Ben Colen is a skateboarder and photographer who’s eye for unique moments and steady judgement has allowed him to capture a series of the most standout skate photos.
It’s probably because Ben skated for such a long time before he started to shoot skate photography that he focuses his work so heavily on things that skaters care a lot about.
It was his strong attachment to skating that made him turn his lens on his sponsored friends and those experiences were the ones that opened the door to his skate career.
Since those early days, he’s worked at Skateboarder, Girl and Chocolate, Nike and Supreme and he’s shot some of the biggest names in the skate industry and beyond.
Ben has come a long way but he’s never lost focus.
We are stoked Ben is now a No Comply member, so we chatted about how he first got into skateboarding and photography,what it was like growing up in Long Island, inspiration from Ray Barbee and the Rubber Boys, moving to Boston, shooting for Girl and Chocolate, working at Skateboarder, Strength and Nike, going to Miami with Kyron Davis and Casper Brooker, skating in Birmingham with Mark Gonzales and London with Josh Stewart for Static II, shooting Gino in New York, travelling the world, getting held at gun point at a skate spot by the cops in LA, and his favourite things on and off his board of all-time
What’s your full name?
Benjamin Colen. Ben Colen is what I go by though, the only people who call me Benjamin is my sister sometimes and that’s it!
It’s just Ben.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Washington DC until I was 5.
Then, I moved to Long Island, where I pretty much grew up and I lived there till I was 18.
It was there I started skateboarding and when I was 18 I moved to Boston and I lived there for a while.
Sick. It’s in the state of New York isn’t it?
Brooklyn and Queens are on Long Island. They are part of the city but technically, they are the start of the island.
So If you were in Queens or Brooklyn, you could go east and go there. Long Island is there.
It’s below Connecticut and near New Jersey.So the town where I grew up was about 45 minutes to an hour away from New York City, if you drove, it was out in the suburbs.
When was the first time you saw a skateboard?
In 1986 there was a boom where a lot of people got skateboards and I wanted one.
It was around the time Police Academy came out. But I didn’t get in till the boom died and my parents finally got me one. But there was nobody else skating.
I was just kind of like by myself, so I sort of puttered around for a little bit and then stopped.
When did you get back on board?
Probably the summer before I went to high school, which would have been the summer of 1989.
My best friend at the time got a skateboard and I was like I’ve got a skateboard!
I got mine out and we started skating together and after that it was done.
He had a magazine and we had another friend who had some videos and that’s when we started to figure out was skating was and that summer of 1989 was the time that I really started to skate.
What videos were you watching at the time?
So the first skate video I remember seeing was Powell’s Public Domain, which had that ‘Rubber Boys’ section with Ray Barbee and Chet Thomas and all them, and that was the thing that was like the big section that we all loved and we watched that a lot.
Who had your favourite part?
It was Ray Barbee. Like that whole section but Ray Barbee, specifically in that, was the shit!
I think too, obviously all of the videos that came out; I’d seen all of them but a lot of them I saw out of order.
I saw Public Domain then I saw Animal Chin, however, I assume a lot of people on the east coast would see skate videos in a kind of delayed way when they were coming from California.
Somebody would finally get a copy but my timeline of what came out and when is confused because of that and I can’t remember when I saw them because of the difference in time to when they came out and the time when I watched them.
What spots were you skating?
Where we lived we didn’t have ramps! Probably for a couple years, I don’t think I met anyone about a ramp; we basically missed the whole launch ramp thing.
So for the most part we were street skating. So we would watch whatever street parts there were. Honestly, I used to fast forward vert parts at the time, I didn’t understand them.
We watched mostly street skating and just trying to find things to skate in Long Island. We started to take the bus to other towns, going to spots in other towns, going to the city and all that stuff.
Who were you skating with at the time?
My best friend Andre and a bunch of other people. I had friends from school who skated. My friend Ian.
We skated a lot back then there were way less people who skated, so at my school there were a couple kids who we skated with but there were kids from other schools who skated, so we’d meet up on the weekend and go skate or skip school somehow in the week and go skate.
At my school, there were 4 or 5 kids maybe who skated, so we’d go to other towns together and skate there.
So, when did you first pick up a camera?
I started taking photo classes in high school. My dad was really into photography, so he encouraged it. But I think that its funny that I did it for years and never shot skating!
During the first several years, I skated, I barely ever took a picture of anyone skating or anything like that because I saw stuff in the magazines and they looked so good, I had no idea of how I would even do that!
I didn’t want to carry things around. I just wanted to skate. It didn’t occur to me to take pictures of skating.
So how did you get into it?
What it really was, it was a couple different things. By then I had moved to Boston, I was at art school. I studied photography. I’d take pictures of my friends but not skating just yet.
Why did you move to Boston?
My dad got a job in Boston, my family was moving there, the year before I graduated and I got into this one school up there and they said if you want to go to that school, you can live with us?
I got into other schools at other places but I had visited Boston, it was a fun place to skate.
I knew it would be great to live there and skate, so that’s how I ended up moving there petty much.
So anyway I was up there, some of the dudes I lived with and my friends up there generally at the time were getting sponsored and getting photos in magazines and going on trips.
There was Vanik Hacobian, who used to skate for Santa Cruz and my friend Steve Nardone, who skated for Brooklyn Boards and Dynasty. Charlie Wilkins was up there, he skated for Powell.
Jamal Williams was already pro when I got there and Robbie Gangemi was there at the time to.
There weren’t many people taking photos at that point…So that was happening and at the same time, Dimitry Elyashkevich, he was shooting for Big Brother Magazine, he came up to shoot photos for one weekend, he was friends with my girlfriend, they’re both from Brooklyn so they knew each other.
He crashed at our place and I was living with Nardone and Vanik then.
Dimitry started showing me photos, and telling me about all these trips that he was going on and it all sounded like real fun.
I knew I wasn’t good enough to get sponsored that was never going to happen but to go on trips with my friends and go skating, that would be fun. So I just started trying to shoot skating at that point and because there were other guys that needed photos to be shot and sometimes my work would be used for an ad.
What was your first published photo?
The first photo I had published, I had was an ad of Vanik, a Bullet Wheels ad, a photo of him he was ollieing a gap, it was definitely, a bit soft and not very good looking back.
I think the second I had this photo of Nardone, for this clothing company, the ad was turned black and white and was printed backwards and ended up being published at about the size of about two quarters side-by-side. In total, it probably took up ten inches of the page but it was kind of exciting somehow!
Yeah you’ve got to start somewhere. At that point, I had a job, I was freelancing I would shoot photos all the time and send them to magazines and see if they got in. Every so often they would.
Who would you send stuff too?
I remember sending stuff to Slap, Big Brother and Transworld.
Why not Thrasher?
You know I think honestly, Thrasher at the time, there was a period where Thrasher to me, the paper kind of sucked and Transworld had a lot of radder shit in it pages.
In the early 00s Transworld had more pages than Thrasher.
Yeah, this is before that even. The photos were always rad.
The thing with Slap was I always liked Lance Dawes, there were awesome photos in there and the way he wrote about stuff was rad. I always thought Slap was rad but I didn’t get many photos in Slap.
Also there was a magazine called Strength and it was one of the main magazines I started to get photos in.
What was the deal with Strength?
Skate, snowboard like hip-hop label. All kids of shit and I think at some point later on it became Strength and Skateboard but that was about the time I was working at Skateboarder. When I started doing stuff for them, Chris Nieratko, used to write a lot of stuff for them. The first trip I went on for Strength was with him.
Where did you go on that trip?
It was an East Coast Converse skate trip, with the first version of Converse skate guys. It was like 1998, I think, maybe 1997.
So, what year did you move to Boston?
1993 and I started shooting skate photos in 1997.
So there was a long gap between. How did you get a job at Skateboarder?
It’s funny because I remember Giovanni Reda telling me, they’re starting Skateboarder again, when he’d come to Boston and shoot sometimes, it’s going to be sick! Send me photos!
I was working in a camera store in a lab in Boston and I remember Skateboarder; they had two annual issues that came out in 1998 and 1999. Both big annuals. I didn’t have anything in those.
So I was like fuck it. I wasn’t really working for anybody so I started sending photos to Skateboarder and I officially started to work for them in 2000. I had been contributing to them since 1998 but started a proper contract with them at the start of the millennium.
That must have been sick
Yeah I got to stop working in the camera store and started to work for them instead.
Did you feel like you’d get that opportunity?
Honestly, at that point, it was just what I was doing. Rent was so cheap.
The job would let me go on little road trips here and there and I wanted to take skate photos but I didn’t know if I’d get that chance.
It worked out well, I was super hyped to not have a 9-5 anymore and go shoot photos, it’s pretty amazing.
What was it like to go out and shoot for a job?
It was cool. That was the start of getting to go travelling. Before that I would drive cross country, take like a month, drive to the Tampa AM contest, go to California, go to LA, go to SF,
When I got the Skateboarder job, going on other trips, leaving the country was fun.
I think when I worked at Skateboarder; the whole staff would go to Slam City Jam contest in Vancouver.
The whole staff would get together and I think that was my second time on a plane.
After that I started travelling a lot. I think that was one of the coolest thing about it, going to new places was rad.
How’d you develop your shooting style?
Honestly, it’s one of the hardest things for me to define for myself. I’m not entirely sure what my style is.
For me it’s a matter of taking skate photos and wanting to do the best job of representing the skater, what they’re doing and dude, like even taking the proper amount of respect of a skater and a situation, if you know what I mean?
People are busting their ass to get the photo.
I guess my takeaway is that I want people to look at the photo and say whoa that looks gnarly or make the person look as good as they possibly can do.
Yeah, that’s what it’s about in its essence.
Really try to make it look good. I don’t tend to get super tricky with wild angles, obviously it’s fun to mess around and show different things but I want to show why the tricks the skaters are doing is rad ultimately.
I’ve seen you’ve shot a lot of photos of one of our favourite skaters Kyron Davis.
Yeah he’s rad.
How did that Kickflip on that 437 Sculpture in Melbourne go down?
We were on a Nike trip a year and a half ago; it was Australia and New Zealand. We were there in Melbourne. That was one of the spots on ‘the list’.
We had to get something there. It was one of those things, the whole thing worked out there.
We didn’t get there till late in the day so the light was awesome, nobody there to kick us out.
I remember he did it a couple times too, because he wanted to get it into the bank, just how he wanted it. It was sick.
I remember the first one he did thinking it was dope, thinking wow, but then I think he did it like three times.
I was really hyped on that photo.
I prefer the photo to the footage because of how it captures how difficult that one is.
Yeah, he had to ollie up the curb first and you’ve got to go high but somehow land in the bank and not go to flat or whatever.
Yeah, the spot looks great in the photos. It was just one of those spots, we got lucky, Kyron’s a photogenic skater, and if he does a kickflip it’s going to look good.
Yeah he’s got a great style. What about that Caleb Barnett Back Smith? Where’s that spot and how many tries did it take to get it?
That spot is in Sacramento and it definitely took a while actually.
It’s in a crusty alley, it’s just one of those things to, where like that spot, it’s a lot bigger than it looks.
Caleb’s huge, he has that thing, the same with BA and Brophy where you don’t realise how big things are because they are pretty huge guys.
It was pretty tall, dry and a wind tunnel to skate in. I was so hyped on that one. Caleb’s awesome.
Yeah it’s surfed out. How did that Gonz FS Ollie in Birmingham shot come about?
I remember all of that pretty well.
Mark was skating in the rain at the skatepark in Stoke and he did some hairball shit just by himself.
He did all of that stuff and we were about to do a signing. I remember one of us had been to Birmingham before and it was cool to see the area but then the mini ramp thing started and it was rad because everybody was hyped to skate for one thing and it was packed!
I remember there was like a local kid who ripped, I think his name was Mikey Wright; there were almost a weird competitive thing that got going between him and Mark, kind of amazing to watch at one point, where they were going back and forth and charging the ramp and it was a fun session to watch.
Mikey’s a ripper.
He was charging
So how did you get that shot?
One of the things about that ollie photo that is funny and is super lucky is that Sam Ashley was there shooting it too.
Sam’s photo of the FS Air, I think was on the cover of Sidewalk.
But we were both shooting Mark’s ollie and, basically, I got lucky because he ended up blocking one of my flashes, because we were all crammed in there , I was probably like ah fuck at the time but that’s why I got the shadow into the photo, which is real lucky.
You look at the shadow and you know it’s Mark Gonzales.
You don’t even need to look at the photo; you just need to look at the shadow.
I think just the chaos of how it all worked and you have those weird fuck ups that actually improve the photo.
I’ve always been happy about that photo and nobody else ollies like Mark so to have that photo is great.
For sure, the photo captures the moment; people still talk about that it to this day
Yeah great energy. It was a real fun day. I know there was supposed to be a demo but really that impromptu mini ramp jam was more exciting. That’s a story still, whereas the demo may not be a story.
Yeah smaller sessions are better. Do you know many other English Skaters?
I’ve been on trips with Casper and Kyron together and with Jacob Harris.
I’m really good friends with Paul Shier and Nick Jensen for a long time, so know them through him.
Nick is sick. So what about this photo of Casper doing a FS wallride? Was that in Australia?
Off the bank? That is in Miami.
Yeah, that wall is super fucked, it’s like rocks, you know what I mean?
It’s not even like a wall, he’d hit that thing and it was really slippery, he was sliding down the wall and he had to start on a five lane road to get to it. It was such a battle but he got it. It was awesome.
We had a pretty fun, short trip to Miami that I was on with him, Kyron, Malto and Blake Carpenter.
It was pretty rad, it was a short trip but those guy’s got some sick shit though.
Skaters from the UK skate well on trips to places with good spots for once.
Yeah it is wild sometimes. Almost everywhere you go to a spot that’s so much gnarlier than you thought sometimes it’s a trip to be in London and look around and just think wow…the ground is fucked up out here and you think how did that guy do that?
Have you ever been to Southbank?
Yeah I think a lot of the best looking spots are totally different to how you think they will be.
One of the first spots I went to on a trip to California, I went to the graffiti pits in Venice that Guy Mariano did all those ledge lines on in Mouse.
But by the time I got to the spot those benches were so rounded!
It was amazing to me all of the stuff people could do on them because it barely seemed skateable to me.
Favourite skaters you’ve shot in the UK?
I’m sure that Mark one is the best one but there are tonnes of awesome skaters in the UK.
I think there’s a lot of great things from the UK.
Every time there’s a new Atlantic Drift out I have to watch it, I love all that shit.
I was really hyped on a photo I shot of Mike Carroll going over the fence of the Meanwhile park that I’m really proud of thinking about it. That was on the same trip that we went to Birmingham
Yeah, I remember seeing that Carroll photo
We were just skating there and I think Mike just eyed it up.
I feel like Mike loves shit like that.
Rick Howard always makes a joke about it where he calls Carroll ‘Crack and Drop’ because he loves to just crack a big trick and go over a fence and a big drop.
Mike got sparked and just did that and that’s one that sticks out in my head.
I remember that same day Lucas Puig was doing wild ass shit over that hip. It’s a dope spot.
Sick, had you been to London before?
It’s weird there are so many photos I shot in London from before I worked at Girl and worked at Skateboarder.
I was in London when Josh Stewart was filming for Static II and I know a got a lot of stuff I really dug back then but I haven’t looked at anything from then recently.
That was a real fun trip though. We stayed out in London for three weeks in an apartment.
Where were you staying?
It was in Mile End? East London. This was probably around 2005.
Where we stayed, you’d take the train out there, the place we were in was dead, it was a new apartment block and at night there was nothing around then you’d get back and there was nothing there at the time.
Yeah it’s changed a lot now
Yeah I bet, the last time I went back I was in Shoreditch and it was a lot different.
Yeah, for sure. So you said a few years ago a cop pulled a gun out on you at a spot in LA.What happened with that scenario?
There was a school in South Central LA. Super good new ledge school. It was kind of far away.
I was there with a bunch of people and we had a big crew skating. Somebody had seen us skating and had called the cops.
The cop came out, he was a rookie, came out by himself and he saw all of us and he got shook.He must have thought we were a gang so he came in pointing his gun, telling us to get on the ground…
He’s just one cop with a gun, so we all got on the ground and we were face down and told not to look at him and it was just this pretty uncomfortable thing.
Then soon after that his back up arrived, there were older cops, with more experience and they were kind like making fun of the dude for overacting because you can accidentally shoot somebody pretty easily.
We ended up leaving and we didn’t get into trouble at all. I’ve never been back to that school that was years ago and I know people who still skate it but I’m never going back to skate there. Fuck that!
What was going through your mind?
We were just thinking what the fuck is going to happen next, it was not a good situation for sure.
That’s the one time that happened to me and I still talk about it but there’s people in America who have to put up with that stuff everyday!
What’s your favourite photo you’ve shot?
The only obvious one is the first Skateboarder Cover I shot with Gino doing a switch flip over a barrier.
That was my favourite because it was my first cover so that was huge and also growing up in Long Island, Gino was like a hometown hero to us, I didn’t know him when I lived on the Island,.
I met him recently before I had shot that photo with him and so that was a big one for me.
What’s your favourite skate video?
Video Days, is one answer for sure, I haven’t watched it in a long time but there’s so many, where there’s just parts that stick in my head that were amazing, there would be more than the videos themselves.
Some that were important to my era were Alien Workshop’s Photosynthesis and Girl’s Mouse.
But you know what, I’d say two videos that stick out are Eastern Exposure 3 and the second FTC video Penal Code.
They came out in the same year and I remember that year just alternating both of them, we just had those on rotation or the entire year for the year those videos came out. I was living in a skate house and we watched them every day.
Where’s your favourite place to go skate?
There’s just some curbs out here, there’s three different curb spots where I end up skating a lot with my friends. Bringing it back to my teenage years of skating in parking lots.
Favourite spot in the world?
I have memories of skating places that are no longer skateable or been torn down so I’m just sticking with the curbs at the moment.
Who is your favourite skater?
So many! I’m friends with a lot of them. It’s hard to pick a favourite. I feel like there’s so many skaters, that I never get tired of watching skate.
You’ve shot a lot of photos of the Gonz?
Mark is obviously a favourite always; it’s amazing to see him still skating.
He’s like 50 and he’s out there ripping, slamming hard. He has incredible commitment.
How did you first meet Alex Olson?
Alex Olson is one of my good friends. I met him way back when he was little. He used to come with Chris Roberts sometimes and Chris would bring him around.
Alex was this little kid who was ripping and I met him way back then. I feel like we started hanging out when they opened Supreme out here because we all started skating the bowl and Al would be here.
Scott Johnston and Mike and Alex would be there and I have a lot of friendships that came out of that and that’s where I started hanging out with Alex and he would come hang out with us too.
Alex is funny as hell I love that dude. He’s very honest and he’s into loads of weird shit. He’s a great person to talk to because he has a lot of interests.
So, how did that Dylan Rieder bank Kickflip go down? It’s got to be up there with the best
That one is one of my favourites of him. He was filming a line at Gardener that day, it would have to be in Cherry and Bill Strobeck was filming,.
I want to say Dylan FS Heelflipped a picnic table bench and then basically I saw him do this Kickflip and I was like I’m just going to perch on the grass and shoot this thing.
Yeah you definitely can’t do a Kickflip better than that, it’s a favourite and because it’s him, it’s special.
Any last words for the people out there?
I hope everybody can get through this as quickly and as painlessly as we can.
It’s been one of the craziest things that have happened during our lifetimes and I just hope everybody stays safe