CHAMP MAGAZINE
ISSUE #8

MIKE O'MEALLY
Interview
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Photography and skating both require supreme skills, and the two together is certainly not to be underestimated. It’s about pushing ultimate limits, simultaneously with yourself and encouraging your subjects to do the same. Its timing, opportunity and trust.

Legendary skateboard photographer Mike O’Meally has raised the bar, both in his lens and in the subjects he shoots. Many of his images are iconic and memorable due to his determination and dedication, of true passion and skill.

Australian-born and now LA- based, and a skater himself, Mike started shooting friends and soon began editing and freelancing for skate magazines. Photographing the top Australian skaters, and gaining attention for his intuitive and genuine approach. Consistently producing challenging and impressive images, Mike has redefined the whole genre. Last year, China Heights Gallery in Sydney held an exhibition celebrating Mike’s photography spanning the course of 20 years.

Now, as Senior Photographer of Transworld, he’s more often travelling and continuing to produce remarkable images. We caught up with Mike on his inspirations, trusting your instincts and on Australia producing the worlds top skaters.

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J: You began from capturing your lifestyle of skate, friends and Australia.
How did you come into possession of your first camera, and what was it?

M: I bought my first camera out of the Trading Post in Sydney. It was an Olympus OM-1n. I had that for about a year and then got my first Nikon - an FM2 in 1992. I saved up some pocket money and bought from a guy who was selling it out of the paper. Still going strong to this day, the Nikon. The Olympus is in storage somewhere, but still a nice little thing too. The FM2 is a beast. Probably will have that forever.

J: When did you feel photography could / was becoming a career?
M: It really wasn’t until the last 10 years, when I had a steady job at a magazine and was able to get some extra work on the side of that. Before that, it still felt like I was ripping off the system. It still does in a lot of ways. It’s never really felt like a ‘real’ job, or even a job for that matter, so to call it
a career seems like such a blessing at this point. I try not to worry too much about that kind of thing, but it’s only natural to wonder if you are ever going to grow out of it. Ask me again in another 10 years!

J: Now based in LA, how has this influenced your lifestyle & photography - compared to Australia?

M: Well certainly a lot more driving! I don’t know if it’s influenced my lifestyle so much as - it’s just different in some ways. I don’t go to the beach as much in LA unfortunately, but obviously the Mexican food is unbeat- able here. As far as my photography, I tend to shoot a lot more natural light, as the light here is so omnipres- ent, but I think where you live is just that. I try to travel as much as possible, so I don’t think living here is too influential on that, but who knows? Maybe I am just
too close and I can’t see it. Either way, LA is a very decent place to live - as well as shoot, so I am happy in both places. Australia is my island home, it’s waiting for me…

J: As a photographer you hold a responsibility to decide how to capture that person or action. Photography can be manipulative to an advantage or disadvan- tage too. What are the main challenges you feel you face in justifying the capture, and subject?

C: A good expression in Australia is “keep the bastards honest” - I think you can apply that to almost anything, including myself as a photographer. In skateboarding, if you fake it, it usually comes out in
the wash pretty quickly, so it does not pay to cut corners to try to get a head. I think with most things, especially photography - the same rule applies. Having said that, being creative always involves bending, massaging or blurring the truth - so I guess I would say - it’s an ongoing process of evaluating reality and deciding how you want to portray what you see. If you are happy with what you are doing, that usually comes through in your work. It really comes down to the viewing audience to decide after that whether you have shot justly, and responsibly. “Shoot straight and love your subject” those are good words to be guided by.

J: Your photography is based on a hit-and-miss moment, relying on your reflex and intuition. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way, that you wish you knew when you started?

M: You can never be too prepared! The one you least expect is always the best one, and pay close attention! Honestly, I think knowing less is sometimes more advantageous. When you know what can go wrong, it often does. If you are blissfully unaware, sometimes that is better. Reflex and intuition are either there or they are not, thats really the biggest lesson. Trust your instincts. Everything else is just homework and doing the dishes. Maintenance.

J: Of course times change, how do you feel the scene has grown or changed? Is it easier to know who’s onto the next thing, as there’s always the risk of transparency and things not being exciting anymore..

M:Yes that is true, things are more transparent now, but that does not necessarily mean they are less exciting. There are always new talents arriving on the scene, and that is exciting. I think to not be excited by that would be the worst most jaded feeling. But there is also a lot of shit, which is more apparent. So what to do? Try to focus on the good stuff I suppose. As far as scenes, the scene in Australia now seems to be growing only better and bigger and stronger. Skaters from OZ are world class, and that’s not being biased. Look at the last year. Chima Ferguson has a shoe on Vans, Dane Burman is gnarly as f*#k, there are so many Australian guys shining and so many people travel to Australia to get a taste. Change is growth, but it also hurts!

J: There are photos which people instantly recognise and affiliate with the photographer who captured it. I remember asking Rene Burri about his renowned portrait of Che Guevara and he insisted it was all opportunity. For you, what makes an iconic photo?

M: I suppose it could be a combination of subject, location, timing and “zeitgeist” but I think I really don’t know exactly what makes an iconic photo, until I see one. It’s certainly something I hold dear, but I agree with Burri that without the opportunity, and also chance and risk - a photo could easily slide
into the generic rather than iconic status. So for me I think certainly opportunity, but also the possibility that one moment too soon or late and that photo would not exist. That’s what makes an iconic photo.

J: How do you stay challenged when mixing it up with photography and perspective?
M: I like to collect photo books, go to shows, collect magazines - obviously now you can see everything on the internet which is a blessing and a curse at the same time. I try to find inspiration and ideas in the work I like of the masters. But the best way to challenge yourself is to keep going and try new things. Be it a new subject, a new location, some new gear, or any number of things, staying challenged is often the challenge in itself.

J: Is there anyone that’s been a big inspiration for you? Photography-wise, or someone influential for you?

M: There are many. Skate photographers from the late 80’s and early 90’s: Daniel Harold Sturt, Gabe Morford, Tobin Yelland, Spike Jonez, Grant Brittain. Those guys were and still are THE inspiration. Many others too. Photographers outside of the skate world, Dianne Arbus, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, HCB, James Nachtwey, Don McCullin, Eugene Richards, Robert Frank, so many….

J:. What are your main music influences?
M: Many and varied but I like Factory Records era: Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Joy Division.. a lot of British classics, but also every time I go on a roadtrip with a new crew, I hear something new that I like. Yellowman from Jamaica always puts a smile on the face. Dub and reggae, I am a musical novice, but I like the discovery, so I’m in no rush!

J: Film vs Digital:
M: Bacon vs Eggs...? Yummy!

J: As a former editor yourself, (Slam Mag!) how do you feel about photography online. Is it as justified as if it were in Print?

M: Print is always the end goal. Whether it be in a magazine, or on a wall in a gallery... Something you can touch is always nicer than tapping a keyboard. But photos do look nice and sharp online, they just seem to disappear faster! These are the questions of our era.

J: Living in LA, You’re now the proud father of a beautiful baby boy. Will you teach him to skate, and introduce him to photography?
M: My son has naturally picked up the skateboard by default as it is just another thing around laying around the house. But he’s nearly three now, and he is a bit of a stuntman already. He surprises me daily. He has had a go at the camera too! He is a lot if fun, as long as he is enjoying what he does, I will be happy, but imagine if he steals all my tricks and gets really good at both? I would be so proud.

J:Thanks Mike - It’s been a pleasure.