Talking 'Concrete Girls' with Charlotte Thomas

Released in 2018, Concrete Girls was the result of five years work for Hereford native and one time Leeds local Charlotte Thomas.

By interweaving skate shots with candid lifestyle photography, Charlotte created a unique snapshot of the UK female skateboarding scene during the era that almost directly pre-dates the most recent upsurge in active skateboarders.

We caught up with Charlotte to find out where the idea to publish a coffee table book came from, the journey that led to its release, and how things have changed in the UK over the years since.

Read on to find out more…!

Can you kindly introduce yourself for us, Charlotte?

Hi guys. I’m Charlotte, 37 years old, Hereford born and raised, and I’m the founder and author of Concrete Girls.

What is your background as far as skateboarding goes? You were a stalwart of Hyde Park in Leeds during your university years, but did you start skating before then?

Yes, I started back in my hometown of Hereford around the age of 17. The local was Maylord Orchards underground carpark and B&Q carpark. There were only a few skateboarders around at the time and I was the only female, I wasn’t welcomed with open arms so I tended to skate alone until I went to Leeds, when my skateboarding really took off and I found my skate family.

‘Charlie Boardslide’ was my nickname during my times in Leeds.

When and how did you start shooting photos? Was that a passion you picked up alongside skateboarding, or was it something you got involved with separately?

I started taking photos seriously when I was living in London and working as fashion shoot producer for Topshop/Topman. I’d mainly shoot backstage and fashion shows during London Fashion Week; Vogue Italia was my main client. Catwalk, street style and models backstage were my steps into photography.

Then I hurt my coccyx at the new Hereford skatepark during a trip back home and I couldn't skate for a long time; depression kicked in, as it does for many of us.

I felt lost, like my identity had been stripped away. Not being able to skateboard was like losing life for me, so one day I spoke with a friend, who said, “why don’t you take pictures of skateboarding, so you can still be part of the culture and hang with your buddies?”

So really, I guess it started from there.

Which photographers would you have been looking to for inspiration back in your early days of shooting?

I particularly loved Giovanni Reda, Ryan Allan, Chris Johnson, Arto Saari, Leo Sharp and William Strobeck, however I mainly found inspiration from old skate videos. The Static videos, Blueprint, Black Label and anything by Girl Skateboards just blew my mind, and I tend to still watch these videos for inspiration.

How would you best describe the female skate scene in the UK back in the early 2000s?

It was nothing like it is now; you didn't know any other female skaters exist in the UK unless Sidewalk picked them up, or you heard about them via word of mouth from your buddies. “Charlie, we were in Manchester yesterday and saw another girl skater…” it was really like that.

Lois Pendlebury, Lucy Adams, Sam Bruce, Helena Long were the only females out of the UK I knew about because of Sidewalk, and Lois being a Bradford local.

There were these two older female skaters in Leeds who I looked up to - Vanessa Gorman and Kerry Varma. I thought they were the coolest humans on the planet.

We didn't have social media back then; MySpace and Facebook had only just come around, but if you wanted to meet up with anyone it would be by phone.

My first experience of skateboarding with a group of female skateboarders was when Jenna Selby was filming for The Mega Mission Tour.

There were 10 of us and I believe we met a handful more during the trip.

I guess that sums up the amount of girl skaters back then.

Where did the idea for Concrete Girls initially come from? Was there a point where you thought to yourself, “I’m going to make a book?”, or did Concrete Girls take shape over time?

As I mentioned I broke damaged my coccyx, and during this time, I moved out of London and back to Hereford, where I was staying in my mum’s spare room. I woke up one day after months of bar work, coffee shop work and feeling lost.

“Mum, I’m going to create a skateboarding book. I want to give something back to the one thing that gave me life, I want to leave something behind when I die” - Mum rolls her eyes, “ok love”. I know she was thinking, “here’s another one of Charlotte’s ideas”.

So I spent five years travelling the UK, meeting up with skateboarders who wanted to be a part of the project. The name was simple, we are girls who skate concrete. Concrete Girls.

You covered a lot of ground in order to make the project happen. How did you go about organising trips and making contact with the people you wanted to feature?

I just contacted girls via social media, or through friends, and asked if I could photograph them. Some girls said yes, some girls said no.

I don't drive, so it was trains, planes and stepdad’s automobile!

My stepdad Roger and Mumma Sue, drove me everywhere…the book would be nothing without them.

The female scene from 2013 – 2018 was obviously smaller than it is today. Was it difficult to include as many of the notable female skaters of the time as you did? Also, was there anybody you wanted to include, but couldn’t, for whatever reason?

Yes, and this is something that upsets me a lot. I wanted to do volumes - a three or five part series of books - but the project took my life savings. I produced and paid for everything as I wanted it to be made by a skateboarder for skateboarders. Cindy Whitehead from Girl Is Not A 4 Letter Word helped me get it into production in Korea but the design, layout, fabric, photos and end product were produced by me. I’m now a poor artist!

Some girls I’d love to photograph in particular include Zeta Rush, Becky Jaques, Savannah Keenan, Emma Richardson, and Kerri Dennis.

And now it blows my mind the talent I’ve seen on social media from the younger generations. If it paid, I’d be rich! I would love to photograph more and complete the book volumes, but I need an investor, and I’m still looking into this.

What are some of your best memories from the missions you undertook in order to shoot Concrete Girls?

The memory that will forever stay with me was my trip to shoot Stef Nurding for Sidewalk and Concrete Girls. Mum and Roger drove me to visit her in Plymouth. When we arrived at our destination after a four-hour long drive, we sat down to a beer and some food. I rang Stef to say come meet us.

She said “what road are you on?”

I said “King’s Street,”

Stef - “Where? I don't know a King’s Street.“

I said - “King’s Street. We are in Bournemouth, mate.“

Stef - “Mate I don't live in Bournemouth, I live in Plymouth!”

“FML”…we had to stay in a hotel and get up at 4am to drive to Plymouth so I could photograph Stef in a day and get back to Hereford in one weekend.

It was pretty stressful but it was amazing to see both of those gorgeous coastal cities.

What equipment did you use to shoot Concrete Girls?

Canon 1100 EOS and Canon 5D Mk2 – all second hand.

Did you take care of the entire design process yourself too? Was this an area you had much experience in beforehand?

I did; I designed the whole book, using InDesign and Photoshop, self-taught.

How big a task was choosing the right photographs to include? I’m assuming you’d have shot a whole wealth of photos for the project – what criteria did each photo have to meet in order to find itself in the final book?

I had thousands. For me, it wasn't just about the skateboarding, I wanted to capture the beauty of these women, their smiles were the main focus of the project.

It took months of selection, laying prints out, choosing what order and making a selection based on how that photo made me feel. “Does it show this person in their best light?” If the answer was ‘yes’, then it went in.

Concrete Girls was independently published in 2018, which I’m assuming was no small task. Can you tell us a bit about how you went about getting the book produced please?

I had spent a year contacting publishers in the UK and Europe, but no one was willing to support the project at the time. Then I had heard of Cindy Whitehead who had just published her first book; I contacted her via email and social media and she kindly offered to help me get the book produced. It was many video meetings, proof reading and discussions with the factory. It was a learning curve for me, and something I’m glad I had the experience in. I’m so pleased with the final outcome.

What was the reception to the book like upon its initial release? How were your nerves on the evening of the book launch and exhibition on Go Skateboarding Day 2018?

Well, I'd kind of messed up the initial release. With support of House of Vans marketing manager Oliver Wright and his team, they funded my first photography exhibition in London, but I didn't bring any books to sell on the night, only a hand full to view. That was a big mistake! However, the night was one of my greatest achievements and something I will forever cherish in my heart.

I was extremely nervous. To be honest, I didn't handle the process well at all; I was so anxious about doing the PR well, I just wanted people who I respected in the industry to love it, to respect the hard work and love that had gone into this project, I had done all on my own.

I think I became annoying and pushy; I definitely ruined some professional relationships. I’d sent a copy to Grey Magazine for a gift but it was sent it back, something that broke my heart at the time, but I guess it wasn't for them and that’s something I respect now.

However I did build the website, produce the social media content, and it was well received. I sold over 600 copies, which is amazing considering the crap job I did (laughs)!

Having spoke to some of my old friends who work in skateboarding for Converse and Nike, they gave me advice on how to approach the brand, not to do everything myself and get some help from other people.

At the moment I’d love to produce Volume Two and build on the name Concrete Girls, I’m just looking for people who would be willing to get on board.

From your first days in skateboarding through to the release of Concrete Girls in 2018, how did the female skate scene in the UK grow and evolve? What do you feel contributed to those changes?

Social media!

Similarly, how has the female skate scene in the UK changed in the few short years since the release of the Concrete Girls?

God, yes; it’s mind blowing the amount of girls skateboarding now. There are new brands, people starting their own clothing lines, doing local events, local crews…it’s huge! I can’t keep up!

What was the most enjoyable or rewarding part of producing Concrete Girls?

My books being in libraries all over the UK and Ireland. I will be a part of education and have left something in this world that you can hold.

Visit the Concrete Girls website to pick up a copy of the book, and follow Concrete Girls on Instagram to keep up to date with Charlotte's project!