1/1000 is our interview series with sports photographers, who play an important role in the skating community. It is also the optimal shutter speed used in sports & action photography.
This time we spoke with Michele J Hale an Austin based photographer, who also skates under the name Zombie Dearest for the Texas Rollergirls’ home team the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers, writes and – according to her – does her own stunts. She is the first photographer of this series, who is also an active skater (and will be a jammer someday). The high contrast and highly stylized gradation of her images caught our eye and made us curious about her process. So we were delighted when she agreed to this interview. Enjoy!
You are a roller derby photographer and a roller derby skater. Which of the two came first and how do you think they influence each other?
I think skating came first. I started and stopped a few times over the years. I tried out for the banked-track back when Smarty Pants was still skating in Austin (she was one of the coaches at my tryout and is one of my oldest derby acquaintances). I got injured and peaced out for a while. I started shooting a few years ago and didn’t skate super seriously until I moved over to the flat track. I think that skating definitely influenced shooting, but I didn’t have the biggest passion for skating until I saw Texas Rollergirls at champs in 2016. That team made me feel real feelings and Fifi Nomenon is the reason I wanted to make my way over to Texas Rollergirls.
In your own opinion: do you have a different style of shooting roller derby games than photographers that do not play themselves? Do you, for instance, think you see the activity on the track differently than non-skating photogs?
Roller derby is something that I love and that’s why I shoot it and play it. The main thing when I’m shooting and reviewing photos is that I want people to see what I see when I’m watching and feel what I feel when I’m playing. Some of my favourite shots are the ones where that jammer is stuck in between two blockers, gritting her teeth (I’m looking at you, Sarah Love), because I know that feeling. I feel that feeling. It’s dramatic and whenever I get a shot like that, that inner dialogue starts playing in my head “why did I take the star hat? how long is this jam? can they just call it off…can I call it off? fml”. Some shots are just really awesome moments that highlight how strong and amazing these athletes are – derby skaters are fucking amazons (not just because some of them are 8 feet tall – I’m looking at you, Trample).
You also photograph skaters in ramps. How does this type of action sports photography differ from when you photograph roller derby games?
Shooting at skate park comes from growing up in the skateboard community in the late 80s – early 90s. Being a skater kid, reading Thrasher and those photos were amazing. When my friends were skating the parks here in Austin, I was all about shooting that. At the time, I was in a boot because I ruptured my Achilles, so there was no pressure to skate the bowls at that time. That’s how I met Indy, Trample and Estro. I don’t shoot ramps anymore because I don’t have a ton of free time, but I try to catch them when they come through town. It is a lot different than shooting roller derby, though. In roller derby, you get one chance to get a certain shot. Those cool park photos that I get are a result of lots of do-overs. Lots and lots of do-overs. This is why I usually just shoot ramps with certain people because I know them well enough to make them do it again and help figure out the perfect way to get the right shot. Those shots are definitely more planned than derby. I chat with skaters to see what their tricks are and try to determine the best angle to get it from. It’s also a bit more dangerous than shooting roller derby. Lady Trample and Indy Jamma Jones have both kicked me a few times. 🤕 It’s a trust thing, too. I like low angles which means that at the skatepark, I’m sitting or laying on the coping or I’m in the bowl shooting under the trick. I prefer to shoot with skaters I’m familiar with and trust.
Do you ramp skate yourself?
Nah, it never really appealed to me as a skater. It’s also really terrifying (I would rather get hit by Freight Train and she hit me so hard once that I peed a little).
In some of your art projects, you choose to show women in strong roles. These images always display high contrast and a highly stylized gradation. This is a style that can also be seen in the images you take from roller derby games. Is this type of editing part of the story you want to tell (of amazons?) and if so, how does the editing support your message?
The way that I edit comes from being an artist, I think. I have experimented with editing a lot over the last couple of years and it has probably evolved a little here and there. I love texture and I love contrast. I have received some criticism for “over-editing” but that’s a matter of opinion. These always come from non-photographers and they simmer down when I ask to see their photos (haha). I think the two are related – I like shooting women in strong roles and that comes from growing up seeing women being over-sexualized in media. It’s boring. (Editor’s note: Preach it, sister! 🙌) I like the idea of Amazons – those strong independent women who do what they want and get shit done. It’s all about that strong warrior-esque persona. I think that roller derby fits in with that. Whenever I edit, I take the photo out of its regular context and really look at it (I’m super picky about what gets posted). I try to examine every part of the photo and it takes a minute to decide what I want to do with it. Some photos have higher contrast than others and some [I feel] are better in black and white. I just tweak it until it feels right. I can usually edit pretty quickly, but I only put out 10-20 photos from a single game because I like to take my time and make sure that the image says what I want it to.
Selecting 10-20 images from a single game is a pretty hard task. What is your final selection based on? Aesthetics? Or do you also aim to tell the story of the game in 10 images? Or is it a mixture of both?
I prefer to start at the end of the game and go backwards (this is also how I edit as a writer). I don’t care as much about telling the whole story of the game – I very rarely get a shot of the scoreboard. For me, photo picking can be a pretty arduous task. First, I look at the whole photo and decide if it’s a good shot – and then I review the WHOLE photo to make sure that there are no super weird faces (dammit, Stone), camel toe, bare bums or anything like that sticking out. I also have a policy of taking photos down if someone is not comfortable with them (I hate pictures of myself, I get it and I’m here for you). My philosophy for this sort of thing “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” because regardless of the outcome, there is some amazing shit happening. I also think about when someone is looking back on photos from a game, they might remember winning or whatever, but I want them to remember the feeling and [hopefully] put them back in that moment. I also weed out bad photos, which was most of the Rose/Gotham game from champs last year – I was so drunk during that game and a lot of those photos were terrible [those Rose jammers are so much quicker than whiskey can click a shutter!].
What do you want the roller derby world to understand about roller derby photographers?
We, photographers, put a lot of time into what we do. We don’t get paid (for the most part) and we spend our own money to travel. Always tag your photographers – it is greatly appreciated and kind of annoying when you don’t. Respect your photogs. But also a note TO derby photogs – respect your skaters and what they do. Yes, we (as photogs) put a lot of time and energy into what we are doing, but some skaters train for 10 or more hours a week [on and off skates] and put our bodies on the line. Respect should be mutual.