The MISSBISH Photography Workshop | Zorah Olivia
Meet 24-year-old Los Angeles-based skateboarder and photographer Zorah Olivia. This BISH picked up her mom's Nikon FG 35mm when she was just a miniBISH at 3 years old. A couple of decades later, Olivia now rocks a Canon 5D MK III with 24-70mm, 15mm Fisheye, and 50mm lenses and a Godox AD 360II-C strobe when she's out capturing skateboarding. For portraits, she relies on medium format 120 film. "I use a Hasselblad 503CW with a 50mm," Olivia said. "My film of choice is Fuji Pro 400H. It always seems to capture color perfectly."
In our latest MISSBISH Photography Workshop series, Zorah Olivia talks getting the shot, Thrasher magazine, and elevating BISHes in action sports.
First and foremost, congrats on your recent showing at adidas Skateboarding’s Showcase X touring art exhibition that was curated by the one-and-only Shepard Fairey. Tell us how you felt after receiving word that your photos were selected to be a part of the show during Das Days, the brand’s city takeover event series in LA?
It was absolutely surreal. I remember getting the call and asking which photo they would like me to submit to the showcase. The adidas coordinator laughed and told me they wanted 30 images! After I hung up the phone, I started screaming and celebrating in the parking lot; it almost brought me to tears. It’s just an incredible honor and it was the biggest exhibition of my career thus far.
You’re clearly making a name for yourself because you were also featured in Thrasher. As both a female skateboarder and photographer, what did it mean to you to be among the pages of a primarily male-dominated publication?
I grew up studying the pages of Thrasher magazine, front cover to back cover. I would tear out photos from the magazine and tape them all over the walls of my childhood bedrooms, so to be published in Thrasher was a dream come true for me. It just reminded me that anything is possible, it just takes hard work and determination. I like feeling like one of the guys, too. It’s just nice to know that Thrasher has my back.
You tend to focus on photographing female skateboarders. How do you think your photography is helping to elevate them?
We mutually elevate each other. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their willingness to be vulnerable and allow me to photograph them! Social media is most definitely a major factor in visibility though. We’re both getting our names out there through Instagram. I just feel honored that my images have the ability to elevate them in any way.
You’ve been photographing the women’s division for Street League and ESPN’s X-Games for the last couple of years. Can you tell us how you landed that gig and what it’s like to shoot these major skateboarding events?
I was still attending college in Maryland at the time. I would spend days researching and sending emails out to skate companies in California about summer internships or job opportunities. The one and only email response I received was from Kim Woozy, founder of MAHFIA.TV, a global female action sports media production company.
Kim wrote me to tell me that she loved my work, requested a phone meeting, and invited me to shoot X-Games in Austin. That was all in her first email response! We had a great meeting over the phone and really hit it off. At X-Games, I was the only photographer out on the course shooting the women’s events. That was also a surreal moment for me, especially since I grew up watching X-Games on TV every summer. I bonded with so many of the skaters that summer in Austin! Street League followed shortly after, and I’ve been covering both events ever since.
You also mentor female action sports campers at Camp Woodward. What’s that experience like?
I’ve been going to Camp Woodward since I was 10-years-old, returning every year as a skateboard camper. Woodward was the one time of the year that I could skate with other women, and my fellow campers and counselors made a tremendous impact on my upbringing. I was a cabin counselor at Woodward for four years, and I started counseling the skater girls when I was 17-years-old — it’s the most rewarding experience. It’s funny, I run into my former campers at skate contests; they’re all so grown up now! I still act as a mentor these days as well and am currently teaching photography to Shepard Fairey’s oldest daughter, Vivienne. The kids matter the most. We have to support and be positive role models for the little ones.
Describe your photography style for us.
My one goal when photographing a subject is to capture their true self. It’s the break in seriousness that I strive for, getting a genuine laugh or smile out of someone. I find that with most skate photography, it’s only relatable to other skateboarders or people in the industry. I want my photos to be inviting and visually appealing to all viewers.
Your subjects are often in motion. How do you even get the shot?
Patience, knowledge of the trick the skater is attempting, timing, and flash! I prefer to shoot one image and get it right rather than shoot on burst mode and pick the best frame (although some tricks require sequences). It’s the best feeling in the world when the skater lands their trick and I get the photo simultaneously!
What’s one photography goal that you’re hoping to achieve before 2018 comes to a close?
I would love to have more photos published in articles for Thrasher, get invited on some international skate trips, sign with a photo agency, and create a steady freelance schedule that will pay the bills! I just want to be shooting every day.
If you could photograph anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
Ooo I have a list, how can I pick just one? I would love to shoot a portrait of Sally Mann, my absolute favorite photographer. I just think she and I would have lovely conversation and bond over our shared love for analog photography.
What advice do you have for other females interested in pursuing action sports photography or careers?
Never, ever give up. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Ask skaters if you can practice shooting with them, establish friendships with them, shoot every single day. Careers in photography are hard to come by, in general, these days, it really comes down to your own personal determination. If you truly believe that you can make it as a photographer, nothing can stop you but yourself!