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Behind The Lens With Skate Photographer Atiba Jefferson    

Behind The Lens With Skate Photographer Atiba Jefferson

Art by FISK

By Justin Tejada

The role of the photographer in skateboarding is different than in more mainstream sports like baseball. In baseball, a base hit looks like a base hit. In skateboarding, no two kickflips look the same. The style of a trick is as important as the feat itself. And while that style is determined by the way a skater positions their hands or the ease with which they ride, it also depends on how the photographer documents it—the lens they use, the angle they choose, and the eye they have.

Few photographers capture those moments better than Atiba Jefferson. Atiba has been behind the lens for epic moments from everyone from Eric Koston and Tony Hawk to Paul Rodriguez and Tyshawn Jones. 

He has also shot the biggest names in basketball and music, including Pharell and the late Kobe Bryant, with whom he developed a close relationship. What sets Atiba’s work apart is the honesty and connection that comes through in his images. He has a unique eye and an easy rapport with his subjects, which combine to capture one-of-a-kind moments.

This February, The Local Optimist Word of the Month is “Creativity.” February is also Black History Month. We wanted to combine those two themes and profile Black creatives who have not only changed the game, they’ve made it better. Atiba fits that description to a T.

What are your earliest memories of skateboarding?

I was at a record store [in Colorado] with my mom, and there was a demo across the street. It was an H Street demo, with Matt Hensley and Ron Allen. Once I saw it live, I thought, "That’s sick, that is definitely something that I want to be a part of." Right after, my twin brother and I bought the first skateboard that we shared.  Then it became a part of me, and there’s been no turning back ever since. 

What drew you in? 

I think I liked skating because it was all on me. It was up to me to figure this out, not other people. You can't really describe it. You just feel it. I loved the culture, the music, the art, the graphics, the magazines. My walls were plastered with Thrashers as soon as I could get my first copy. 

How did you start shooting photos of skating?

I took a high school class in photography. It was one of those things where when I did that, I fell in love, just like skating. Of course, if skating is something that I am doing, I am going to point my camera at the closest subject matter. 

How did you end up taking skate photos for magazines like Transworld?

Selema Masekela was working at Transworld [publisher of Transworld Skateboarding magazine], and I was working at a skate shop. He would hit me up about subscription stuff, so I had the phone number of Transworld, and I would call it and say, "Is [legendary skate photographer] Grant Brittain there?" He wouldn't pick up all the time, but sometimes he would. I would send him photos, and he would critique me. He was really nice like that. Then I visited Transworld [in California]. It was my first time flying and second time leaving the state of Colorado. I just fell in love with red curbs, blue skies, and palm trees in January, when I was used to snow. I thought, "This is what I want to do. This is where I want to go." 

What was your experience like as a Black skater? Did it feel like being in a subgroup within a subgroup?

Growing up, Colorado was a predominantly white place, but in our skate scene, the best skater was Black. And there were other Black skaters, Latinx skaters. It was definitely majority white, but it wasn't strictly white. I can't really say there was one racist moment in skateboarding that I have ever had. There were racist skinheads at our punk rock shows, but in our scene, no. That was not tolerated. 

What do you think is special about skateboarding that allows that kind of respect to flourish?

Skateboarding has always been open-minded people, and that is the beauty of it. Being a skater, you are always the underdog. You are hated by the law. You are hated by jocks. It just brings unity because when you have that common bond, you don't worry about color, sex, gender, any of that.  You just want to talk about the love of this thing you have. 

What is it like for you to see more Black kids get into skating?

I think the hood opened its mind to it. Thanks to people like Kareem [Campbell appearing in the video game] Tony Hawk Pro Skater, a movie like Street Dreams, Terry Kennedy having a show on BET. That planted the seed for people. “No, it’s not just a white boy thing. Anyone can do it." You see all walks of life skating, and that is the beauty of it. It really is like the most colorblind thing you can do.

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

How did the idea of the Thrasher cover you did with portraits of Black skaters come about?

They have always wanted to do an issue like that, and then they said, "The time is now.” They had already played with a portrait idea, and I tweaked it to my own style. It is the biggest honor I have ever had. For someone who has been lucky to have shot over 100 covers in skateboarding, that is my favorite one. I didn't think it would have that much impact, to be honest, and to see the impact was great. There are so many more people that I would have loved to have shot for that. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I was not able to. 

How did you get into shooting basketball?  

Same thing as skating. I was just a fan, and I was bringing my camera to the games. I had contact with some people in the NBA, and they put me in touch with Andy Bernstein, the Laker and Clipper team photographer. At the same time, Herb George, the art director for Slam, knew my work from skating, which led to me shooting for Slam.

How does your work in one field impact the other? 

I take my creativity from one and bring it to the other. That is what I like to do because it gives me a different look. I like to push myself and try new things and experiment creatively. I take a fisheye from skateboarding and bring it into basketball. I bring high-speed syncing from basketball into skating. 

Photo by Atiba Jefferson

What was your relationship like with Kobe Bryant? Were there things that you have learned from him that impacted your process?

My relationship with Kobe was close.  We were coming up at the same time. I started working with the Lakers when the Staples Center opened. I shot him probably 10 or 12 times over the years. I shot him and Gigi, and I shot him a couple of months before he passed. I saw him win every championship. He was always great. He would always take time to say hello. 

He was so intense and had such a heavy work ethic. When I shot him and Gigi and saw him coaching the girls, it really clicked what Mamba Mentality was. He was supportive and calm, but he wanted to work really hard.  It is funny because I brought the skater Sean Malto to the shoot, and Sean said, "Kobe, do you do this once a week, twice a week?" Kobe said, "This isn't a fucking game. We do this every day." That was Kobe. The biggest gift he gave us was this ethic of, "Work hard, be positive, try and be your best. You don't have to win every single thing, but if you are trying 100%, that's that Mamba Mentality." That is a huge legacy.

Who are some of the other creative influences for you?

Spike Jonze will always be a huge influence for me. Obviously, there’s the greats,  Grant Brittain, Bryce Kanights, Glen E. Freidman. You can't deny those photographers’ amazing ability to capture. But Spike, to me, has so much creativity. A lot of us are documenters. Our photos are good because of the subject. Spike’s are great because of the creativity that goes into them, plus the subject. 

How have you been managing through this pandemic? What have you been doing to keep your positive mental attitude going? 

There is no other choice but to stay positive. I am really lucky because skateboarding kept going, and I was able to shoot skating when commercial stuff wasn't happening. I never took life for granted; I always floored it. So I can't be upset because I went to every show, went to every event, took every job. Growing up poor and never thinking this would happen anyway, how can I complain?

What other projects do you have coming up?

I want to work on a book idea with some portraits. I am working on putting out my first solo music. But I feel lucky because every time I want to start working on a personal project, things get busy. I have something really cool, but I don't want to talk about it yet, but it is way different than anything I have ever done. I’m super stoked on that and to see where that takes me. 

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.