Published on November 3rd, 2015 | by Andy Frye
Between Jams: Photographers Speak
They’re everywhere, and you should thank the derby gods for that. Whether you play at the elite level of derby or are just getting started, you know that roller derby’s shutterbugs not only provide photographic highlights of each game, they are also documenting derby’s history. So it seemed only right to get their perspective outside the lens about the players and their role in the world’s fastest growing sport.
I gathered perspective from a number of photographers, including Jennifer Ramos, who shoots mostly for Texas, Gil Leora, who shoots for Windy City, plus Donna Olmsted and Danforth Johnson who frequent tournaments in the upper Midwest, Chicago-based Steve Jurkovic, St Louis-based arch-shutterbug Bob Dunnell, as well as Tyler Shaw, who is on the east coast (and yet everywhere), and longtime Gotham photographer Sean Hale.
(Above: Tyler Shaw and Manish Gosalia, by Sean Hale)
There’s something different about shooting roller derby bouts, when compared to other photography…
Olmsted: There is a thrill of accomplishment you get from capturing a peak moment in action that you don’t get doing other types of photography. I’ve never uttered the words “F*ck yeah!” when shooting portraits or weddings.
Jurkovic: Derby photography is about anticipating and reacting. Knowing when a key block will happen, and then deciding; do you time your shot when the skaters make contact, or wait that split second to capture the result of the block? Can you catch a jammer busting through a wall at just the right moment? Does a player’s face capture the emotion of the jam? You may visualize the types of shots you want to get, but you can rarely plan for them.
How did I get into roller derby? Let me tell you a quick story.
Johnson: I started as a derby widow, helping set up the practice and bout facilities for a brand new league. I moved on to scoreboard operation and finally decided to just spectate. So I brought my kids and my camera to a local bout and it’s been an ever increasing obsession over since.
Shaw: I was going through a difficult time in my life, personally and professionally, and was spending time with one of my oldest friends and her family. She suggested that I go to a LA Derby Dolls bout in LA and I had absolutely no desire to go, and argued the need to go. Eventually I gave in, and my life hasn’t been the same since.
Dunnell: Somewhere about two years prior to Arch Rival Roller Girls starting up, I bought a Nikon D70 because I had always liked cameras. It was basically an expensive toy, although really cheap compared to what people roll out to games with these days. After a while, a regular bartender of mine (sounds so much better than me being a regular customer) suggested that I go to roller derby. I missed the first ARRG bout because of some car problems, but since then I think I have better attendance at home games than any of the current skaters. I had no idea what I was doing at first. I still don’t always feel like I know what I am doing, but over nine years my ability to create circumstances in which interesting accidents happen has improved greatly.
Hale: Unlike those who leave sports due to injury, I got into derby through breaking my leg back in 2008. During my convalescence, a friend talked up her team and asked if I would be interested in shooting. I was hooked from the first bout.
My favorite skater to photograph is:
Jurkovic: Sandrine Rangeon. It was a tough choice given the talent I photograph on the Dupage Derby Dames and the Chicago Outfit, but Sandrine is just electric.
Hale: My two favorite skaters to shoot have been players for the Gotham Girls Roller Derby: the since-retired, Fisti Cuffs, and Sexy Slaydie. Fisti Cuffs’ determination, passion, and killer instinct could be felt and seen even in the cheap seats. That coupled with her talent made her someone you always had to account for on the track. While with Slaydie, her veneer of calm – as she is knocking someone into the middle of next week, is always a delight to capture.
Shaw: I’ve mentioned this before in other places, and even though I have several favorites for various reasons I’ll have to stick with Antidote, #100cc of Philly. She was a favorite early on when I was learning the sport and learning to shoot, and one of the sweetest people.
The best derby competition in my mind is:
Dunnell: Midwest BrewHaHa in Milwaukee, because there’s a life outside the games. The teams tend to be more and more competitive each year, but there’s a city right there to do other things when your team isn’t doing anything.
Olmsted: WFTDA Champs – top ranked WFTDA teams battling for the Hydra makes for fantastic photo opportunities!
Johnson: I really love photographing Division 2 tournaments. The games can be so exciting and evenly matched. But who can argue that the very top level of play at Champs hasn’t been some of the best action in the past few years. I’d say it’s a tie between Champs and D2s.
Hale: Roller derby is a subculture. So it is a precious thing to share that love one has for it with another. And when that love is shown by teams, announcers, photographers, and fans from over 30 countries around the world, it is surreal and beautiful. The Blood & Thunder Roller Derby World Cup in 2014 gave me the community a chance to see just how great this sport has grown around the world.
The furthest I have traveled from home to shoot derby was:
Ramos: The Big O in Eugene, and I’ve done it three times. Asheville, NC was the most expensive but totally worth it. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Leora: I have been to both coasts to shoot derby. Sadly I never have been overseas just yet. I did get a great chance to see all the nations who came to Dallas last year. That was pretty amazing.
Hale: NYC > DALLAS for the 2014 Roller Derby World Cup.
Olmsted: The WFTDA D1 Tournament in Tucson (1,500 miles one way). I’m from Iowa and I didn’t want to miss Team United’s debut on a D1 tournament bracket!
The weirdest thing that’s ever happened during a game was…
Olmsted: My laptop died during Brewhaha in Milwaukee. I was in a panic to find a new computer and clicked on the closest Best Buy in my phone’s navigation app. I learned a valuable lesson – turn your phone horizontally so you can read the entire name. I ended up at Best Buy Liquor which was 23 minutes in the opposite direction.
Jurkovic: At 2013 Championships in Milwaukee, in the final Bonnie Thunders broke through the stubborn Texas defense to win lead jammer. As she rounded turn 1, she noticed her shoelace was loose. As she bent down – still skating along – to retie the lace, the fans erupted as did every photographer’s flash, maybe making that the most photographed shot of the tournament.
One thing that I love about the game is:
Leora: The people who participate. We have a really good crowd a folks who are like minded. I see the way friendships are built between skaters and it’s like a huge family.
Ramos: That this is a contact sport for women (and girls). That’s what I wanted for my daughter. I also feel like the sport is shaking off some of what I see as sexist associations, and at the same time striving for inclusivity.
Jurkovich: The sportsmanship, the fans, the refs and NSOs that have their own unique styles, apex jumps, the tears when teams win, the tears when teams lose, the inclusiveness of the sport, blockers that don’t give up, the charities that are helped, the high fives after the game and the way a skater lights up when she is being interviewed after a playoff game.
Dunnell: That I have seen the impact it’s had on people that work at it. I’ve seen people become more confident, physically and mentally stronger, and more focused on doing things instead of watching things.
Where do I think roller derby is going? Lemme tell ya.
Ramos: I want to say the sport is growing and attracting a broader audience, while promoting individual strength and inclusivity in a way that promotes athleticism over sexuality.
Olmsted: I look forward to the day when you can have a conversation with someone outside the community and the topic will be about how awesome and athletic modern derby is without having to explain how it’s not like derby from the 70’s.
Jurkovic: It’s growing, and I don’t see anything slowing down any time soon. International growth in particular is accelerating. Europe seems to have enough quality teams to warrant a playoff site – my guess is two years.
Johnson: I believe the sport will reach further into the general population and eventually occupy a firm and lasting seat in the greater world of sports and sport fandom. I do believe that the retention of former skaters as support is critical to this growth.