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DavePolaroid 950Wide

As told to Nat Kassel. Polaroid self-portrait by Dave Chami. Taken from Slam issue 220.

I grew up in a little town called Pukekohe, which is about 40 minutes south of Auckland. It’s out in the country – a real small town with about 10,000 people. In 1990, this kid from Auckland moved to my school and he had a Tony Hawk ‘Claw’ board. I remember he did a boardslide on a piece of wood on the ground and I was stoked on it. Then I got a board and went skating with him heaps. We would take the bus to Auckland and skate this indoor skatepark called Graffiti Junction, and we’d skate Aotea Square and go to Cheapskates. I’ve been skating ever since.

I didn’t shoot photos until after I’d been skating for a long time. I went to film school after I finished high school and then I was working on movies before I even got into photography. Through the film industry, I was going to all these crazy locations around New Zealand and I decided to get a camera just to shoot photos while I was on set. Then I found a fisheye at a second-hand camera store. I started fucking around with that, trying to shoot photos of my friends skating. I was 25 or 26 when I got kind of tired of working on set. I was making heaps of money, but I wasn’t really enjoying it that much.

I eventually decided, Fuck all this, I’m going to go and live in Japan for a year and teach English. I spent the whole year just skating with my friends and I started trying to figure out how to shoot skate photos. I had [my first] camera and then I got some flashes; then I got a better camera so I could shoot sequences. Japan was perfect because camera gear was a lot cheaper. A lot of it is from there, and then processing film was a lot cheaper there too. I remember I had this little book and I’d write down every single thing that I did when I shot a photo – the settings, how far away I was, the point of focus. Then I’d develop the film and look at my notes and try to figure out how the fuck to do it. I became super obsessed. By the end of that year, I got something published in a Japanese magazine. The mag was at every corner store in Japan and it had this double-page spread of this photo that I’d shot.

At the beginning of 2003, I came to Australia to be a groomsman at a friend’s wedding and I never went back to New Zealand. Jake Frost had just taken over editing Slam and Sean Holland was at ASM and they were both super supportive of me trying to shoot stuff for them, so I just stayed here.

I don’t consider the film days to be ‘the glory days’. The thing you have to remember about that era is that there wasn’t any choice; film was the only way you could do it. When you were shooting 35mm, you had no way of checking anything, so you learned by fucking up. It was a fucking nightmare shooting film. We spent so much money. Shooting sequences on film was basically a waste of time after you’d shot five rolls because it would be $10 a roll for the film, then another $10 to develop it and you’d make maybe $100 for a page in a magazine. I remember earning a bit over $30,000 one year when I’d just started shooting skate photos and I probably spent $20,000 on film and processing.

Moving to the US and shooting for Transworld really happened for me because of [Mike] O’Meally. He used to come back to Sydney every summer and shoot tours for three months. This was in the early to mid-2000s when shit was popping off. It was pre-recession, and everyone had money and was travelling. He would come and be like, “I need spots.” He’d go through all the photos I’d shot and be like, “Where’s this spot?” He’d come to my house with a massive bag of film, and he’d have an account at the film lab the whole summer, and he would let me put all my film on his Transworld account. He was so fucking awesome. Then there were times where he’d be double booked and he’d get me to shoot whoever was in town. That turned into shooting whole trips, and then he introduced me to the editor at Transworld.

Eventually, I got offered a job at Transworld and my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 2008. That’s about when I bought a digital camera that I thought was good enough to shoot stills with. We were there for eight-and-a-half years and our son was born there. It was awesome being there with heaps of friends; the Bay Area is a cool part of The States. But then we were pretty keen to come back to Sydney and for our son to grow up here. Schooling and health insurance started to get a bit draining and we’ve always really loved it here in Sydney.

Now I work as the TM at adidas. Basically, I get to choose who’s on this team and then there’s a budget to do stuff with the guys, like trips and content creation and events. I’m just keeping all the guys stocked up and happy and busy and doing stuff. Then obviously I’m shooting photos and helping them get coverage and do their thing as sponsored skaters. It’s awesome, man. It’s a cool company to be involved with and it’s a good fit for me. I’m stoked and I feel lucky to have a job like this.

I got lucky timing-wise with a lot of things. When I came to Australia, there were two skate magazines that were published monthly, so even though I was coming up, there were places for the photos to go. Now if you’d just started shooting, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to get into it but then how can you make any money off it? That’s a lot harder, especially with everything that’s going to Instagram and print being less frequent. The most challenging thing now is, Where is it all going to go?

It almost surprises me, but I still get super excited about shooting stuff. It’s never gotten old for me. I spent such a long time doing it when I was in The States, but I’m still excited to do it and to be creative with it and do different things. I think skate-photography is in a really good place where people are super creative. It’s almost like skateboarding itself is right now, where people are drawing from older influences, as well as current stuff, and you’re getting a good mix of how things look.