do, how they relate to each other and to the discipline. The moments on ramps or obstacles, and the resting ones. [The goal is] trying to explain through pictures what makes these people a community.
The sport is a central element, obviously, but at the same time it’s just a part of a whole, and it won’t exist without all the other parts. I see clearly before my eyes that something is growing, and it will leave a mark, and I’m glad I’m part of it while it’s happening, and not 20 years later. It’s how they say, being in the right place at the right time. Mine is not really a sport photography work, but reportage. It’s with this approach in mind that I take pictures.
What are you looking for in a photo? What makes the perfect shot?
I sure look for composition. I would be a liar telling you I’m not interested to it, but if I won’t pick the most rational ones at the end, that’s another story. I’m a very messy person, but I struggle to accept that things are not in the right place in my photographs. I really put a strong effort during editing because I understand that the emotional factor in some pictures overtakes the composition rules. If there’s emotion and composition, then boom! I won. In any case the editor should be someone else, because the emotional link between you and some pictures doesn’t let you be objective.
You shoot a lot in black and white. What is it about b/w-photography that you love?
As I was writing earlier, my visual imprinting is born in self-published, handmade music zines from the 90s. The pictures were all black and white because the zines were photocopied, probably not a technical choice of whoever took them, but surely functional to the distribution. Even if there are lots of other possibilities today, I guess my love for monochrome comes from there. You choose how to deal with a project from its beginning and you don’t look back, so you can be consistent in your chosen language.
My language is black and white and when I shoot, I see and think of the picture already in black and white; I don’t change it because of my needs, I think about it before shooting.
I’m slowly trying to re-educate myself towards colors, mainly because the skate world is colorful, especially the locations. So when a roller skater disappears in a sea of grey I just delete the picture, and that’s it.
I do keep pictures for myself, but colored pictures will not be included in my final project which will, soon or later, see the light. Maybe they will be part of something else.
Do you have a favorite shot you would like to see printed in a magazine?
There are pictures I’m really attached to and I’m proud to have taken, but I have so much material that none of them can live on its own. If I had to choose one though, it would be Caro jumping in a spot diy in Malmö (the TBS).
Aside from skating, you also shoot punk/hc concerts. Why are action and movement filled scenes of your passion?
After many years shooting bands during live concerts I really was bored. Finally, I turned the camera towards the crowd, towards what was happening in front of the stage and I understood that the concert was there for me. Something obvious maybe, but it opened my head. The energy, the sweat, the power of pogo, the engagement of the audience and I was in there … being able to return these energies really got me.
What is the most challenging thing about shooting skaters in motion?
There are two levels to merge, the one of the skater and the photographer’s one.
Usually skaters try to land a trick, and they try many times before succeeding. It can be a matter of hours. Once they land it, they want it clean and perfect in all its movements.
You need to be fast enough to understand when it’s landed and be able to get that exact moment. As a photographer, once you get this you need to deal with composition, to give value to their movements, so in a certain way you study the frame and try to put everything together in one shot, hoping that the action will happen exactly where you imagined it. But things won’t always go the way you wanted. Some things are really cool but really hard to represent. You only have one frame to understand what they are doing, but the trick is complex, made of several parts that can’t find their place in a single picture. You change the framing to enhance the trick as much as possible, but often it doesn’t work. In those specific cases a video would work much better in terms of satisfaction.
Any plans ahead with roller skating photography?
I would like to edit my whole work about the roller skating scene and make a photographic book. I’m currently experimenting a lot with cyanotype, which is very ideal for printing black and white. Even if there are imperfections, I like the fact that I can follow the whole process from the beginning to the end. Before doing so, I would like to gather some more material that I feel is missing; the pandemic surely hasn’t helped, but I hope to recover.