“Tuukka was a unanimous choice to join Kingpin. His work for Finnish magazine Numero made all the others look foolish by comparison, and his still life photography is still displayed in posh locations across Scandinavia. We have other photographers who may be better at snatched moments or suggested intimacies, but none who are as rounded in their ability as Deeli. When it comes to skateboarding photography, he is the finished article. He never misses. He never misses“.– Niall Neeson – Kingpin Mag Editor
My name is Tuukka Kaila, but most people call me Deeli. I never quite know how to introduce myself.
How long have you been a photographer?
I started taking photos when I was about ten, when my dad let me use his OM-1. I started studying photography in 95. But if you mean when did photography become a profession that pays my rent, I guess sometime at the end of the 90’s.
How did you get into skate photography?
By accident, really. As a skater, photos of skating were always around me, but I really got more serious about photography through studying printmaking and then switching onto photos. At the time, I didn’t really think much of skate photography; I was convinced that skate photos didn’t have any artistic merit, they all looked the same and they had no meaning beyond looking nice. I hated the fisheye, I hated harsh lighting, I thought the grainy contrasty BW was a thing of the past that had been done to death by photo journalists and various snappers from the 50’s on and had nothing more to give to me.
My formal education, very much in the conceptualist, postmodernist vein, told me that what mattered was the meaning, not the aesthetic. You know, pictures of bits of text or some house where someone or other did great things some time, perhaps a series of buckets used to transport the blood of these or those victims, hundreds of them, all shot in the exact same way – that sort of thing. Skate photos, to me, were all about the aesthetic, no meaning behind the surface.
Then in 98 a friend of mine approached me with the idea of starting a skate magazine he wanted to call Numero and asked me to be part of it. In the beginning, the understanding was that I wouldn’t really be shooting skating, but basically that’s what photographers working in skate mags do, so in a couple of years I was pretty deep into skate photography. I realized it was actually far from easy, and looking at skate photos closer, I started having doubts about my doubts regarding the artistic side of it. I had to admit that there are the innovators and visionaries on this field just like on any other field. There has been a first skate photo ever taken with a fisheye, for example. It’s the vast number of imitators and followers and the skate media’s need for vast quantities of photos that might sometimes blur these facts a bit, but the few guys showing the way remain geniuses.
As my friend drifted away from skate photography, I got sucked in deeper and deeper, spending all the money I made from arts grants and commissions on my gear that was only meant to improve my skate photography. I’m yet to kick the habit, but at least these days the money I put into the gear comes from skate photography.
Why did this image you have submitted inspire you so much to take up photography? What effect did it have on you?
What inspired me to take up photography more than anything else, were my friends around me with cameras and their photos of each other. Later on, I got really into the theory side of photography, which I could happily spend a life time studying and trying to understand. The fact that the moment depicted in a photograph is gone and will never return is one of the single most powerful aspects of the medium. There’s no undo, there’s no second chance, that was it.
The photo above is taken by Annelies Strba, a Swiss photographer, and the people shown in it are from her immediate family. I think her work has had a huge effect on what I like in photos and how I look at photography as a whole. I saw an exhibition of her work in the Photographers Gallery in the late 90’s sometime – it was a three slide projector – installation set to a distant beating of drums on the background. She’s got a book out with these photos, but it’s long sold out. When you google her name, you get images from this other, newer book that she’s done, which is something completely different.
So in a way, the time that I sat there and saw these photos is gone just like the moments in the photos. Apart from a couple of images I cut out of the brochure and made into C-tape covers, I have nothing but my memory to refer to as far as these photos. This keeps reminding me of the relationship that photographs bear to reality. What’s gone is gone and it won’t come back. Photos, like memories, are representations of the lived moments, seen through our personal filters and interpreted to suit our personal needs. No amount of photographs will give me a chance to relive those moment.
Yet here I am, desperately recording slices of time in order to somehow preserve them. And you know what I’ve realized? There are a few moments in my life where I’ve wished I could take a photo to remember them but for one reason or another haven’t. These are the moments I remember best and miss the most.
What were the best and worst bits of advice anyone gave you in regards to photography?
Somehow the idea that we’d change all the paintings ever done depicting Jesus to a single photograph of him illustrates the power of the medium. And at the same time the responsibility of the photographer. I try to keep that in mind. As for the worst advice, I can’t remember getting any.
Have you ever felt bad about taking a photo? If so, which one?
I don’t really take photos I’d feel bad about taking. Photography can be very exploitative, but I hardly ever like a photo that doesn’t seem to have mutual respect between the photographer and the subject.
Tell us about your favourite skate shot that you have selected.
What obviously makes this photo what it is, is Harri Puupponen’s crazy position. Apart from that, I like the simplicity of it. There aren’t really any distractions that jump at me from the frame, I’m free to concentrate on the skater.
We shot it in 2003, he hadn’t been out street skating for a while and had no idea what he wanted to skate. Another friend, Kemppu, who was the art director of Numero magazine at the time, said he had a spot in mind that Harri might like.
When we got there, he knew instantly he could do something great with it, just as much as I knew I could make it look like something I’d really enjoy as a photo. We shot it for his interview in Kingpin at a time, when I didn’t work for them full time yet. They made it a cover instead and I bought another flash with the cash.
What’s the relationship like between a photographer and filmer?
Depends on the people involved, but in general I get along with filmers really well. Hopefully filmers feel the same way about me. Most filmers tend to give me the space I need and I do my best to return the favour. There’s always more than one angle.
What main advice would you give to upcoming skate photographers?
It’s not about your photo, it’s not about you, it’s about the skater and it’s about the skating. In the end, we need the skaters a whole lot more than they need us.
Are there ways of getting better/free equipment as you continue to grow or do you have to fund everything yourself?
If there is a way, I’ve missed it completely.
Please tell us about the non skate shot you have submitted and the story behind it.
I took this on a lazy afternoon sometime in 99, I think. It’s from Tallinn, Estonia. The leg on the left belongs to my future wife at the time, the smoker is her flat mate back then. Apart from having that really personal nostalgic aspect to it, I think it kind of captures that feeling of when you’re not in a hurry anywhere, there’s nothing in particular you need or even want to do.
It might have meaning just for me cause I was there and it’s my life, but I’d like to think that it serves a purpose as depicting a more general experience of a time in your life, when responsibilities haven’t caught up, when you have all the time in the world and there’s nothing to make you feel guilty about sitting on a couch drinking coffee all day and watching life go by.
Is the work of a skate photographer well paid? Do you get by in life with this income alone?
I consider myself extremely lucky to have the job I have. There aren’t many full time jobs around for skate photographers, and usually there’s a great photographer sitting on every seat available already. The life a freelance skate photographer is a constant struggle in most cases. To be able to live off this alone is amazing. Putting in the hours skate photographers do, many of us could be paid a lot more in other fields of photography. So I’d like to think that whoever remains in the game, is in it for other reasons.
Does music ever inspire your photography? What music artists can you not leave for a tour without?
I love music, but it has little to do with my photography. I hardly ever take any music on trips, I guess because I never invested in an mp3 player. There’s always someone with speakers though, so it’s a nice opportunity to hear something new.
If you were to buy a pocket snapper for capturing skating on a budget to get going, which camera would you suggest?
Point and shoots are great for a lot of things, but I wouldn’t recommend them for skate photography. Get a cheap second hand SLR instead.
Would you recommend digital or film?
Both have their strong points.
What are the benefits of using film or digital?
Generally, film has the potential of being used at whatever size you want, whereas the final size of a digital photo is determined by the initial file size. You can’t stick a memory card in an enlarger. You might not care at the time, but when you get asked to do an exhibition one day and your best photos are stamp size jpegs you’re fucked.
Film, at the moment still, has better colour and tonal range and it can cope better with detail in both the bright and dark ends of the spectrum. I’ve also learned to love the film grain I used to hate. Digital is quick and convenient, not to mention being virtually free after the initial investment, and you know instantly whether you got the photo or not. It’s also very environment friendly compared to all the nasty chemicals and toxic metals that are involved in using film.
What kit do you use?
Medium format with film and the occasional toy camera for skate stills, digi for skate sequences, then 5×4 film and a point and shoot 35mm film for lots of other things. There’s a stupid amount of flashes and batteries involved with the skate stills.
Do you have a website for your photography?
A freelance photographer without a website is basically an unemployed photographer. As I’m securely employed at the moment, though, I still haven’t got my act together on the website department.
You can find Deeli’s photography skills monthly at the wonderful Kingpin Magazine