Storyteller — An Interview With Norma Ibarra

Intro & Interview by José Vadi
Photography by Norma Ibarra

Photographer Norma Ibarra left her hometown of Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico in 2009 and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia — a few blocks away from Antisocial Skateshop in 2015. She started skating and became obsessed. Norma transferred her lifelong photography passion into contributions to the burgeoning The Skate Witches collective-turned-zine and volunteering for nonprofits like Skate Like a Girl. Self-funded skate trips turned into official invites from brands to document the worldwide sessions. Few have captured so many unique skate scenes around the world in so little time as Norma, who has a keen eye for showcasing skateboarding as a conversation with the cities and communities that house every trick.

Norma’s energy and passion for her work was palpable during our recent phone call, where we talked about photographer etiquette, hoarding clothes, and why growing your own food can help your skating.

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Talk to me about your recent trips to Mexico, I feel like you got back to Canada for quarantine right before another shutdown.

I went back to work on my project documenting Mexican skaters, the women, and nontraditional skateboarding scene in Mexico City. I was going home for Christmas anyway, but while I was there, a lot of things happened, including the passing of my grandma, and the passing of my dad.

I’m very sorry to hear about your grandmother and your father.

I tried to keep positive and channel my energy into photos. I am always hard on myself. Sometimes, I like to remind myself that people don’t know what my vision is, it’s only me who knows. It’s hard to remind yourself that — I know it’s good, it’s creating an impact, I’m documenting something that hasn’t been documented.

Regarding my dad — it’s really personal, but I like to share — I happened to never have a relationship with my dad until the 31st of December [2019]. I was wondering “What if my dad died and I would never talk to him?” I looked for him and we made peace, he said sorry. We talked and developed this small friendship throughout 2020. I am grateful that I did that because it ended up being good, you know — I ended up forgiving him, forgiving myself — and I know he left happy.

It was a very crazy year for me.

Thank you for sharing that. What’s the scene like in Mexico? How are skaters dealing with COVID-19?

At the beginning, some people might not have skated and been scared, but now, it seems like people skate more on the streets because some of the parks closed. Unfortunately, in Mexico, I feel like it’s a bit behind when it comes to being open about diversity. There’s a lot of people on the ground now who are working towards creating safe spaces in Mexico for everyone to skate, more nontraditional skaters and a lot more allies within the men’s scene. There is a lot of unity with women in Mexico — and that’s reassuring. But there is a lot more work to do.

What needs to happen more? Is it more like unity across scenes or genders or brands?

I think there’s a lack of representation when it comes to brands, and who they are supporting. Brands might be supporting the wrong people who are doing bad things for the community to begin with. Brands might not be giving space to women, to queer skaters, there’s still a lot of phobia around that — “Women don’t deserve the same as the guys” — that’s still there a lot. You can tell. Maybe they’re doing tours and there’s no women in it, or they’re making all these videos, but there’s no women in it – like not even one. In other countries, you see that token, you know? You see that, “Oh there’s the team with the one girl in it.” In Mexico, some brands are not even there yet.

I think that also comes from the machismo where the people in those positions of power are mostly men, and are not able to see the lack of diversity and representation. There’s a lot of things that can change.

How has COVID impacted some of that community building that you’ve been doing in Mexico and Canada? I know you were doing a lot of community work with U Can Skate in Mexico. Have you been using more virtual things to do your work?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I got to work with Skate Like a Girl. They implemented really good on-the-ground skateboarding camps, and now they came up with online programs: Zoom skate meet-ups, video tutorials and workshops. I helped with a couple of events as a host. Because they moved to online now, they’re reaching people from all over the world. It’s really inspiring.

I also formed a gardening club with a bunch of skate friends. We’re working on raising funds and finding ways to create D.I.Y. gardening-skateboarding programs. I believe that everyone should know how to grow their own food. I realized that a lot of people in my skateboarding community were already growing stuff, so I reached out to them and they became my mentors and we started a gardening-skate-club.

What do you look forward to growing this spring?

The thing that I was the most excited about last year was corn, because it’s such a staple in Mexican culture. When I told my friends I was going to grow corn – I live by a crazy intersection and there’s raccoons around — my friends said, “Oh, if you grow corn, all the raccoons are going to eat it.” I was like, “I’m Mexican and I want to grow corn!” I stuck with it and I ended up with maybe five bunches of corn and fourteen plants. I was so excited.

Gardening is like skateboarding — if you don’t skate everyday, you’re not going to improve as quick — and same for your plants. If you’re not watering every day, and making sure the plants get enough sun and nutrients, then your plant is not going to make it. Sometimes you plant four things and none of them are going to grow at the same time. You think they will because you’re doing the same things to them, but some of them won’t make it, some others will grow slower. Skateboarding is like that, too. Nobody progresses and gets better in the same amount of time. Everyone has their own journey. I like the way they connect like that.

I haven’t been, but it’s really cool that Antisocial has skateboards, but also flowers and things like that.

It’s so lovely. You come to the shop in the spring and the summer, and it’s just such an amazing vibe. You can buy skateboarding gear, but you can also buy veggies for your dinner. And you know who grew that, you know they’ve been growing with love, and they’re organic. And you’re supporting a woman, a powerful community builder like Michelle [Pezel].

That’s where a lot of the gardening club gets inspiration — from Michelle. Not last year but the year before, Una [Farrar] got hurt, couldn’t skate, and it was her birthday. We were already roommates, so her and I kept talking about cleaning up the backyard because it was shit, basically. For [Una’s] birthday, Michelle and I organized a gardening party. We all cleaned up the backyard. Michelle brought us a bunch of soil and seeds, and we started growing flowers in the front. I blame Michelle for introducing me to the love of growing plants, food and flowers.

In the zine that you did recently for Credits and “Maximum Flow,” I really like the storytelling; I love the captions and the photos. What was it like putting it together? Was it always a goal to put out a zine while the videos were being produced?

No, that was not a goal. [Credits] started as a small project and grew into a bigger project. I came in later. Shari [White] helped me and we really pushed until I was able to go on some trips. Whenever I could, I would go on my own buck. Eventually, Vans was like, “Norma, you should come.” I accumulated what I captured in Vancouver; it’s easy to do that because we’re across from each other in the house. Shari, Una and I are roommates. When someone wants to get a trick, I’ll get the photo and Shari gets the video. The good thing about living in the same house is that we can just yell from each other’s room: “Hey, let’s go skate!”

I was really trying to get on these trips because I thought it was such a good historical moment. They were doing the video, but there wasn’t a photographer. Eventually, I was able to go to Barcelona and Australia. The Barcelona photos were for Skateism, but there wasn’t really a plan for everything else. We ended up having photos everywhere online, but really nowhere tangible as a whole, you know?

Shari was working on “Maximum Flow” and said, “Why don’t we just make the zine with all the photos? I’ll finish the new video and then we promote it together?” Shari has a lot of design experience, I do thank her for her help. She helped me with the quotes and sorting things about printing. As I said, some of these photos, I got them because I made an effort, to follow them around when I could. That’s why I ended up selling it, because I invested time and money going to some these places and I would love to update my gear. I will sell the zines for that.

The shot of Fabiana [Delfino] on the cowboy hat… is there any story behind that photo?

It has a couple of stories. This photo was taken in 2018 during WOF [Wheels of Fortune]. The day after the events over, we all wanted to go there — Shari, Fabi, Breezy [Breanna Geering], Allysha [Le], Nora [Vasconcellos], Nicole [Hause].

To get up on that thing, the girls had to drive into the park, park next to the hat, climb the van and then jump to the hat. There was this guy there trying to kick us out and he started making all this drama. Luckily, when he came, Nora and Fabi already landed tricks, but we had to leave before everyone could skate. They all had to come down and the guy wouldn’t let them — it was just such a hectic scene.

I remember Zorah [Olivia, photographer] is shooting Nora, and I was shooting Fabi and Kristin [Ebeling]. Mike Burnett gave me advice once that if you are at the spot and there are two photographers — if the other person is doing fisheye, you go for long lens or vice versa. At this spot, you cannot really go fisheye. “Well, she’s shooting portrait, I’ll shoot landscape. She’s really close, I’ll just walk and see what I find.” I found these dandelions and I knew that was different from her angle. It was a learning experience that even if there’s two photographers in one spot, you can come up with something different. You just got to step back literally and mentally, and be like “What can I do here?”

I submitted this photo to a couple of people, and they didn’t like it. They were saying all the wrong things about the photo and I got really sad. That photo sat in my hard drive for a long time. But then Solo magazine reached out for photos, and I sent them that because something told me, “This photo needs to be viewed, I think this photo’s good.” It ended up being a two-page spread.

That’s another learning for me: not all the editors of the magazines are going to like your photos, but then someone else will love it. We all have different styles. We all have different opinions of what a photo should look like. Sometimes I get a bit annoyed about all these unspoken rules about skate photography because sometimes I break them, and it actually ends up being something good.

Talking about breaking unspoken rules, was there a conscious effort to document the downtime, the hanging out, as much as the tricks?

I have a hard time documenting that, but I managed to get enough. There’s also photos from Shari and Cierra [Xavier] in this zine, maybe ten percent of the photos are theirs. I sometimes have another little camera that helps me get the bails or the celebrations. I’m really caught up on getting the trick a lot of the time; I need the moment.

In the Jenkem interview you and Shari did, you mentioned one of your mentors is Oli Gagnon, the snowboard photographer. His work is insane. I was curious how his work has influenced your photography.

Oli is Shari’s boyfriend. If you look back at the Skate Witches magazines from the early times, Oli would take a lot of photos for the zine and he’d be like “You do it.” I would always message him or call him and be like “Hey Oli, what do you think of this, of that?” I just started calling him my mentor, and he’s like “I’m not your mentor, you’re good now, you’re a professional photographer now, stop that!”

I also mentioned Margus Riga, a mountain bike photographer and also one of my mentors. I mountain bike and worked in the mountain bike industry before skateboarding, and I got to work on this mountain bike racing event and assist. I truly think my style has a lot of mountain biking influences.

Amidst everything going on right now, and aside from the beautiful garden I’m sure you’ll grow, what are some goals for 2021 for you? Are there any people you’d like to shoot?

I’d love to shoot Alexis Sablone. Now that she’s an Alltimer, I’m hoping that she will come to Vancouver because there’s a lot of Vancouver skaters on the Alltimers team. I recently got to hang out with Alltimers and do a small shoot in Vancouver, so I’m hoping that this year Alexis comes to Vancouver. I would like to get into filming too, and maybe filming a small video part to push my skating.

Oh! If I tell you, it’s going to be in the interview and I have to really go through with this one, and it’s not spending money on clothes. I love clothing!

Has there been any questionable fashion purchases that made you want to check yourself more?

It’s more about how much space do I have in my room to actually sleep. I like collecting things too, like “Oh this shirt from this event – I don’t want to get rid of it.” I don’t need any more clothes; I could probably dress differently for two months without having to do laundry. It’s just out of control.

My goal is not spending a single dollar on clothes. It’s like a shopping ban for me.

Two months deep in the wardrobe, that’s solid.

April 23rd is my birthday, so I will definitely take some new clothes as birthday gifts.

Follow Norma on Instagram

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