Nils Svensson Interview

Hjalte Halberg, backside tailslide, Copenhagen, 2017

Welcome to Nils Svensson´s universe. Nils is humble and quiet; maybe that is why he holds photography so dear? It is his voice, perspective and opinion about the world. It is hard to describe Nils´ work without describing Nils at the same time. The two are interconnected. It is hard to know where Nils stops and the photography starts.

Nils’ first endeavours with photography were with analogue film. This meant that the skater had to trust that the photo was done and good when the photographer said so. The photographer had to develop a sixth sense to know that he had the picture. Nils has a great feel for this and I have many examples of trying a trick and taking the courage to ask Nils to shoot it only to find him climbing down from a roof and saying, ‘I already have it.’

To this day I can tell that Nils values photos highly. Even if he has shot digital for many years now he still has great respect for the shutter.

Closing the shutter means something to him and I think that is why his portfolio is so consistent. Look at his work over 25 years and try to find a bad picture. I doubt you will succeed.

Nils put in a lot of work showcasing Malmö early on and because he is so great he made it look better than it was. This created an image that Malmö was good for skating (which for a long time it was not!) and therefore attracted people from all over. Nils’ work showcasing Malmö was a major part of that. He lied. But it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Over the eon of time that Nils has shot photos he knows that looking back we rarely care about the trick but what the memories are for those who were there. We were all there. Or at least it feels like it.

-John Dahlquist

Pontus Alv, wallie melon, Malmö, 2005

Photography by Nils Svensson
Interview by Will Harmon

For all the years you’ve been shooting I’ve been told you don’t consider yourself a professional photographer. As in, photography is not the way you make a living, is that so?
Yeah that’s correct. My photography has basically been on the sidelines of my normal work since day one. It’s been my hobby… You know it’s like skating: it’s something you do and are passionate about outside of your work. It’s hard for me to see myself as a professional photographer; it’s been a little bit more of a way for me to be a part of skating. Obviously I’ve been skating as well, but this has been some kind of way for me to have the opportunity to go on trips in my photo career or whatever you call it. It’s brilliant for me as I can still go away on a couple of trips with my friends, with Pontus (Alv), or whoever and I have a role in that scenario.

Since I’ve known you, you’ve always worked for Bryggeriet. Did you help set that up in… 1998 was it?
Yes ’98 is when the park opened. I basically started working on the project of Bryggeriet in 1996. I was kind of unemployed and I got an opportunity through the unemployment centre where you could have some work experience with a slight amount of pay or support from them. So I did that with the local skate association here called Aggro Cult and our headquarters was the local skate shop then called Boards R Us. My task for this work experience thing was to call around to try and find somewhere for us to skate indoors in the winter. I mean, I wasn’t the first one to have this as a little project, the association there had been trying to get this project going for many years. That’s why the association was started basically in the beginning of the nineties, but there had been no success as skateboarding was so small in Malmö during those years. Malmö City was interested in giving a handful of skaters the opportunity to have an indoor skatepark, but when I came into this role it had changed quite a bit; mostly because of this little skate shop.

John Dahlquist, drop-in 50-50, Brooklyn, 2014

Boards R Us…
Yeah, because if you signed up to be a member of this association you got discounts in the shop. So suddenly we had like a hundred members.

Oh that’s smart…
Also it was 1996 so skateboarding was growing in Malmö and we had a tight little skate scene. During the winters everyone skated in the garages (indoor car parks) and obviously that caused some friction, some problems and there was some writing in the papers so it started to become something that Malmö City was aware of. So when I came into this and I made my phone calls it wasn’t just a ‘no sorry. We can’t help you.’ It was like, ‘uh yeah… Maybe we can help you. We have this connection, try to phone them.’ That got the ball rolling and suddenly we got the opportunity to use a space for the winter and that forced us to create this project of an indoor skatepark. So we would do sketches of ramps and think out how it would work…

So you were trying to get the government to fund this place? Is that how it would work?
Not that quickly, at first they referred us to a place that Malmö City used to own that held big trade shows, but they had sold it to a free church. So nothing happened there but this whole thing brought together different organisations like the YMCA, Young Eagles, and then representatives from Malmö City and we all got together and had these big meetings. And these meetings were kind of the important thing in this, because the first space we looked at fell through, but they got to see that we were serious and we had a well thought out plan. So we got connected with these other great people from these other organisations and associations and that really helped us. So it took another year until we found what is now Bryggeriet. Because Malmö City was like, ‘you can’t be in this place that we sold to the free church, but we like what you’re doing now and we’re going to help you try and find a new space.’

That’s great. I think most people recognise Bryggeriet as a skate high school, so can you briefly explain how it was a skatepark and association first and how that developed into a place for learning?
That’s mostly due to these other persons that got involved. I mean we had a very successful project with building the skatepark and it was instantly a success, because nothing really existed like that in Sweden and not really in Europe either. I mean we got the attention of the Sole Tech dudes and they were running the Etnies European Open from there from the first year almost, because they were like, ‘wow, this is so fantastic!’ And then the project manager of Bryggeriet, he wasn’t a skater, but he thrived on developing ideas, he asked us, ‘so what’s next?’ basically. ‘What do you think is the next step for us?’ So there used to be these snowboard gymnasiums (high schools) in Sweden where all the famous and really good people went so we were like, ‘yeah there should be a skate high school then.’ So that kind of opened the door to education and this was just one year after we opened up the doors.

Jerome Campbell, melon, Paris, 2013

Oh okay, pretty quick then.
We started with other forms of education, like there you could be a project leader where you got to work on a project of your choice and at the same time you studied at a university and for this you got university points (credits). This is actually what J-Mag (John Magnusson) did and where he developed the Stapelbäddsparken project. So basically we started with education courses in 1999 and then we formed another association that is now running the high school. It wasn’t until 2006 that the high school was created, but we had been trying for a few years to become a free school ​​(Non-profit NGO school), because it’s such a difficult process to apply.

I’m sure it is.
On our second or third try it got approved.

So that goes way back, you first started working on this in 1996 and you’re still at Bryggeriet today!
Yeah I don’t know where all the years went; Bryggeriet is some kind of time machine I think, ha ha. I spend so much time there, that’s what it feels like. But I’m not alone in this; it’s a group of people.

Okay so let’s go back to the ‘90s, Danijel (Stankovic) tells me you were quite the mini-ramp champ. Did you enter comps and stuff?
Yeah that’s right… Love the mini-ramp, ha ha. I haven’t competed that much. I did when I was really young, when I was 15 and stuff. I’d go around to the Swedish national series or whatever it was called and whatnot. I’d travel a bit with my friends from Lund where I’m from. We had a good little crew.

And when did you move from Lund to Malmö?
A few years after Bryggeriet opened up. I was commuting before that.

And then when did you get interested in photography?
It was when I did that work experience there in 1996 at the skate shop, because I had been distant from the skate scene for a few years before that. After I finished school I went down to the Alps to snowboard.

Ah yeah Jugga told me about this, you’d go away every year to the Alps and snowboard all winter.
Yeah at first I was in France, then I was in Italy and so on. And then in ’96 I had just been filming with this Swedish film production company and I was just waiting for the next winter and then something happened with this production company, they had some arguments, and the next project fell through. So that got me stranded and off that path…

Danijel Stankovic, 360 flip, Malmö, 2008

So the film production crew was filming you snowboarding yeah?
Yeah. But I’m really kind of glad it happened, that it fell through, because in that down time that’s when I started to work at the skate shop on the project that would eventually become Bryggeriet. I reconnected with all my skate mates from Malmö and I got into that groove again after being distant a little bit. And that’s when I started to shoot photos, because basically I had just been with the production crew, this media driven thing with filmers and photographers so I had my little camera. So I started to document some snowboard stuff while we were filming it. Then when I came home I just started to bring my camera around in my backpack whenever we went skating. So that’s when I started to shoot my friends here (in Malmö).

And then from bringing your camera around in your backpack to using all the flashes, lenses, etc. is quite the leap. How did you develop your photography? Did you have a mentor?
Growing up as a skater here in Sweden in the late eighties and early nineties it was really difficult to get the latest magazines and videos. So those kinds of magazines that your dad had brought home from San Francisco you just read and read and read. You’d read the same issue over and over again and those images that you’d look at and the places you’d dream about made a serious mark in your brain I think. And then when you got hold of a camera and started to shoot your friends that’s all that I was thinking, like ‘ooh I want to create these cool images that I have up here in my head’ you know?

Like those cool shots of Jason Lee, Guy Mariano or Rudy Johnson, but obviously my early photos didn’t come out like that. In the beginning it was pretty tricky, but I think one thing that was a really big help was that there was a really good photographer here called Jesper Nilsson.

Yeah I remember his photos.
Yeah he took the iconic Tom Penny éS ad picture of the 360 flip there at Wonderland in Copenhagen. So he was here, and having him so close was a huge benefit. But also skate photography was a lot more secretive back then I think. People didn’t want to give up their secrets. It wasn’t that easy to learn. It was hard; shooting on film and experimenting with flashes there was so much failure. It took a while to figure all of that stuff out and to just get a hold of all of the equipment. Like save up for a real camera, then save up for a real fisheye, then you had to get some proper flashes, the radio slaves… It was quite a long process until you felt you had the right equipment you needed to take those photos that you wanted and then to figure out exactly what the hell you were doing.

Pontus told me he had a little place where he was living with a darkroom and he was shooting photos as well and you’d both go there and develop pictures and learn off of each other.
Yeah that was amazing. That was a really cool time then when he lived in a warehouse without a shower or a kitchen, ha ha. He had an amazing darkroom setup and so much space.

Is this the Strongest of the Strange era?
Yeah this is the era where he was just sitting in there eating herring, ha ha. It was kind of limited with no kitchen. He had a fridge I think though!

So what particular photographers or photos inspired you back then in the ‘90s?
Spike Jonze shooting the Blind team back then was pretty heavy on my mind. The Blind team with Mark Gonzales and Jason Lee… Obviously Grant Brittain, he was kind of the norm, as he had the majority of the pictures in Transworld and then these newcomers came up and kind of changed the language and the feelings a bit. I really loved the whole San Francisco vibe with Tobin Yelland and Gabe Morford and that more documentary and gritty feeling. And I love the mysterious one, what’s his name…

Dan Sturt.
Yes exactly. His work with Matt Hensley was very inspiring. It all had a lot to do with your favourite skaters obviously. Or maybe it was the other way around, that they became your favourite skaters because of the photos… Who knows? But locally Jesper Nilsson was my biggest inspiration. He had stuff in Transworld and all the Swedish mags. Also Tobias Plass from Copenhagen, he had great pics and really helped me out. Jesper really helped me too, he took my photos to the mags and got them published.

Pontus Alv, backside 360, Malmö, 2004

Do you remember your first photo published? What was it in?
It was in this Swedish mag called Funsport. I think my first published photo was in an article about snaking, and I had a good photo there of Martin Ottosson doing a backside noseblunt. And after that I got a cover pretty soon after. It was a weird photo, super experimental, you couldn’t see much; I shot it at Bryggeriet Skatepark and it was a friend doing an ollie to fakie in the bowl. We turned off the lights so everything was pitch black and I put this pink filter on my flash.

Ah I miss seeing those flash filters! Okay I want to talk about your travels through Europe in the campervan skating old skateparks with your Swedish friends. When did you start doing that?
I think we started in the year 2000. I remember the bridge over to Copenhagen was brand new. So it was our first trip driving over the bridge and we went to Muenster and the Lausanne World Cup competition. There was a big incident there with the motorhome…

Oh yeah? What happened?
So all the American pros were staying in this big hotel. So we just drove past and there were all these cool guys there on the steps, so we decided to park there at the garage next to it. So you had to go down to get into it but we didn’t really reflect on how high our motorhome was so we got stuck!

John Magnusson, frontside air transfer, La Rochelle, France, 2004

Oh man, ha ha.
Martin was driving and we could just hear the roof window getting crushed; it got smashed to pieces. So we were jammed; we were really stuck. Martin had real trouble getting us out of there, revving the engine, there was smoke and everything and obviously all the cool skaters from the hotel came over, ha ha.

How embarrassing…
Everyone was watching us, and Martin actually had to give up and J-Mag had to take over. He finally got us out of there. The rest of the trip was great though…

So the idea of these trips was to leave Sweden and hit all these European skateparks?
The main idea was to find all these old concrete skateparks because that didn’t exist here in Sweden. This was before the concrete revolution here. We did research and checked out old parks in Germany, Holland, France and Spain and then just went for it. It was really good and really inspiring.

Yes I’ve heard that these trips inspired you guys to start all the DIY builds in Malmö, is that so?
Yeah exactly. We just figured out that we needed something like this over here. And I think I instigated the birth of our first DIY spot here: Savanna Side.

And also after these trips J-Mag took the course you guys had to help design Stapelbäddsparken yeah?
Yeah, he took the project-managing course that we had at Bryggeriet. It was not so much learning how to build, it was more how to manage a project, but Stapelbäddsparken was his project. So that’s where that started basically.

In the meantime you guys started building all these DIY projects like Savanna Side, Steppe Side, etc. right?
Yeah, Savanna Side we started building in 2002. This was in the middle of doing these trips down through Europe.

Emma Lindgren, building at Steppe Side, Malmö, 2010

And I can’t remember too much DIY stuff going on then in Europe…. Like obviously there was Burnside in the States, but 2002 was pretty early on the DIY tip. I actually think what you guys did really inspired a movement, at least in Europe. Do you think you guys were some of the first in Europe to do stuff like this?
Yeah it appears like that.

I mean I’m sure other DIY builds were going on, but thanks to your photos and Pontus’ videos it was really well documented and people saw what you guys were doing.
Yeah I think we were really good at getting it out there you know… With Pontus’ driving force and my connections with the magazines… But I think you’re right, we were probably one of the first. And when Strongest of the Strange came out, it kind of showed the whole story there from the beginning. It was fantastic times I have to say… Savanna Side was very special. It was really fun because this was before you had any clue of what you were doing. It was real trial and error basically. Now we build skateparks professionally, and we know exactly how to do it, but it takes away a lot of the charm that it once had. Back then you were doing everything wrong, but somehow it just turned out everything right. It was so rough, but everything was just perfect in another way, if you know what I mean?

Yeah I do. A lot of your friends have said that in your photos, the way you document things, it’s not all about the trick. It’s the whole package, the camaraderie of friends, everything. There’s more to it than just taking a photo. Would you agree?
Yeah I would agree with that, because you’re not just there to take photos and document what’s going on, you’re actually doing it yourself, you’re a big part of the creation and creativeness involved… You’ve got your hands full basically. You’re building up the possibility to even take that skate photo. It’s from the ground up and I like that; it’s very pleasing.

Your Insta account is just @nils, Phil Evans told me to ask you about this…
I bought it for one million Krona! No, I don’t know how it happened; it was kind of in the beginning of iPhones and photo apps. I was just looking for another photo app and so I downloaded what I thought was just a photo app. I didn’t understand it after I downloaded it; you had to register your name and I just used it a couple of times then, ‘ah, this sucks!’ But I had it registered and it took many years before Instagram took off. I remember Martin Ottosson was starting to use it quite a lot and Jugga was as well as they’d been in America and I was starting to get a little bit interested like, ‘what is this? Oh I think I have this app…’ So just by luck I was one of the first that ever downloaded it and registered so I got that name.

Haven’t people tried to buy your username off of you?
I get messages every week! So many people want to buy it, but there was one really serious buyer from Germany: Nils-Christopher Wiesenauer. This was just before Covid and I said, ‘I’m not doing anything unless you give me 5000 euros. If you give me that, you can have it!’ And he was like, ‘yes! I want to buy it.’ So then he was like, ‘but how do we do it?’ So he was going to come here (to Malmö). We were going to do a physical meeting and swap it somehow. But then Covid came and it’s been postponed, ha ha.

D-Boy aka Daniel Bergström (formerly Håkansson), ollie to frontside wallride, Malmö, 2004

Ha ha, oh man.
If the price is right, 5000 euros, I’ll give it up no problem! I don’t use it so much; I’m not so active with posting. I’m waiting for some big DJ, DJ Nils, to come along and I can get properly paid! DJ Nils from Germany, if you’re out there, let me know!

Ha ha! Phil also said when he’s out filming and you’re shooting, unless you’re shooting fisheye, he never knows where you are shooting long lens. Like you’re hidden in a bush or atop a building’s roof or something. He calls you the Sly Fox…
I quite like to be just a fly on the wall. I like to shoot just the natural skating; it kind of feels like you’re unrestricted. You can move around and you can experiment a lot. It changes a little bit when you’re like, ‘okay you’re gonna do this trick’ then you have to decide how you’re going to shoot it. But when it’s just natural skating you can experiment and it gives you a little more time to work out that ultimate angle for when shit is going down. And sometimes you get better photos this way. But then again, I really like this cooperation with the skater, that’s a huge benefit with shooting digital. Before you were kind of alone in creating that photograph, but today it feels like you can work more together with the skater to create the photo that you both are aiming for.

Yeah Pontus mentioned this. He said you were really receptive to his ideas of things.
Yeah and obviously it helps a lot. With Pontus for example, we’ve had such a long relationship shooting stuff together, so it’s very much that process of bouncing ideas off of each other. ‘Oh let’s try this?’ and then Pontus takes the camera, ‘no no, let’s try this!’ and if someone on the outside is watching that it looks a bit weird maybe… But I like that you’re not alone in taking photos; it’s a group effort.

John Dahlqust mentioned newspaper photography. He said you like to sometimes shoot photos at an unorthodox time: just as the skater pops (like 95% of skate photos in a newspaper) or like taking the photo as they’re landing. Is this so?
Yeah I find it very interesting to find the different peaks of a trick basically. You can explore different timings in the trick and see where’s the most stylish part. The peak of the trick or the peak of the style, is it always the same or can they be different?

The LA Days wallie pic…
Yeah that kind of has it all in one photo. Paul Grund is doing the wallie, that’s the right timing for the wallie, Dane (Brady) has just landed and Aaron (Herrington) is there too. I love that photo; it feels like some weird still from some kind of movie. It has that California light and then Dane’s shiny black jacket there… There are some very aesthetic poses there; I like it a lot.

Dane Brady, Aaron Herrington and Paul Grund, Venice Beach, 2017

Danijel said to ask, ‘who is Atibavich?’
Ha ha, he is referring to when he takes my camera and shoots me skating. When I went on the trips with Jugga, to New York and San Francisco, he always insisted on getting a shot of me skating and that’s when ‘Atibavich’ came out. He’d take the camera and I was the subject. It was good; sometimes you need a bit of pressure.

Nice. Okay with Bryggeriet and all the work you do there, have you done any mentoring of young photographers yourself?
Yes I really try to. It’s pretty hard here. When I was a young photographer it felt like there were a lot of people that wanted to shoot photos. It felt like there was quite a competition to get your stuff in the magazines. So there seemed to be a big interest in shooting skate photos, it was glorified, but today it’s a struggle, here anyway. But I can say there’s a lot of photographers coming up on the scene that are so good, you know in England, in France, Belgium and all over the place, but there’s none here.

Why do you think that is?
Maybe because there’s no local skate magazine you know, but also there’s the decline of printed media and all that. But my own point that I try to express is that it doesn’t matter so much to me if I get to publish my photos or not, from all these trips we took in Europe and whatnot, they’re just in my computer. I just look at them; that’s how far they went. And it wasn’t about the destination for the photo; it’s about participating and being part of this trip.

The camaraderie is just as important as the trick.
Yeah and nailing a photo is kind of like nailing a trick. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s in a magazine or on Thrasher’s website… I have a little course here at the school once a year where I talk about my photography and give them a task and so I really try and push for that point too and make them understand. Because there are a lot of really good skaters and they have their little crews so I encourage them. ‘Just document yourself! Make stuff…’

They’re going to want this documentation when they’re older, to look back on… I wish I had more photos from my teenage years, but we just didn’t shoot pics that much back then.
Exactly and I really try and talk about my mistake, because I didn’t come into photography from being interested in photography, I came into it from being interested in skating and particularly documenting these tricks, the tricks I’d seen in the magazines. So I didn’t really shoot anything else but the tricks. I didn’t document much in the beginning, like what we were doing, how Bryggeriet came about and those early days. All I have in my old archive is basically the tricks. If I could just turn back time you know!

D-Boy and Love Eneroth, Dubai, 2009

You’re not the first photographer to say that…
And also now that I’ve been digging around in my archives what is clear is that everything becomes better with age. It’s a time stamp. Those imperfect things that you were thinking at the moment you took the photo, with age they become the perfect thing. They get a new value the older they get. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the best tricks or not, what matters is that there’s a photo of it. So I really try to encourage this creativity in general, the photography, the filming, the art and the music, the food… Everything that comes together and is fun about skate culture.

Okay tell us about Le Boxx then.
It’s Bryggeriet’s new venture. It is exactly what I just said: it’s a hub to promote all the great things about skateboarding and its culture. So it’s heavily focusing on the art, film and photography and obviously it’s a little café here and we’re connecting the food to skating in some way.

Skarfing material…
Skate food, skate coffee! We sell some nice merch and skate stuff here as well and we put on events like film screenings, film premieres and little drink and draw nights, you name it… Just everything that’s fun! You can only look at yourself basically and why I love skateboarding so much, is because of this. It’s the side things. If you take away all the side things and just have the act of skating then it’s not interesting.

Yeah I totally agree. And how is it being received by everyone there?
It’s right by Stapelbäddsparken so in the summers there are loads of people here. Now in the winter it’s a bit harder, as we’re not in the centre of town, so it’s hard to get people here, but we do some really good stuff I think. That’s the most important part; we just have to continue to do good stuff. But the success isn’t how many people are coming here, the success is in what we’re producing, promoting…

And how it impacts people…
Yeah, I love it. It’s so fun to work with all these different parts and try and package it and get people interested. I’m here right now, just sitting here looking at all the cool shit on the walls… All the rad boards we have on the wall, skate coffee…

I’ll have to come check it my next time in Malmö. Okay last question, what keeps you motivated?
Like here with Le Boxx, for example, I just want people to get to experience what I’ve experienced a little bit. And maybe the same with my photography, I want to translate that feeling that I have when I take the photo and get people to feel the same. Have them feel that feeling of stoke and involvement… I want to speak to them and get them hyped, get them inspired. Maybe get them inspired to take a similar path that I have or a creative path to do something good for the skate scene… Something that will improve the skate scene and beyond.

Pontus Alv, wallie, Malmö, 2011