In 2007, an Australian skateboarder called Oliver Percovich decided to give girls from the most autocratic and repressive societies the opportunity to skateboard.
He took Skateistan to Kabul, Afghanistan, using the urban street sport as a tool for empowerment, and a hook to get children aged 5 to 18 from poor and displaced Afghan families into full-time education. It now works with over 400 children per week. Pictures of them are now on display at London’s Saatchi gallery.
In a country where girls aren’t allowed to ride bikes, and where only 20 percent of women aged 15 to 24 are literate, Skateistan has made skateboarding the most popular sport for girls.
“I think initially when Oliver the founder turned up in Kabul with three skateboards, he was like the pied piper – he’d lend them to children and have to wrestle them back because they were enjoying it so much,” explains Jessica Fulford-Dobson. Since its beginnings, Skateistan has established the two largest sports centres in Afghanistan and opened centres in South Africa and Cambodia.
Fulford-Dobson, the celebrated British portrait photographer, heard of Skateistan one lazy weekend as she was reading the paper. “I was flicking through the supplements in late 2012”, explains Fulford-Dobson, ahead of the series going on display at The Saatchi Gallery.
“As a photographer, you’re always looking for something that’s going to grab your attention, and I read this tiny little article, which I almost missed, about three inches long, about girls skateboarding in Afghanistan. It just captured my imagination immediately.
“I thought here is an amazing, upbeat story from a part of the world I’m only hearing horrors from. I thought this has to be seen.” The series, shot on-location in Kabul from 2012 to 2014, shows young Afghan girls in traditional dress holding skateboards, skating on ramps, and having fun with their friends. One portrait – titled Skate Girl – won second prize in the 2014 Taylor Wessing Prize.
Beyond the physical benefits, sport empowers girls to build leadership skills, confidence, and challenge gender stereotypes, Fulford-Dobson says. As only 45 percent of Skateistan’s students are girls, I was interested to hear why Jessica decided to focus on them in her photographs. “I focused on girls because in that society it’s quite difficult to get access to girls, let alone photograph them,” she says. “I’m naturally curious – you have to be as a portrait photographer. It was so interesting, because the girls are so feisty and fun, they’re strong little things – they even pushed the boys around in the playground!”
Within the series, little girls in Afghan dress stare confidently into the camera, clutching their skateboards. In the prize-winning picture Skate Girl, the girl captured is elegantly dressed in a beautiful blue outfit, with a defiant gaze.
“I didn’t pose them in any way, they had a little area that they hopped up on – it reminded me of a series of photographs by Richard Avedon where he put people in a tight corner – the girls expressed themselves similarly on the little platform. They’d all hop up, see their friends standing there, and would just be themselves. It was so sweet to see how some of them were initially a bit shy, but suddenly thinking they do want to stand there with their board, and it becoming like their trophy.”
But how is skateboarding culturally acceptable in a country where girls aren’t allowed to play other sports? “I think it’s helped in that the girls’ parents see that skateboarding fits and works with their culture – because the girls are segregated, the girls help the girls, it’s done inside and they can still wear their Afghan dress.” There was only one parent who was unhappy.
“One father said: ‘No’ to his daughter, that she couldn’t do it, and a week later he turned up with the daughter and said: ‘Please can my daughter join!’ She had screamed the house down, just like any child, and stamped her feet, so he was like, ‘OK, enough, you can go to Skateistan – I can’t take it any more!’”
Ultimately, the Skate Girls of Kabul represents freedom, equality, and progression. They’re captivating because the girls embody a clash of cultures, question gender roles, and are optimistic and positive. “By holding a skateboard,” explains Jessica, “the skate girls symbolically represent the girls all over the world who want education, and want the freedom to do sport, but in a photogenic and unique way. That’s why I think they’re so timeless, and will never go out of fashion, because they capture something so unique, but that we can all relate to in different ways.”
Find out more about the Saatchi exhibition here.