You can’t find what you never lost
Words&interview: Goetz Werner
Belfast-born photographer Ricky Adam made his first appearance in Lodown around 16 years ago, so when he e-mailed me about his latest book project ‘Destroying Everything’ I thought it was about time to have him back. In all those years Ricky has been the main photographer/co-editor for DIG BMX magazine, played in bands and traveled the world with his camera, capturing a fascinating array of stunning images. ‘Destroying Everything’ is the photographic culmination of this journey and his fascination and involvement with the worlds of BMX and punk. It’s is about documenting people who have a different way of looking at their environment and it’s a testament to Ricky Adam’s ability to capture the optimism, energy and enthusiasm of a generation that prefers to live a counter lifestyle rather than adhere to the repetitive ‘work, eat, tv, sleep’ lifestyle of most people.
Ricky mate, it’s been a long time, I think about 16 years, since you’ve last been in Lodown magazine. How have you been, how has life been treating you?
Has it really been that long? 16 years is a long time. Not much has changed, but at the same time a lot has changed. I’m still taking photos (probably more than ever), going to see bands, I’m still a part of the DIG BMX family. I’m doing a lot of the same things I was doing 16 years ago. You know that old adage - If it ain’t broke… the only difference is that I’m older with a bit more experience with life… and, that last line came out sounding very middle aged! Hahaha.
Tell me about your book ‘Destroying Everything… Seems Like The Only Option’. That pretty much is a book in which you have documented the two big passions in your life, BMX and punk, right?
This is true. For the last 20+ years I’ve been rolling around documenting various aspects of the BMX & punk scene. The book: ’Destroying Everything’ came about quite suddenly. Around 2 years ago I was going through a bunch of my photos and I realized that I had a lot of images that possessed a certain quality and connection to one another. I have spent ‘X’ amount of years playing in bands, traveling and taking photographs. A lot of the photos in the book are from my time working at DIG BMX mag. So, editing a selection of these images in the form of a book seemed like a great way to bring together a bunch of random situations and scenarios that I have been thrown into over the years.
In the foreword of the book you say that you normally don’t like to dwell on the past, but when you put the book together it reminded you of being a teenager and the fire inside, the restlessness and the drudgery. How important was it to you personally to express that energy in your pictures?
It’s very important to me otherwise I’d end up with boring looking images. For example, if you go to see a band, the music is in the air. You can’t photograph the sound. So, instead, I try to photograph and capture the energy in a way that’s equally as powerful to what’s going on in that moment and present it in a still image. Photography is storytelling with pictures and if I’m photographing exciting things it’s important to reflect this in the final images.
What came first, punk or BMX? And can you remember what it was like when you first picked up a BMX bike, you know, try to describe what that feeling was like?
They both came about around the same time and both were pivotal moments in my life. I got my first BMX when I was 11 years old. Music came very shortly after. I remember a friend of mine had a BMX and the minute I had a go on it I wanted one. It felt like I was riding a monster truck. It was strong, you could jump it and it was a heck of a lot more fun compared to the racing bike I had at the time. I also remember it fitting me really well. It was the perfect-sized machine for a young boy coming of age haha.
Let’s talk about growing up in Belfast…what was the punk and BMX scene like and what was it like growing up there as a kid/teenager in the 90s? I’m asking because Belfast can be a pretty gnarly city, right?
Northern Ireland is a very strange place to grow up in, especially when I was growing up there. Segregation was taken for granted. Protestants here, Catholics over there. It probably seems ridiculous to an outsider and it is ridiculous! The punk scene on the contrary brought everyone together. No questions asked. No one cared or asked what religion you were or what part of the city you were from. The punk community transcended sectarianism and unified the youth through music. It was the complete opposite to what was going on at the time in Northern Ireland. This is the reason why BMX and the punk scene were and still are so appealing to me. It was a break from the norm and it was something positive that I could channel my energy into.
As far as the BMX scene went, there were only a handful of riders. I rode with the same group of people for years. One of the good things with riding bikes around Belfast was that you could pretty much ride anything without getting any hassle from police or security. They had much bigger fish to fry other than hassling kids for riding bikes. In fact, we used to ride these transition banks right outside one of the police stations in Belfast and always got away with it.
In a city like Belfast, did you feel like an outsider as a teenager that was into BMX and punk, or were you just glad that you had an active lifestyle and kind of belonged to something?
From an early age BMX and punk was my life. All my friends were into BMX, punk or skated so I never really felt that much of an outsider in those circles.
I’m glad I found these things. Growing up in Northern Ireland, I could have easily fallen into something entirely different, which could have had a real negative impact on my life.
When it comes to punk music, which bands were you into, and describe how that music really went hand in hand with the lifestyle/ethos/attitude of BMX riding?
To me BMX and punk are one and the same. Both have played a huge part in my life. I got into Iron Maiden when I was 11, which laid the path for other guitar-oriented music. Around the same time a friend lent me a BMX video that had some great music on it and I asked him if he could make me a tape, which he did. It had bands like Naked Raygun, Minor Threat, Gray Matter, etc. It completely blew me away. I’d never heard anything quite like it. Really powerful and also the perfect soundtrack for riding bikes to. Not only was the music great, but the bands had stuff to say which added a whole other dimension to it.
Nearly all the bands I listened to were from a D.I.Y. background, which meant that they did everything themselves. From organizing tours to making records and printing shirts. Everything was done on their own terms without managers or the like interfering. This in turn gave me the confidence to go out there and pursue a creative outlet off my own back.
You said that when you got your first camera it was like a ‘switch’ was turned on inside. Please try to re-live that day for us as well and tell us what your first camera was and what it was that you liked about photography so much.
Photography for me is something that started out purely as a hobby. I rode bikes, skated and all my friends were into punk. The things I photographed were a direct response to that, and a catalyst for picking up a camera in the first place. I got my first camera when I was about 19. You have to realize that this was something that I’d been building up to for some time. I grew up before the Internet, so as a teenage BMX rider the only medium available at the time was either magazines or video tapes. I was about 15 when I first really started noticing photography. I’d buy skateboard and BMX magazines: Homeboy, BMX Action, Freestylin’ and Thrasher. These magazines helped to lay some of the groundwork for my taste and style in photography. The photography and design were dynamic and bold. So, when I eventually got a camera I had the means to photograph the things that I was involved with. At the time this was primarily punk and BMX. It’s important to find a subject matter that suits you as a photographer.
I can’t remember what make my first camera was, just some cheap, old film camera. I bought a few rolls of colour film, shot some stuff and when I got it back from the chemist after they were processed I knew that this was something that I was going to stick with. Very soon after I gravitated towards black and white film and started developing and printing my own photos. This was when I started to get a lot more serious with photography.
What would you say is the essence of your photography? What is it all about for you?
I just really enjoy taking photographs and collecting images. It’s storytelling with pictures. I like how photography is so unpredictable. There’s a very fine line between a really great photo and a really bad one. A lot of it is down to luck and being in the right place at the right time with a camera. Sometimes with photography it helps to not have an agenda. If something interests you, photograph it. These instances can lead to really great images/projects and the bands and people have always inspired me to take photos. I’m not sure I would have picked up a camera in the first place if I wasn’t somehow inspired by what I was seeing in front of me all those years ago.
Tell me a bit more about the cover shot for your book, I mean the image of the bruised hands with the ‘forever young’ tattoo, holding a fag really sums it all up very nicely in one image….
This was taken in Berlin, Germany in 2008. I noticed Alex’s hands which were looking a bit worse for wear. He’d been riding all day filming for an upcoming video part. I should say that Alex (Kennedy) is a pro rider. I liked the sentiment of his tattoo and the photo is quite ambiguous. Alex must have been about 19 at the time. I think when you are that age, it’s such a special time in a young person’s life, you know figuring out who you are and all of that.
As you said, it summed a lot of things up in one go and made a perfect cover for the book. I have to say, hands like these are a fairly common sight in the world of BMX. Bloody shins too. Do you feel that you have a self-destructive personality and that this is reflected in your pictures?
A lot of the subjects I photograph have a self-destructive personality and I’m going to include myself in that category as well. I think everyone is self-destructive in one sense or another. It’s all part of being human.
When I look at your pictures and also the motives, words like passion, creativity, and individuality come to mind – I mean in a consumer-based society where everyone is obsessed with dumb celebrities it is important to have people that live their lives from the heart, right? And how important were those factors - passion, creativity, and individuality - to be drawn to these counter lifestyles?
I’m not interested in celebrity. I’ve always been drawn to creative people who have a passion for what they do. If you go through the photos in the book most of the people in there aren’t well known at all. Maybe a few bands that are reasonably well known but that’s it. For me it’s all about the image.
Tell me the maddest story behind any of the pictures in the book please… I mean you must have seen some interesting stuff being on the road with all these BMX guys and going to these punk shows…
…I’m not sure I can pinpoint one particular moment. When I look at some of the photos in the book, I’m immediately drawn back to that moment. I see friends and places from a past life. It’s a bit like looking at a personal diary taken over the last 16+ years. I have a terrible memory but photography helps me remember things I’d otherwise forget.
However, a lot of the early punk photos were taken at a place called the ‘Warzone Centre’ in Belfast. When I first started going to this place it was a real eye opener. Lots of weirdos under the same roof. Punkers passed out on the stairs, people swinging from the rafters during a gig. Dogs running about. A lot of the time it was pure bedlam! But in a good way. Unfortunately, it shut down a number of years ago. Although, I’ve heard it’s reopened again in a different location. I’m a bit out of touch as I’ve been living away from N. Ireland for the last 13 years or so.
Out of all the BMX pros you have worked with, who was the most impressive rider?
I couldn’t say. There are too many to mention. Each rider brings something different to the table.
You recently started working in the photography department at Leeds Metropolitan University. How exactly did you end up getting to do that job and how was that new chapter in your life?
Last year I was asked if I would be interested to stand in for a few months for someone who was off on sick leave. I almost said no, but then I thought I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did. It was a really good experience and I really enjoyed helping out the photography degree students. It was only temporary. But, recently a job came up at the university. I applied for it and got it. So far it’s been great and I turned 40 a few weeks ago. So, it’s good to try out other things now that I’m ‘over the hill’ and all that. Haha! So long as it’s photography-related I’m happy!
What else are you up to?
Well, apart from the university gig I am still going to be taking lots of photographs and I’m still doing bits & pieces for DIG magazine.
I’ve got some photos from a completely different project called ‘Further Reductions’ that’ll be on show in the Aperture gallery in New York next month which is cool. As far a projects go I’ve been taking lots of street photos. I’ve also been working on a documentary project that I’ve been chipping away at for the last 4+ years. I have about 4-5 projects that I’m constantly working on which I hope will be made into books at some point.”
Thanks Ricky. It’s a real pleasure having you back in Lodown Magazine….
Thank you! It’s been nice to connect again after so many years. Hopefully catch up again in another 16.