With so many great roller derby photographers in the UK, there are a plethora of fantastic photos of the sport. UKDerby.com columnist Billiam Trapper (aka TRAPPER SNAPPER) picks his top six. All of which, coincidentally, he took himself…
I can remember the exact moment I decided to become a roller derby photographer. I had woken up that fine spring morning in a hedge alongside the M5 just outside Worcester. This was something of a surprise as the last thing I can remember is going to my work leaving do in Oxford the night before. I was at a crossroads in my life. Not literally, of course, as motorways don’t have crossroads. Flagging down a passing car I hitched my way into central Worcester. After washing the vomit out of my hair in the toilets of the local Wetherspoons – curiously many of the other customers were washing vomit into their hair – I decided I would take the next opportunity life presented to me. Whatever it might be.
On a lamppost outside the pub was sellotaped a poster for something called ‘roller derby’ taking place that day. So it was that I came to find myself attending the first public bout of the Worcester Nuthouses roller derby league. I was instantly hooked and at some point during the after party agreed to become the league’s official photographer. Waking up the next day in a hedge beneath the Tay Road Bridge, I searched out the nearest camera shop, determined to spend a sizable chunk of my redundancy money on getting the best kit possible for my new vocation. I didn’t really know much about photography, but how hard to could it be?
I explained to the man in the shop that I wanted a camera to photograph derby. “Och, outdoors, urban landscape, English Midlands, usually cloudy? I’ve got just the thing.” He selected a camera and asked me what sort of lens I wanted. “The longest one possible,” I said, “because you know what they say about men with long lenses.” “Nae, I can’t say that I do,” he said sternly, winching down from the ceiling what I later learned was a Jujitsu 1,200 XQL3. “That’ll be fifteen grand fa cash.” So began a journey that would take me to scrimmages, games, tournaments and hedges all over the world. But which are my favourites of the very many derby photographs I’ve taken? And what are the stories behind them? Let me tell you…
1. One problem with shooting derby is that leisure centres tend to have very yellowy lighting. Apparently there’s some way to compensate for this after you’ve taken the picture, but no-one will tell me what it is, so instead I would usually ask the players to paint their faces bright white to counteract that yellowness. This was how the whole craze of face paint in roller derby originated. When I was starting out, most players were happy to go along with this, but that’s no longer the case. Indeed, while there are still a few players – such as LRR’s Jack Attack or Portsmouth’s RIP McMurphy – who are happy to paint at least the bottom half of their faces, most skaters now flat out refuse. So sometimes I have to get a little ‘creative’. This shot was from a Pencilcity Devilwhores game, where I paid a local graffiti artist to rush past the team during kit check and give them a few cans full. They didn’t take it too well, I have to say, and I was thrown out before the game even began. Nonetheless, I feel this shot of a team mate holding back a couple of Devilwhores – as they try to attack me – captures the spirit of derby in a way no staged shot ever could.
2. There’s always an element of danger in shooting roller derby and this photo is another example of that. I’m really keen to capture the sport from different angles, to create images that allow people to view derby in ways they may not have seen it from before. With that in mind I realised no-one knew what a roller derby game looked like upside down! It took a little convincing, but I persuaded the London Rockin’ Rollers to let me photograph their intraleague final in such a way. I strung a bungee rope from the ceiling of Newham Leisure Centre – roughly midway between the jammer line and pivot line – then once the game started, I let go and began to bungee up and down, taking pictures when I reached the lowest point of each bounce (roughly eighteen inches above track level). I had to abandon the scheme after a few minutes since the Head Ref ruled that my bungeeing was endangering the skaters. We moved the rope to one side – so I was no longer bouncing directly into the skaters’ paths – but somehow it just wasn’t the same. This is my favourite image from that day. Like all the bungee shots it’s a little bit blurry, but I feel it really opens one’s eyes to a side of derby you’d never normally see.
3. This was taken at half-time in a game in Manchester. Some young children had brought with them a remote control skating doll and they were playing with it on the track. Madcap referee Smell Worm spotted it and started playing along, acting as if he was jam reffing the doll. That’s what I caught in this photo. It all started off innocently enough, but then Worm started calling the doll out for rules infringements (direction of play, equipment violations, etc). A couple of minutes later he was screaming “insubordination” at it, then took it outside and threw it in a pond, telling the children it had been “expelled from the game”. The youngsters were a little upset, but it just shows how seriously Smell Worm takes the sport.
4. Sometimes a really great photo is as much about what you “don’t see” as what you do; those extraneous details just hinted at by the image in front of you. That’s certainly the case with this photo of a fantastic apex jump from Team USA’s Scald Eagle, who is here soaring inside a bewildered England pack during the 2014 Blood & Thunder World Cup Final. It’s a truly magnificent moment and I felt really honoured to have been there to take this picture of it. I witnessed many magical moments at the Dallas World Cup, but this one was the highlight. I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed on returning to the UK to discover that I’d left the lens cap on for the whole tournament. Still, as I say, often it’s the fine details, the wider stories and the feelings surrounding a particular incident that make for a truly great photograph, rather than the pure mechanical reality of the pixels on view. That’s certainly true in the case of this image, which is why it’s one of my favourites.
5. This was taken at a Heartland Series game last year. The best thing about it is it’s in black and white. Somehow this gives it a lot more contrast and a lot more depth than a traditional full colour photograph. I have no idea why this picture came out in black and white – I didn’t even know my camera could do black and white, and this is the only photo that’s ever come out like this – but sometimes it’s ‘little accidents’ like this that make for a really great shot.
6. Sometimes the story behind a photograph is almost as important as the image itself. That’s probably the case with this shot of Team Grandland’s Manny McManMan from last year’s Men’s World Cup in Birmingham. There had been a lot of rumours buzzing around the tournament regarding the Grandland squad’s eligibility. Although the MRDA [men’s derby governing body] have a commendable policy of not discriminating against players that identify as non binary rather than male, there was a growing feeling amongst other national teams that the Grandland squad was essentially a group of women who had drawn beards and moustaches on their faces. Although a lot of the crowd backed Grandland’s involvement, things took an unexpected turn when one of the tournament organisers bought an atlas and discovered there was actually no such country. It was then their bench coach admitted that in fact, yes, they were all British women who simply wanted to take part in a World Cup. Despite widespread support in the venue, Grandland were kicked out of the tournament. This was a real shame – particularly as they had already qualified for the semi-finals – and I hope this photo in some way reflects that. Thank you for letting me share my top six roller derby images with you. And remember, the next time you pass someone waking up in a hedge, don’t immediately assume it’s a tramp. It could well be a top derby photographer (me). Cheers.
Do you agree with Trapper that these are the six best roller derby images of all time? If not, which pictures do you think are?