Andy Day (Kiell) is one of the reasons why parkour has become so popular worldwide. As a photographer he accompanied the scene early on, not only mirroring parkour as a discipline but also shaping it to some degree. The interview you will find below is divided into blocks of questions each with a different thematic focus. As Andy is also one of the voices not affraid to point out developments he finds problematic, topics in this interview will also highlight aspects of the commercialisation of parkour or thoughts on the visual representation of the discipline in general.
A – The perfect picture
The image and the video as a medium are probably the most dominant factors in spreading parkour world-wide.
- What makes a “good” parkour related picture to you? What constitutes a good picture in terms of parkour movement (or in general)?
framing, the angle of the shot, lights, background, the athlete, the movement
Andy: I think for me a good photograph has got to be about the space as much as it is about the athlete. The thing that interests me about parkour is the relationship between the body and the architecture, which perhaps explains why I’m not that interested in seeing videos in gyms or people tumbling across flat terrain. A shot of someone moving, isolated from their surroundings, is just that – a body, without context, without a dialogue with the world. When it is placed in context, the body enters into a physical relationship with the space that, as a result, changes that space, as well as being changed by it. That’s what interests me about parkour; space is fascinating – it shapes us, and, in turn, we shape it. In order to simply exist, we take up space and through our actions we turn a space into a place.
Secondly, I guess, is a sense of authenticity. If a shot feels like it exists for the sake of being a photograph, or is in thrall with the personality of the athlete rather than that athlete’s conversation with the environment, I lose interest. Trying to verbalise exactly how this works is quite tricky, but I think anyone who knows parkour has a sense of what I’m talking about here. There are plenty of shots in my catalogue that don’t really achieve this authentic feel and I don’t value them anywhere near as much as the others.
Sorry to answer your question in such abstract terms! All of the more practical elements really are secondary – it can be blurry, out of focus, poorly lit and with a weak body posture. But if it nails a sense of exploration of a space and conveys a feeling of authenticity, these things don’t really matter.
- What do you look for when taking pictures? Do you even look for something or is it a more spontaneous process? Maybe both?
Andy: It’s certainly both. Finding a picture is always a collaboration, to the extent that you could describe many of my photographs as being a self portrait on behalf of the athlete. For example, the picture of Thomas that I took jumping in India that many people might be familiar with: Thomas suggested we go to the location to explore. He led the climb and then found the jump, and even suggested where I could take the photograph from. And even if you forget the fact that he put 10 years of training into doing that jump, he did most of the hard work. All I did was set the camera up and push the button.
That said, I’m very much involved with the exploration of a place when I’m in search of new photographs. It’s something that I’ve written about extensively recently in relation to my most recent project in former Yugoslavia. I bring my own parkour vision and movement to the discovery of a place, and the camera is part of that process.
- What is the most memorable picture you ever took, and what makes it so special?
Andy: The shot I previously mentioned is certainly up there. Thomas is a very good friend of mine and I value my time spent with him because regularly he takes me out of my comfort zone, pushing me to be more than I am. The whole trip was remarkable – the hospitality of our hosts, the motorbikes, the country, the road. And Hampi. It is an amazing place simply for its landscape, never mind the temples and rice paddies.
Other than that, possibly a shot of Boki I took during the recent project in former Yugoslavia. For me, Boki is one of those people that epitomises parkour, not just in the way that he moves and trains, but in every aspect of his being. The parkour community of Croatia and Serbia is phenomenal, and in many ways they are one of the most important collectives in the world in the way that they work together, across borders, ignoring ethnic and national divisions that are centuries old. They don’t think that what they do collectively is particularly special or different, and that’s half the beauty of it: they just get on with it, training, travelling and exploring together. That’s part of what this photograph represents, I guess. In my mind it sits alongside another photograph from that project, of Ficho, a young guy from Rijeka in Croatia, who will hopefully have opportunity to build on the hard work of people like Boki and Mirko and so many others in Zagreb, Belgrade and beyond.
- Can you recommend any other parkour related photographers / movement photographers whose work you enjoy? (maybe with links to their portfolio sites?)
Andy: Crucial to developing my understanding of how I work and what I do is the writing and photography of Brad Garrett. It’s not just his images that I find important, but the way he perceives the city and works tirelessly to convey that perception through all aspects of his work – teaching, writing and public speaking. His photographs aren’t just pretty pictures but instead sit amongst a broader provocation of how we should relate to the city, the danger of ignoring the decline of public space, and our potential to disrupt and undermine systems of power that are bent on containing us without us even realising. He lives his work, and his work lives in his photographs. Find out more at http://www.bradleygarrett.com/. And if you have any interest in cities and physicality, you need to read his book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Explore-Everything-Place-hacking-Bradley-Garrett/dp/1781681295 (Buy it second hand for £3.76. You won’t be disappointed.)
Ours is a culture dominated by spectacle, a spectacle that is usually masculine. This is why the work of Julie Angel is so important for me at the moment. Through creating a body of work that looks at alternative bodies – typically female – that is not primarily concerned with personality or overtly dramatic demonstrations of physical ability, she’s challenging our perception of what parkour photography should be about. It’s a challenge to my own work, and that of everyone else. We – myself included – create a media that is obsessed with spectacle and ego that is male-domainted, and she’s trying to shift that landscape a little through what she does. In my own work, I talk about the ‘insertion of bodies that are radically out of place’ and yet most of my work is about athletic, white, middle-class young men. What the hell is radical about that? What’s more revolutionary: an athletic teenage male doing a backflip off a wall, or a woman in her forties vaulting across a rail? Julie is a renegade photographing the renegades, and it’s refreshing. www.see-do.com
B – Commercialisation of parkour / Influence of brands etc.
In your article “Spectacle and spirit; parkour needs better sponsors” you highlight the problematic relationship of parkour and potential sponsors / brands getting involved. In that article you state: ” The beauty of parkour is that it requires nothing. The flip side of this is that parkour can be used to sell pretty much anything.”
- Where do you see the main problem of certain brands getting involved in parkour (from energy drinks to cigarette companies)?
Andy: I think the problem is twofold. First is many people’s naivety regarding the power of advertising. People don’t see a nice advert and go and buy a product. It’s infinitely more complex than that. Brands create a lifestyle around their product, provoking an emotional response and, in some cases, creating a normality to their consumption to the extent that, as a society, we’re blinded to its negative aspects. The second problem is that people need to get paid. As a subculture and a community, we’re hungry for work as it permits a lifestyle that allows us to do even more of what we love. When rich companies with questionable products come along, it’s no surprise that they can simply buy their way in. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really blame anyone for taking these shitty sponsors as, in their situation, I might well have found myself doing the same, certainly 8 or so years ago.
- What do you think of Red Bull and the Art of Motion in general?
Andy: I think there is a bubble of elite performance athletes and their supporters who dominate the visual culture of parkour and give the impression that their world is the epicentre of the parkour community. It’s possible that the reality is actually very different. I’ve travelled extensively and I get the impression that this bubble is primarily supported by very vocal, media-savvy teenagers who buy the products and generate the clicks. Maybe that’s the difference: there’s an online community, and then there is the community. They’re two very different things, which is strange when you consider how much the internet is responsible for the emergence and growth of parkour.
Much of Red Bull’s media over the years has bizarrely been quite clumsy, as though they knew that they wanted to do something with parkour but weren’t really sure what. A few years ago, it was a case of taking their sponsored athletes to random locations and pretty much parachuting them into culturally complex environments and then asking them to talk about it. It was excruciating to listen to these athletes mumble awkwardly about how different everything is and how unique the architecture is, as though having the ability to jump around and do flips is going to have endowed that athlete with the ability to offer cultural insights into the complexities of a former war zone. Again it goes back to parkour’s treatment of space; parkour’s real value is in its relationship with and capacity to change a place, something that’s not really examined through a superficial, spectacle-driven tourism.
- In the article mentioned above you also state: ” By comparison, the climbing community is supported by a wealth of progressive companies engineering fantastic products and funding athletes, events and expeditions around the world. It’s a healthy symbiosis.”
Do you think a similar development is possible for parkour?
Andy: I’m not sure. To a degree that already happens with various tours and events organised by some of parkour’s clothing brands.
- Is there anything we as practicioners can do to support a way of commercialisation of parkour that we can live with morally?
Andy: I think if everyone who thought that Red Bull was a shitty sponsor suddenly spoke up, Red Bull would run a mile. Strangely I’ve been asked a few times to coordinate something like that but I don’t think I’m the right person to do it. I get a lot of people thanking me for taking a stand but, honestly, it’s very easy to sit here and throw stones!
C – Parkour / Climbing, Buildering
You are an active urban explorer, climber and also engage in buildering (climbing / bouldering in the urban environment).
- Do you see any similarities between parkour, urban exploration and buildering? (thinking of how the urban explorer, climber views and uses public space for example)
Andy: The boundaries aren’t distinct and this indeterminacy is one of their characteristics. Parkour is the only one that really engages in arguments about what is or isn’t parkour. The other two couldn’t give a shit.
- If you think about parkour communities, urban exploration and buildering/bouldering communities. Are there any main differences you have observed that are worth mentioning? (be it from an athlete’s point of view or from a photographer´s point of view)
Andy: Well, firstly, there is no buildering community. Certainly not here in London. There’s me and Bobby and Ash, and a few others, and that’s about it. We meet up a few times a year and repeat some of the old stuff, and very occasionally go in search of new stuff. So I think that’s one of the first things to emphasise – buildering is barely a thing. As for the urban exploration community, I don’t really know. I’m not really a part of that community. Community is a weird concept, though, especially many people would regard me as part of that community even though I don’t feel a part of it. And that’s a characteristic of these urban social formations, much like the indeterminate boundaries I discussed earlier. Membership is fluid and you’re a part of something (even if you don’t feel a part of something) that is amorphous, fragmented, dispersed, and indistinct.
As for differences… parkour is a little caught up in its own sense of self-importance sometimes, probably because people genuinely care about what it is and what the future holds for it. Parkour is pretty unstable but buildering, through not really existing, has no stability whatsoever. As a result, it can’t take itself seriously at all – one of its features that I find quite endearing. Plus buildering is generally a bit ridiculous which all adds to the fun. I’m a big fan of silliness, something that strangely has quite a lot of power.
D – Closing questions
- What are you currently working on? Can you tell us anything about upcoming projects?
Andy: At the moment, I’m still working on FORMER, the project that I shot in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. I’m not sure if I will shoot more of the monuments but there’s a load of stuff that I need to do, mostly to try and understand the project fully and give the images a life beyond their current state on my hard drive. Beyond that, I’m teaching a week-long course in parkour and dance photography at Central St Martins in the spring and plotting my escape from London.
- Is there anything else that should be mentioned? Anything else you´d like to say?
Andy: Parkour is progressive. Its community is progressive, as is the way that it values teaching, as is its spirit of inclusivity. We can inspire future generations to move through the spectacles we create, but let’s also ensure that this doesn’t compromise our values. It’s a fine balance but one that’s worth fighting for, which is why I’m often so vocal. Often the response from those that get called out for shitty decisions is that criticising is easy and ‘haters gonna hate’. In response it’s worth considering this quote from Churchill: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” As a community of progressive-minded people, I’m very proud of parkour. I think as a collective we have an intelligence and a self-awareness that is different to most other sports, characteristics that have their roots in the values estbalished by some of the earliest practitioners. We’re very fortunate in that respect.
At this point a HUGE THANK YOU to Andy for taking his time and putting his thoughts on paper. Thank you for this opportunity and the insights you have provided us!
If there is anything else you would like to know or if you wish to see some more of Andys work visit http://www.kiell.com/