Out of Doors

The beauty of basketball is that it requires little more than a net, and photographer Chris Tubbs knows this better than anybody. He’s been travelling the world photographing in the unlikeliest of places for twelve years. Here are his all-star picks.

“I was in Cuba about 12 years ago, just walking around everyday taking pictures, and I jumped over a wall into this big sports building.” It’s an early Saturday morning in January, and Chris Tubbs is telling me how he first started photographing basketball hoops while trespassing in Cuba’s dilapidated gymnasiums.

“The amazing thing about Cuba is that people are very open to letting you in to walk around and stuff. You feel as though there’s an oppression there – they have certain freedoms curtailed – but as an outsider you’re kind of tolerated. You don’t really belong to the whole social structure so you can kind of do as you wish. So anyway, I jumped into this thing and I found this amazing Olympic size swimming pool with a diving board, empty obviously, and these basketball courts. The textures of the walls were beautiful so I took a few pictures, but not particularly of the basketball hoops.”

He continued to photograph them over his time in Cuba. “In the following days when I was walking around, they started coming up everywhere.” His concern wasn’t with the sport that necessitated them, Chris tells me, but rather with the hoops themselves. “The thing is, people had made them themselves. They drew on them, and wrote NBA and stuff like that, but they were appearing in such random places. And then when I was back in Europe I started spotting them. I was travelling quite a lot at that time, and wherever I went they would just appear. I think they had made such an impression on my subconscious that I wanted to find them. Eventually I started actively looking for them.”

Chris has something of a fascination with sportspeople as figures of cultural interest, which can be traced back to his childhood, he explains. “My mother is German, she was from East Berlin, and they escaped from the east to the west, and my father was a diplomat and he used to go to the Iron Curtain a lot, and he’d come back with amazing objects and stories. So I have a real fascination with that particular period in the Cold War when Europe was divided, but yet we held these athletes in really high esteem. When you see now what they had to contend with, that they were these super-human beings, but yet they were training with really run-down sports facilities.”

He believes this interest in the pre-eminence of sports in dilapidated places was what led him to photograph the hoops in the first place. “I don’t know why it was basketball, it could have been anything else really, but something about the simplicity of the game, or at least what you need to play it, almost facilitated the project.” Looking through the originals now, in the light of a café window, the photographs are as much a record of the environment as they are of the hoops themselves. “It wasn’t just about the actual panels, it’s more about everything around it. It’s about [the hoop] being a universal reference.”

Since the first shots taken on that trip to Cuba in 2002, Chris has amassed a collection of five or six hundred images from around 34 different countries – including the U.S.A, Japan, Bhutan, Dubai, Switzerland, New Zealand – taken during his free time while travelling to take photographs for various magazines. There are stories, too. From New York, where he had to fight to get his shot – “people there are so aggressive” – to Hong Kong, where the intense over-population forced him to visit the courts in the early hours – “the only time there were less people there was at like 4 in the morning,” every panel inspires a moment of remembrance of the situation it was taken it. It’s a catalogue of 12 years of travel, with all of the bizarre happenings and circumstances that come with it.

Even now, twelve years into the project (named Out of Doors) Chris continues to shoot the images in medium format on a Mamiya 7. “It’s quite interesting to continue it on film, because you have certain limitations that you have to work with. I can’t change what I have now. The originals, that’s it. It’s nice to have those.”

It feels lazy to use the word obsession, but Chris’ fascination with hoops seems to justify it. Do you think you’ll ever be able to stop taking them, I ask? “I’ve become more selective. The thing is, there maybe be a really cool one just behind this building, and you don’t know until you stumble across it.” He pauses for a second. “You know they were in the process of knocking down a couple of buildings for the new train line in Tottenham Court Road in London, and suddenly you could see a basketball court on top of the building,” he explains, the excitement mounting in his voice. ” So I asked if I could go up there and photograph it, and they let me, so I shot it. And now it’s gone.” That seems to be a no, then

Photography: Chris Tubbs
Words: Maisie Skidmore