An Interview with Joe Williams

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Despite what various sources would have you believe, the once-malnourished carcass of printed media is now both healthy and rosy-cheeked – thanks to a rag-tag band of brave and courageous photographers unfazed by lack of cash or cushty office space.

Joe Williams is one such photographer. Hailing from Devon, he uses time-honoured methods to document the South West scene.

Seeing as we’ve just got a few more copies of his latest zine — Blackblock Issue 3 — now seemed like a decent time to pester him with a few questions…

Interview by Sam, photos by Joe.

Where abouts are you from? My knowledge of the South of England is pretty poor. Are there many riders from around there?

I grew up in Devon in a small village on Dartmoor. Exeter was the nearest city with a good scene but the lack of public transport or driving license made it hard to leave. I moved up to Bristol ten years ago because it seemed like the BMX mecca and I wanted to get involved with something proper.

I’m back in Devon now but with the addition of money and a motor vehicle. The South West of England has a ton of good riders that are never too far away.

Am I right in saying it rains loads less in the South? How often do you get out through the winter?

Haha, no idea but I’ve heard it’s grim up North. Things get pretty bleak down here too, I guess that comes with the territory of living in a valley on the edge of the moors.

In the last few years my winter efforts have been poor. In Bristol I’d happily stick on a couple of layers and hit the street or in a bygone era I might have picked up a spade and a thermos flask and hit the woods. This year it already looks like my bike has been retired for the season but you never know…

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Were there ever any videos or anything out of the South West? Are there any classic Bristol vids or anything I should seek out?

There’s nothing super iconic I can think off, not like some of the classics that have come out of the North. When I first moved up to Bristol there was the OG BS3 thing going on.

And with Mike, Raivis and Crucial there’s always been someone repping BS3. I dabbled for a bit last year and put this piece together.

In recent years Emerson has regularly been popping out the Yatetapes. In Exeter, Curry was holding it down for a while with the DAQ mixtapes and just now the Exeter Boys have just released their latest effort filmed over the last 3 years, they did a fair bit of travelling for this one so not fully representative of the spots down here but worth a look.

I’ll should also give an honourable mention to The Dream Boys and the Metal Pegs gang. Not the South West but scope them out.

Pretty stock question, but how did you get into riding? Was there a specific thing that set you off?

In all honesty I have no idea. I grew up playing football but somewhere along the line I got sick of team sports… maybe Simon Tabron on Blue Peter? I was never exposed to BMX as a kid, never had Sky TV, the internet didn’t exist and BMX magazines weren’t stocked in the local newsagents. One day I just wanted a BMX bike.

Eventually for Christmas I got a bright yellow Mongoose Stylist, my brother got a copy of Roadfools and I was hooked.

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Who were the top dogs around your area when you were growing up?

In the immediate area there was no one really. There was a mate of mine, Jim, he dug out a GT Predator with the classic GT 5 spoke from his garage and could throw down a mean English hop 180. Other than that there were some older lads on big bikes who could pull up off a curb and land on two wheels.

There were all sorts of rumours about scenes nearby. Skateparks didn’t really exist at the beginning but my dad used to work in Exeter and would give me the low down on the spots. Eventually we amassed a small crew in the village on a variety of bikes and regularly sessioned an old granite wall. The battle scars are still there to this day.

Why did you start taking photos? Is it something you’ve always done?

Before I had any interest in bikes I was given a point and shoot camera and consistently failed to get any results. As my interest in bikes developed I would borrow by parents’ SLR. Due to shutter speeds, apertures and manual focus my failures were significantly magnified.

This was all pre digital and I imagine I had some disgruntled parents regretting their gift choice and paying out at Tru-Print for every mistake.

By secondary school, the camera and bike were a pretty solid fixture in my life… a pal of mine used to go to rock gigs with his dad and sell zines he had made documenting the scene. We were going to collaborate for an extreme sports/music combo. Unfortunately I was still getting terrible results and only really riding alongside a close group of 15 year olds.

They were never going to sit well alongside the likes of Slipknot so we dropped the idea. Eventually I went to college and learnt how to use a camera.

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A lot of riders have zero interest in photographing riding (apart from maybe getting a few shots of themselves for self-promotion purposes) – do you think it’s strange how some people aren’t bothered about documenting stuff?

Yep, it’s odd for sure, but at the same time I’ve spent many a session without taking a single snap. Sometimes you get to that killer curb spot and the stoke is so high it’s easier to just enjoy the moment than document it.

Right now, things seem to be the complete other end of the spectrum with phones pointing at everything. I preferred it when no one knew what Wetherspoons you were sitting in.

Haha yeah – I suppose it’s a case of what people are documenting. What makes a good photo? Are there certain things you find yourself always photographing – and other bits you’d avoid?

I don’t know, I’m still trying to find out. I guess with photography I’ve always been old school, I’ve always been about that ‘Decisive Moment’ and the Eggleston philosophy of just taking one photo to avoid dealing with the editing process later on.

For me the process is about being out with the camera and taking the pictures. Not sitting at a screen making them look good. For that reason, I just try to do everything in camera. No multiple frames per second and picking the best later on.

I try not to crop, I’m not into stitching sequences, I’m awful at colour balancing and I don’t enjoy shots that involve so much setup and anticipation that it kills the session. I know what a ‘proper’ day’s filming is like… I’m not trying to fabricate an altered reality; I’m just trying to capture it as it is.

Usually a fish eye pointed in the right direction will do it for me, and at the moment black and white keeps everything else simple.

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Have you got any good stories about being out taking photos? Any intriguing run-ins or anything?

Nothing out of the ordinary. We once had our gear nicked on a road-trip in Germany and ended up losing all the footage and spending the night in a German cell.

I’ve also had a few hairy run-ins taking candid shots of people… usually abroad and usually resulting in some kind of confrontation in a foreign tongue. Opening the camera back to demonstrate the destruction of the film is never ideal but seems to work in a tight spot.

You win some, you lose some.

Talking about social media is pretty boring so I’ll avoid going too deep with this – but what are your thoughts on printed images and zine layouts versus the endless scroll of Instagram?

Yeah, it’s a double edged sword for sure. As much as I dislike the scroll of Instagram I probably wouldn’t be chatting to you without it. I hate throwing things on Instagram. It’s ideal for tossing up snaps that haven’t made the cut but it’s basically the online equivalent of the stacks of boxes in the attic… maybe that’s where they belong?

I’ve always preferred the prescribed layout of a book or zine, like anything; you need to have a good build up, leading images, the grand finale. Nowadays everyone wants the instant banger without having to work for it.

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A lot of the photos in your latest zine are scanned from actual darkroom prints. What’s your general darkroom process like? Have you got any tips or specific ways you do stuff under the ol’ red light?

No process, or no tips I’m afraid. I moved into a new house last year and it’s the first time I’ve had a permanent darkroom set up that I can actually stand up in.

I’m no darkroom perfectionist; the whole thing runs on out of date chemicals, made up exposure times and greasy fingerprints. A grade 5 filter and a filed out film holder generally does the job. It felt like these images in particular were a sign of things going full circle – a nod to the images that got me hooked in the first place.

What were those images?

I started shooting properly on black and white and a borrowed fish eye, it’s a style that has always been synonymous with BMX, skate photography and ‘punk’ culture. In BMX, there was the likes of Ricky Adam and there have been countless skate, street or music photographers who shot black and white.

Over the years my photography has gone through phases, at university it felt like shooting 35mm was a faux pas and inferior to the larger formats. Shooting BMX was particularly frowned upon unless it was completely adorned with elaborate art spiel. It’s nice to just get back to the roots.

What are your thoughts on studio-level slickness and modern-age gadgets being used to display back-alley motions?

I’m not bothered how people capture what they’re doing. I guess in this day and age people enjoy playing with gadgets and tinkering on computers in the same way some people enjoy experimenting with film. Each to their own. If you’ve got a £10000 camera and know what you’re doing with it, why not? Just lay off the HDR filters and dodgy presets. Street riding can be bleak. If you resort to riding a shitty back alley because you’ve cycled miles and haven’t found a spot, that’s what I want to see.

Any camera can capture that, it just has to be pointed in the right direction.

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Maybe a bit of a change of subject…. but what do you do for work?

It’s been a weird year for me. I’ve been on the endless pursuit of workplace fulfillment.
Amongst bits and pieces of freelance work I’ve always found myself on the tools for the bread and butter.

I’ll be entering the adult world of fatherhood imminently so for the first time in my life I need to buckle down. I’ve just landed an actual full time photography position. Hopefully it will give me the opportunity to keep experimenting with cameras when I don’t have time at home…

Congratulations on all that. What do you get up to outside of riding and photos?

I’m not one for ravenously consuming the latest media or trends, in my spare time you’ll probably find me at the local. At home I’ll just settle for watching the BBC or listening to Radio 6. A large part of my social life has always been completely separate from riding, a lot of my friends don’t know what I’m doing on a bike or in the darkroom.

I’m still sussing life of the bike, this year I bought my first pair of non ‘skate shoes’… By no means does that mean I’m over it. BMX has consumed more than half my life; I don’t think there’s a way to un-see a perfect curb cut. Even in rural Devon I’m still stumbling upon potential spots, hopefully I’ll get a chance to ride them.

Yeah I don’t think that part of the brain can ever be shut of. Alright – I think I’ve ran out of questions now. Nice one for doing this. Any wise words of anything to end with?

Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.

If anyone out there wants to shoot photos, swap something or whatever, get in touch.

Joe’s Blackblock zine is available here.

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