For the December edition of our 1/1000 interview series with sports photographers, we have prepared an interview with Belgian based photographer David Van Elslande. We thought his work would be the perfect fit for the cosy season, as his images remind us of fairy tales, visits to art galleries and other soul-soothing stuff that makes us smile. His style is very unique and completely different from other styles of sports photography. If you have not heard about him: you are in for a treat!
Hello David, please introduce yourself.
I’m a photographer from Belgium who has been shooting roller derby since September 2017. I pretty much fell in love with the sport the day I discovered it, so much that, on top of the countless hours spent taking & editing roller derby pictures the past couple of years, I put on skates for the first time in my life last year and started as fresh meat for the Namur Glorious Basterds (just passed my MST test, yippie!). Much like Jürgen Ziegler, I’m lucky enough to have a daytime job, which allows me to keep photography as a hobby/passion.
Let’s get straight to it – the reason why you caught our eye is the style of your pictures. Your images are very unique. While a lot of sports photography seems to document a game, a match or a race,… you seem to have different motives. Your images seem like well thought out paintings that can stand alone and are not part of a series.
Thanks! Just like every other photographer, my “style” is probably the result of countless sources of influences. In my case the first ones that come to mind are (in no order of priority): comics (I’m Belgian after all), a lot of movies from the second half of the last century, flemish & chiaroscuro paintings, a natural love for saturated colours (I used to go really overboard with those – but I’m trying to get better), my dad’s LP collection and all those amazing album covers from the second half of last century (I wish those were still a thing, I would have loved to shoot LP covers).
I never painted in my life but I can see a potential link there indeed. I actually would love to be able to draw and paint (so I could do very strange, dark and nightmary stuff) and I’m jealous of the total creative freedom painting offers compared to photography which to me feels more canvased. But painting requires skills I’ve never tried to develop, partly because I’ve been less exposed to painting than I was to photography & cinema when I was younger, partly because I’m not patient enough for it (yet ?), maybe due to a lack of focus or imagination, or maybe because I didn’t go to an art or photography school. Painting is actually something I wish I could have done because I’m sure it would help me plan, think, and structure my work better and also help put it into context to enable it to evolve in time etc. Someday maybe. But yeah, there are a lot of different reasons I can think of for working the way I do. Also, photography has a “pace” that suits me well for now so I am sticking to it but painting sure is one of the art forms I’d love to master in my next life.
What type of sports have you photographed in the past? How does the process of photography differ for different sports?
I started sports photography about two years ago. I went to random sports events, trying to avoid the “usual suspects”, (because, well, who needs more soccer pictures?), testing like 5-6 different sports before I discovered Roller Derby. I saw an ad for a tournament in a local newspaper, had never heard of the sport, just went for it out of curiosity and got hooked pretty much straight away (I still remember vividly the first pictures I took that got me thinking “I wanna try and do more of those”). The only other sport I still shoot more or less regularly is volley-ball but unfortunately, I have less and less time for it during the weekends, because roller derby is very time-consuming when you do both photography & training and also because I try to keep things a bit diverse whenever I can, testing new stuff that I’m less comfortable with (weddings, reportages, etc) and, just like everyone else, try and learn new stuff now and then… I’d like to take more pictures of MMA but it’s a bit tricky here in Belgium, there are not many tournaments, but I love the emotion, the intensity and the very graphical aspect of that sport. As a general rule, I like sports that allow photographers to get close to the track or field, it allows me to shoot portraits much more easily.
Speaking of portraits, they are a recurring motif in your work. Can you tell us more about your favourite framing? What do you look for or try to capture in these images?
Definitely, close-ups and the capture of eyes and emotions are a must. I like to shoot a lot of different topics and use various framings, but if you’d ask me to select my favourite pictures, the majority of them will show close-ups of faces indeed. I’m a rather introverted and shy person so this might be some kind of compensation for it, some form of a shy, silent expression, maybe even a timid way to get to know more about people. As for framing, I use the “24×36” format and – it’s probably counterintuitive but – I prefer to shoot my portraits in landscape orientation much more than in portrait orientation, there’s something in it that makes it less interesting in my eyes. And I love the squared format too, some of my favourite portraits are squared pictures (LPs !), they’re sometimes hard to plan with a 24×36 sensor (I only use those) but I’m super happy every time I manage to land one of those. Also, I like to use long-range zoom lenses, which allow me to shoot from a distance without interfering with the players, which is sometimes helpful to capture raw emotions (even though some of them have a sixth sense and can detect photographs from 50 meters away – let’s not give names here). I’m working as a nature photograph that way. Or a paparazzi.
Sports is only one of the many subjects you photograph. Can you tell us more about the type of work you do?
My photo background is the following: I picked up photography about 10 years ago for very personal reasons (back then I needed to express some negative feelings and I discovered that photography helped me to find some relief while producing work, whereas writing kind of had the opposite effect on me). I spent a few months shooting pretty much about everything around me, learning basic techniques, and producing supersaturated and contrasted pictures. Then I tried to do some more “serious” work, working with amateur models for a bit more than a year but I slowly lost interest in that. I wasn’t happy enough with what I was producing, things were going too slow (discussing & planning collabs can take a very long time), some collabs felt a bit weird/uncomfortable and I had other stuff going on in life that needed to be taken care of so I put the camera down and didn’t pick it back up for like 5-6 years. Photography was in the back of my mind but I didn’t really miss it. Then one day (about 2 years ago) I took the camera again to shoot pictures of my young nieces and nephews while they were playing tennis and that’s when the love for photography kicked in again and that’s what led me to sports photography (as discussed above). But yes, as you mentioned earlier, I think I’m not shooting sports for the sake of sport itself but maybe that’s why the pictures feel a bit different. I’m not really an action photographer. I try to be sometimes, but I’m not very good at it, it’s not what I do “organically”.
Do you think the other fields of photography influence the way you photograph sports?
I’m not sure. I don’t really change my technique going from one event to another, I shoot a wedding almost the same way I shoot a derby match! I don’t use flash, complex light setups, I don’t plan shoots weeks in advance and I like to improvise a lot. Maybe I will change that someday, I actually would like to be able to plan things a bit more when I need to, use complex lighting setups, to create pictures the way you create paintings, but we’re getting back to what we discussed previously… doing all of this would require time, study, trial and error, and so on and I’m still having too much fun working the way I do right now to go to the next chapter. But, yeah, someday maybe.
What do you want the roller derby world to understand about roller derby photographers?
Not much that my fellow photographers haven’t said yet. Being around the track is only a small part of the process before any picture can be published, we spend hundreds of hours every year editing our favourite shots, it’s probably better not to think too much about it :-). But we love it and the derby community is one of the best at expressing their love back for our work so it’s actually also very rewarding. Any constructive feedback (positive or negative) from the roller derby world is always appreciated though, it helps us moving forward, and hopefully getting better at what we do so whenever a picture catches your eye and/or makes you raise an eyebrow, don’t hesitate to let us know, we’re always super happy to hear from you. And it also helps us share some of the emotions we feel witnessing the sport we love, albeit in retrospect because being at work behind the camera during the game doesn’t always allow us to live them as intensely as we would like to!