STRANGER IN A STRANGER LAND
This is part 2 of a continuing story of our first venture into America to see Derby in the United States. To be more specific, the home opener of the Queen City Roller Girls of Buffalo, NY on January 7, 2012. What a way to start the year.
It was while on the road for the first time to America for Derby and reflecting on the entire experience, a light bulb flashed and a whole slate of words crystallized before our eyes. It was not the proverbial Ten Commandments, but it was a way to conduct oneself, the etiquette of being a visiting photographer.
We had just gone through customs at Fort Erie and landed at the Greyhound bus station in downtown Buffalo. What had preceded this was a myriad of details and a boatload of questions that had filled the mind for weeks and had to be settled: how to get across the border (both of them preferably), how to get to Buffalo, how much was the busfare to Buffalo, what to pack, how to carry what had to be packed, how to get to the Rainbow Roller Rink to see my favourite league down under—those crazy Queen City Roller Girls.
The teams for the night event would be a reprise of the 2011 championship final as the 2012 season opener: the pink of defending champions Devil Dollies vs. the blue Nickel City Knockouts. What better way than to Kick Out The Jams?
It was a marvel to watch Queen City set up for the evening from scratch to finish in what would be a sold-out bout; QCRG officials and volunteers everywhere, laying down the track, ticket sellers, ticket takers, crew installing lights overhead into the ceiling, putting out the bleachers, handle a session for the entire league photo, photo mediator B-17 dealing with press, the ongoing Queen’s Court chitchat, zebras and roster boards, a bake sale setup for the Ice Ice Babies who are the Queen City Roller Girls junior team, a live band setup and stage for half time intermission, merchandise table, concession and food, stats table, scoreboard table, wires and power bars everywhere, putting up sponsors banners including Mighty Taco, setting out the players benches and penalty bin, the video crew in the form of Mr. Fit, Mama Chops [den mother to the league] out to handle the after-party setup for her derby ladies, players and teams rolling in to get changed and warming up on the track, it was indeed the universal experience of game day. All thanks to the biggest fan of the league who would be the owner of Rainbow Roller Rink.
While all this unfolded around me, what had accrued from the experience of travelling on the road or even being at home amongst the leagues in and around Toronto and the grand experience of Blood and Thunder World Cup, enabled me in knowing how to deal and what questions to ask. Where to shoot. How to shoot. In other words: How to fit in.
In no particular order and by no means all-inclusive:
- Ask your hosts as far in advance as possible if you can tentatively shoot their next bout. Find out how much lighting and gear you can bring along. Leagues may have an off-camera flash policy. Some leagues may set aside a room to stow gear or bags. Others, you may be lucky to get floorspace.
- You are a visitor. You are their guest. Act accordingly, and try to get along. Thank your hosts. Blend in. Wear a neutral league shirt. [Amendment since: Or if you do wear a league shirt – just be careful which team you bear when talking to a derby lady.]
- There is no such thing as the absolute gold standard. Every league does its best. Every league has its own way of doing things. Every league has its own personality. Respect them if they deserve respect. Otherwise, just leave. It’s your time.
- Never assume anything. No attitude.
- Always be ready. Life’s biggest lesson taught to me by Boris Spremo [Toronto Star photographer supreme].
- Listen to your media liaison or photo wrangler. Abide by whatever agreement you choose to sign. If you do not like the agreement, just walk away. Or discuss it with someone in the know. Know your rights.
- Take the best shots you can. That’s what the league expects and what you should expect of yourself. Every picture tells a story. You are not there as a spectator on their dime. You never know when to expect the unexpected. There is always something going on, but know you cannot capture it all. Do your best. Deal with it. There may be team rituals and introductions you have never seen before. React to it. [Can you say bagpipes Tri-City Thunder?] If you are having a bad day, deal with it, don’t show it. If your lighting or flash has died, be creative. Or go back to basics. Never surrender. The teams on the track never do.
- Know the rules of Derby. Know the lines. Know the lines you cannot cross. The ones on the floor or not. And for all those tyros out there, don’t shoot and skateboard around the track at the same time.
- Know or get to know the NSOs and volunteers. Know the referees. Listen to the announcers. They always can tell you where all the best action is.
- Until the bout is over, skaters are skaters on game day. Coaches are coaches. They will still talk to you but their focus should be the bout ahead. Try not to intrude on their space. Shoot the stretch at your own peril.
- God is in the details. Sweat the small stuff. Plan as best you can. Put your experience to use. Learn as much as you can about the venue if you can. Look at game videos to see their lighting and where photographers set up. Some leagues already know what photographers require, but be prepared to ask questions to find a friendly solution.
- Capture the atmosphere. Shoot a bit of everybody and introduce yourself. You never know who will tag themselves or what photo will be an unanticipated favourite by some player.
- Don’t get in the way of the crowd. They paid for their ticket and deserve to be there. Above all, lesson learned: officials first. Don’t get in the way of the stats keepers or sit where the whiteboard needs to be. You definitely do not want to be part of a referee takeout.
- Treat your fellow photographers well. They are there to make everyone on the track look their best in the best way they can. They often impart to you where or how they shoot. Keep on learning and learn from the best.
- A T-shirt is always a nice souvenir, however leagues manage to sell the darndest things. (Can you say Anya Face lippybalm?)
- At the end of the night, thank your tired hosts again. Sincerely. Queen City love their Blue, Molson or otherwise. Bloo!
- Pay it forward. That was my biggest take from World Cup. You will have mutual respect, and even gained new friends by the end of the night if everything goes right. It’s the Golden Rule. (You never know when you may have to ask someone for a quote or one of their photos for a wordpress article!)
Of course saying it and doing it can diverge, but do your best. If you believe it, you’ll do it. And if you succeed, not only do you have the photos of a lifetime or a moment in life, you have new friends who will let you come back.
So, thank you Derby and leagues and all us hard-working photographers everywhere. Thank you Queen City for your generosity and hospitality and the Cherry Coke.
And once I write the rest of part one, there will be undeniable evidence there is a Derby God-dess.