I first met Deeli in 2006 I believe… I hadn’t yet moved to London but I was visiting for the summer. Deeli was mostly quiet, but had a great smile, the kind that goes ear to ear. I didn’t know he was a famous Finnish photographer or a Finnish skateboard champion. The former I found out quickly when I saw my first Kingpin magazine; the latter I didn’t find out until last week when researching for this interview. I didn’t get to know Deeli that well back then because by the time I moved to London in 2007, he left a year later to move back to Helsinki. I did see him a bit at skate exhibitions, we would have little chats and I would marvel at his mangled Chocolate hat, but it wasn’t until having this one-hour conversation last week with the man, also known as Tuukka Kaila, that I feel like I got to truly know the guy. You might recognise some of Deeli’s photos in this article from years past; they’re quite timeless. So read on for Deeli’s tales from yesteryear, including how he got started, why he stopped skate photography and what he’s up to now.
All photography by Tuuka ‘Deeli’ Kalia
Interview by Will Harmon
How did you get into skate photography and photography in general?
I was studying printmaking, because I wanted to become an artist. And at the college where I was at the time there was a photography department that was a lot more interesting than the printmaking department so that’s how I got into photography. And skate photography… Well I had been taking pictures of my friends, obviously like everybody does, in high school and when I was skating around, but I didn’t really get serious about it until I was already almost through college studying art and then my friend Timo Hyppönen wanted to start a magazine in Helsinki. So he asked me to help him.
Is that Numero (magazine) you’re referring to?
Yeah. So I got involved with that. It was Timo’s idea and so we sort of started the magazine and through that I started to take more pictures of skateboarding. It was kind of an accident; I didn’t really plan it. I didn’t think it would carry on for very long…
And Simo (Mäkelä) told me you were a Finnish skateboard champion in the nineties. Is this true?
Uh yeah, well… Yeah. (Laughs) At one point I guess…
That’s sick. So you had been skating for a quite a while before getting into skate photography?
Yeah I started skating in the mid-eighties, when I was ten or 11, something like that. I guess I was kind of serious about it at some point and then I had a time where I didn’t skate as much. But then getting into the photography side and the magazine… That kind of kept me going for a lot longer than I might have done otherwise.
Ok so let’s go back to Numero. Was this the time where you felt you really learned skate photography?
Yeah well I knew quite a lot about photography from my studies, but nothing about skate photography. I really got into it with no skate photography skills at all, zero, and so I just asked friends who were already doing it. I was also ploughing through skate magazines with a loupe just trying to figure out how everything worked.
When was this?
This was ’98 I think. That’s when the first issue of the magazine came out.
So did you have any skate photographer mentors there in Finland?
Yeah there were people, I don’t know about famous but… Antton (Miettinen) started out a little before me back then, so there were a few people doing it, but there was no outlet really and I think that’s why my friends started the magazine really… They knew a lot of people were doing this (shooting skate photos), but there was no forum or outlet for it then.
Also Wig Worland helped me. I’ve actually asked him specific questions like, ‘how do you do that? What causes this? How do I do this?’ and he’s helped me a lot. So mainly Antton and Wig, but also Bartok’s (Oliver Barton) photography just by following that at the time when I was learning… So those three people have been my major influences.
When I first was learning skateboarding photography I would try to imitate the people I looked up to. And it took a while to somehow get my photos to look like how I thought those people’s photos looked and be happy with that. And then the next step was finding something that was uniquely mine. At the beginning I always felt like skate photography was overpoweringly similar… A lot of people I thought were doing similar things and then only when I started learning and getting more into it myself I started noticing the nuances that make people’s photos like Antton’s, Wig’s and Bartok’s photos unique. And that kind of brought the realisation that, ‘ok if those guys can have a unique voice within that, then why not me? Maybe I can do something of my own?’
Well I’m sure all that practice and experience working at Numero for years must have given you that voice. How did this transition into eventually working for Kingpin?
So that took a while. I started working for Kingpin in 2004. So towards the end of my time working at Numero… It was just the financial trouble of it. We constantly had to ask people for favours: ‘can you do that? Oh and I can’t pay you…’ and that was just really getting frustrating and I also felt that I had invested all this time and money into expensive equipment and I felt like ‘I know how to do this now and I really enjoy doing it,’ so my options are that I’m going to give it up and learn something else or I’m going to really try to get paid for what I do. It seemed obvious to me that it wasn’t going to happen if I stayed in Finland. There just wasn’t any money to support me in doing this… I don’t want to sound greedy, but at some point you just need to get paid for what you do, because otherwise you can’t do it. You can’t invest all that time… So I had contributed to Kingpin in a few issues already and I was working with a few brands in Europe so then I basically just asked Niall (Neeson, former editor of Kingpin): do you have a job for me? And he replied that timing was quite good and there might actually be a job. And then he just hired me basically.
And then so you moved to London…
Yep. They bought me a plane ticket and put me up in a hotel for two weeks until I found a place to live.
A lot of the Finnish skaters I talked to (Simo Mäkelä, Samu Karvonen, Eniz Fazliov) credit you with being the one person to get their pictures out there beyond just the Finnish mags and for the rest of the world to see. And in turn this exposure really helped their careers. What do you think about that?
It’s amazing to hear if they are indeed saying that, but I always thought that obviously the photographer needed the skaters way more than the skaters needed the photographer. If there weren’t people there to skate and be willing to take me along, do stuff, and let me take photos of it then I’d be nothing in that sort of scene. And it goes both ways: I got the chance to go somewhere and see what other people were doing, which gave me a little more perspective about what the guys back in Finland were doing. It made me realise the talent that they really had in comparison to what else I was seeing around Europe. So I don’t know, I felt like I was in a good position to say: ‘look at these guys; they’re doing this and it’s pretty amazing isn’t it!’
And so were you able to go back to Helsinki and shoot with these guys once you were at Kingpin or did they often come over here to London?
For the first year or two I don’t think I came back to Finland at all. Plus the way the job was structured, it was a major let down at first… To begin with I was needed in the office; I wasn’t needed as a photographer, but then after the first year photography became my main thing there. At first I was just helping with articles, photo editing, etc.
So after a year you finally got to shoot again…
Yeah and then it became a travelling job.
What were some of your favourite travels?
Russia with the Control dudes and later with Element and again with Kenny Reed. There’s something magical about the place for sure. Then there were several low budget raids on Estonia and the rest of the Baltics, Tent Shitty camping trips through Scandinavian city centres with Perus, Sweet and Sk8Mafia, the DIY craze pouring concrete around Europe with whoever was there. Loved the one in Riga, organised and hosted by Madars (Apse) and his friends.
Are there any particular people that you really enjoyed shooting with?
Simo and Eniz… And Danny Wainwright actually, he was amazing to shoot with. It’s funny because a lot of the people that were in London at the time and skating all the time, I really didn’t get to shoot that much with. Mostly when I was in London I would go to the office and I’d have to be there to take care of stuff. For me to be able to be out on the street and go and shoot photos I would have to leave London. I would have to escape the grip of the office. So thinking about it now, it seems weird that I was there for four, almost five years and then a lot of those (London) guys that were there at the time I didn’t even really shoot anything with. I really liked shooting with some of the Swedish guys: Mika Edin, Love Eneroth… It’s kind of hard to think of names right now whereas I’m sure there are loads of people I could mention. Maybe it doesn’t matter…
It’s all good…
Also there was a bunch of people I shot when I didn’t really know what I was doing. When I was just starting out as a skate photographer there were these skaters that were my age, who were really, really good… They were on top of their game and they would do stuff in front of my camera and I would just fuck it up.
Is this the Control Skateboards crew?
Yeah, exactly: Tatu, Toma, Peke, Valtteri, Jassu… I had the best times with them, learning how to take photos. We shot so many things. They were at the top of their skating and I was just beginning with skate photography so I was fucking up the photos because I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean I can see how it’s gonna look through my lens looking at it happening, but then I would get the photo back (film days) and it’s just rubbish. They would give me the opportunity to learn how to take the photos and then I could really not give that much back. My level of photography was nothing compared to their level of skating.
Don’t be so hard on yourself; you were just starting out.
It’s not like I feel bad about it… Just people’s careers are on different trajectories. But basically I really enjoyed shooting with those guys but I have nothing to show for it now.
Maybe this is a tough question, but do you have certain skate photos that you’ve shot that are your favourite?
There are some, but I guess this is where it gets a little more personal. Maybe there’s a lucky shot where it’s someone that I don’t even know, but I happened to be there and they do something and stars just align and it becomes one of my favourite things I’ve ever shot. But then I might not have any personal relationship to the person… There are just different reasons as to why I like certain photos; some are the person I shot with, some are that the trick is just amazing, the place is just amazing or something later happened to that person and that makes it special. But it’s very rare that all of these things would combine into one single photo.
I see… That makes sense.
For example one of my favourite photos I’ve shot is this ollie of (Danny) Wainwright. It’s around Bristol and he’s going over a corner, sort of like a hip. There are not that many things that are special about the photo in terms of the situation… I was there for a weekend or a couple of days and Wainwright, the professional that he is, had this whole list of things that he wanted to go check out. So we were in someone’s car, maybe Tidy Mike’s, and we were going around to all these spots and he had a trick planned at all these spots he wanted to try, which is something that was pretty rare back then, to have a skater be that organised. He was at a point where he just wanted to get stuff done and feel good about himself having done stuff and somehow everything just seemed to go well and clicked. And then later on, if I think of the photo, the trick is obviously nothing for him, but then at the same time it’s like what he’s known for: it’s an ollie. Also I didn’t know him that well; that was probably the second time I’d ever shot with him. I wouldn’t say that we were good friends at the time yet, but it’s just a weird mix of a lot of things kind of combining in a single photo that doesn’t happen maybe that often. I like the way the photo looks, I like the trick, I really like the guy and I have good memories of that day. It’s the best you could hope for I suppose.
Sick. It’s good to have those memories…
Also regarding a favourite photo or memory I wanted to talk about one particular trip I did with Simo… I hadn’t shot that much with him at the time yet, but he was at a point in his skating where he was blowing up. He could do anything and he could go on forever. He would just jump down stuff for days and not get hurt; he would just enjoy it. So we went to Vienna and there were just three days in a row where he would hammer out things, the most amazing tricks, one after another… It’s also one of those things for a photographer that’s also quite rare, that you get to witness that – things just kept happening. Each spot we’d go to he’d go: ‘oh maybe I’ll try this’ and he just nails it. Next spot: ‘maybe I’ll try that’ and nails it again. Out of that trip I still have some photos that I look back on and think: I really enjoyed the trip, I got to know Simo quite well so I made a good friend. Also when I look back at the photos they’re good tricks and I think I’d achieved something photographically as well.
And Eniz, he’s always been there for me. If ever I’d ask if he had anything he wanted to shoot or if he wanted to go out, he’d be the most accommodating skater ever. When I moved back to Helsinki from London and I had a small child, I still had to work office hours for Kingpin, but Eniz could wait all day and shoot a photo after my work if that’s what I needed. I feel like that was pretty rare for that era in skateboarding.
Also I need to mention the Perus Crew. After I had shot a lot with Simo and Eniz and those guys, I started working more with the Perus guys and they were on a really good roll at the time. I mean they had a completely different way of working compared to Eniz… None of the scheduling and none of the working on the clock… You could never plan anything like, ‘let’s do that at that time’ or that day even or… It would be quite random to be honest, but they are really genuine guys and some of the photos that I look back on now and that I like the most are of those guys.
So at what point did you get out of skate photography and what led to this?
There was a combination of things… I moved back to Helsinki from London in 2008 and then I stopped working for Kingpin in 2012. In that time period I was getting anxious about having something else lined up. Basically it was hard for me to be a dad and a husband with being out all the time. This was a major part of it. And then for a while the people I was working with kept getting younger and younger and obviously I wasn’t. So there was kind of this thing like, ‘is skateboarding going to be there for me? Is it going to continue to be there for me?’ And I wondered if this was something that I could keep doing as long as I want or if there would be a moment in time when I would just be booted out. Like if I can’t make a living off of it, then what would I do then? I had nothing lined up.
But the funny thing is: that feeling passed. There was this moment where I remember when I was thinking about it the most, and this has to do with Finland as well, I was here and everything else (the industry) seemed like far away. I kind of had to be self-sufficient and I would have to rely on myself and convince myself that this was a legit thing to be doing – so that I could give myself credit for doing something worthwhile… That takes a lot of belief in yourself, and that is not always easy, especially in the winter in Finland. Many months of the year here you can’t shoot photos of skateboarding, so then I would have a lot of time on my hands and no money at all and I would constantly think, ‘what am I doing?’ But that all passed… And a lot of credit for that goes to Perus dudes. I really started enjoying it again thanks to those guys. So at the end in 2012 when I moved on to other things I was really enjoying this so much. I was really enjoying the life and skate photography, but then why I had to eventually stop was for family reasons. I had to save my marriage so I had to get out of it… Turns out I was a day late and a dollar short… The marriage wasn’t saved. I think the two just weren’t compatible.
So after Kingpin and stepping away from skate photography, what did you do next?
Well to begin with I got into photography through art, and around the time of Numero, art was equally important to me. Art took a backseat when I was putting all my effort into skate photography, so in 2012 I started to get back into art, or I started giving it more time and attention. After a stint shooting photos for commercial magazines and getting into graphic design I decided I wanted to get into publishing more so I kind of bluffed my way into a publishing job. There I managed to teach myself about printing techniques, how books are made, materials and how the publishing industry works. So I did that for a few years and then quit to focus on my art. Then I worked there again and left, again, to concentrate on art. In between all that I started a publishing imprint with another artist. So I’m doing that now, publishing artists’ books and doing exhibitions basically.
Nice. And oh yeah, I wanted to ask you about how in 2016 you sent us a few photos of Eniz, which we used in his interview in Free Issue 8. I want to know what it was like shooting skateboarding again since it ceased being your profession?
That’s great that you asked that; it was such a funny experience. I hadn’t shot any skate photos for like three to four years really, like none. And that day I was at this DIY park that I was actively involved in in the beginning…
Yes. I was still spending a lot of time there and that place has been a lifesaver for me in many ways… But anyways I was skating there a lot and that day I happened to have a camera with me in the park, but I kind of wanted to go skate street. So I called up Eniz not thinking at all that we’d shoot any photos. So Eniz was out skating street with friends so I went skating with them and immediately it just kicked off. I shot three photos of Eniz that day and everything was amazing, all the tricks that he did; it was just like, bang bang bang! As mentioned I hadn’t shot any photos of skating before that for many years and those are the last photos of skateboarding I’ve shot since. Who knows those may be the last photos. It was funny as well because I had such a good day and I was so into it. I was enjoying it so much and Eniz was almost like apologetic… He was like, ‘oh sorry I made you work now. I didn’t mean to; I know you just called to go skate and then here I am asking you to take photos.’ It felt so amazing… He’s a good friend of mine but I don’t see him that often, but the trust was there, intact. I happened to be there and he wanted to do stuff and it just clicked and we did it.
Well that’s just wonderful.
It was. But I always feel like being a skate photographer that makes a career shooting skateboarding, you can’t take things for granted. You can’t expect people to do things for you. Towards the end of it when I had to tell people ‘oh I can’t be there now, can you go on Wednesday?’ How lame is that? If somebody is really hyped to do something right there and then and they’re considerate enough to give me a call like, ‘I’m gonna do this now, can you be here?’ and I would have to say ‘no, I can’t be there. Can you do it another time?’ I really feel shitty about doing that. And I felt like if I’m doing that too often then maybe it just means I shouldn’t be doing this anymore. You can’t expect people to do stuff for you when it suits you. So that day with Eniz where I got three photos I kind of felt lucky that that happened. I got one more taste of it. I really don’t want to call people up and say: ‘Hey do you want to do something? I haven’t shot any photos in four years…’
Well maybe after this comes out people might hit you up again…
I’m lucky that I had what I had and I really appreciate the time that I had, but I think also that was my time. I’m sort of nostalgic about it, but I don’t miss it. I really enjoy what I’m doing now… I don’t know, it was a part of my life and I’m living a different part of my life now.
Do you still follow skate photography and what goes on now?
Zero, not at all. Well I follow Sam (Ashley) on Instagram, that’s basically my dose of skate photography.
OK about to wrap this up, anything else you’d like to add?
This might sound lame or stupid or whatever, but I’m just generally so grateful to the people that worked with me; I guess that is such a huge gift that I got from being involved. And I do feel like I invested 15 years of my life into doing that, but I would always feel that I got so much out of it. It’s nice to hear people like Simo and Eniz would say that they felt like I had a part to play in what happened with their skateboarding and all that. I guess that’s like the cherry on top.
OK so the last question is, and the people want to know this… Do you still have the Chocolate hat?
I do have it yeah. I should have worn it for this (Skype), but it’s quite fragile. I have a feeling if I wear it and I slam it’ll just disintegrate. It’s still the best design of any hat that I’ve ever had. It matches my head perfectly.