Photographers play a critical role in documenting and celebrating roller derby. Action shots from derby games continue to offer vital promotional materials for leagues looking to build their brand and their following. But one photographer out of Toronto, Ontario has gone beyond this usual supporting role to offer a new avenue for promoting the sport. Earlier this year, Neil Gunner published Into Battle, a culmination of two years of interviewing and photographing roller derby athletes.
Neil Gunner’s experience photographing roller derby began in 2007 with a point-and-shoot camera and a bout in Pittsburgh. “I fell in love with the sport right then, and it wasn’t long before I started bringing a more serious camera to games”. Gunner had previous experience with photography, focused primarily on street portraits. His new found love of roller derby inspired him to hone the skills required to capture the fast paced action of the flat track. “After each game, I would look at the night’s photos and think, “I can do better.” I still have that thought – although I’m much happier with my results these days.”
Four years and hundreds of photos after that first bout, Gunner became an official photographer for Toronto Roller Derby. As Gunner became more established in the derby community, he realized that something was missing from the story that his photos were telling: the skaters’ perspective. With this realization, the idea for Into Battle was born.
Into Battle, photos by Neil Gunner.
What followed was eighteen months of collecting information and interviews from 160 people in the derby community. Through his interviews, Gunner says he saw the narrative of his book take shape. Allowing the interviews to inform the book’s narrative structure is one of the greatest ways that Gunner’s book prioritized the skaters’ experience, rather than imposing a narrative on the interviews and massaging the content to fit. By allowing interviews to shape the book’s narrative, Gunner created a book with a multidimensional reflection of the sport.
As the interviews progressed, Gunner used the emerging narrative to curate a pool of 600 photos that he had preliminarily chosen as contenders for print. In order to make the cut, photos needed to fit Gunner’s criteria of being both dramatic and emotionally engaging while also enhancing the storytelling capacity of the book’s interviews.
The result was over 230 pictures capturing roller derby from the many sides reflected by the skaters who speak in the book. “Right from the introduction, where High Pains Drifter and Downtown Dallis are having their pre-game heart-to-heart, through to the last page, they’re describing the plays, the tactics, the thinking that’s evident in each photo.”
While Gunner’s book prioritizes action-oriented photos, his skill as a portrait photographer shines through. For fans familiar with his work, this is not surprising as Gunner’s portraiture is what gives his work a signature depth. Within the pages of Into Battle, these portraits offer a different view of skaters that is refreshingly vulnerable and intimate, an appropriate pairing for the honest and reflective interviews that Gunner presents.
Into Battle, photos by Neil Gunner
These portraits, combined with the action shots and interviews, provide a layered and complex account of what it means to be a part of the roller derby community. The content manages to convey the duality of roller derby: a highly visual and entertaining sport that, at the same time, demands athletic rigour and tactical prowess.
Perhaps Gunner’s capacity to present roller derby as a complex sport is not only what is most engaging about the book, but also most refreshing. In a sport that is continually fetishized and misrepresented as girls-in-fishnets-gone-wild, Into Battle is a welcome change of pace. Gunner’s priorities to create a space for skaters’ voices and present skaters as athletes are evident in his content curation.
This isn’t to suggest that there isn’t a level of fun and playfulness to some of the photos. But, as Gunner explains, “first and foremost, this is a sports book. On every page you see the grit, athleticism and drive, you read about the strategies and physics that make roller derby so addictive”. This focus on celebrating skaters as athletes is undoubtedly a driving force behind the demand for Gunner’s book. Just weeks after its official release, Into Battle has been shipped from coast to coast with orders shipping throughout North America.
Into Battle is Gunner’s first experience with book publishing. In addition to learning the ins and outs of acquiring an ISBN and a publisher, Gunner also needed a crash course in page layout and pre-press production. Gunner’s inexperience with page layout does reflect in the book’s design. At times, the layout feels rigidly formulaic.
However, the quality of content and high energy visuals do well to outshine the layout’s rigidity. Gunner’s decision to break the book into a series of short chapters captures the energy of roller derby. The concise and punchy stories from skaters juxtaposed with high energy action shots help overcome the layout’s limitations. And with mainstream roller derby coverage so often prioritizing style over substance, Gunner’s focus his efforts on providing high quality content is difficult to fault.
Gunner’s desire to showcase “that roller derby is a fascinating and serious sport played by amazing, dedicated people” has created an engaging and refreshing book. His capacity to present the sport in all of its complexity is what makes Into Battle an exciting read for anyone who loves the flat track.
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