Contact sport with a side of counter-culture is in the frame for Kingston photographer Philippa O’Brien.
One night, O’Brien collected a skater known as “Meat Train” for a shoot in Island Bay. An unapologetically raw and powerful woman, she competes with fake fingers grasping her neck, costume blood dripping over her eyes, and tattoos on display. She wanted blood to feature in her portrait and O’Brien agreed, assuming she’d bring along the fake stuff – but she turned up with a bucket of pig’s blood, instead. “A mum pushing her buggy came by with her dog, the dog went straight for the pig’s blood and I took the shot,” O’Brien recalls. “The photo has the dog looking up at the camera; it was one of those great moments in photography.”
The series began as a diploma project that garnered accolades at Massey University’s graduation showcase. “Professor Anne Noble said that for cliched subject matter, I’d managed to shoot it in a unique way – that there was something really powerful about the women’s legs, and I needed to finish this project.”
That was the catalyst for O’Brien’s book, Skateface, in which 35 roller-derby skaters including Lady Trample, Beth Wish, Hailstorm and Cinder Wreck share their candid stories. The collection took five years to complete and was released this year after a successful Kickstarter campaign. An exhibition of her work, Skateface, will run at The Grey Place in Auckland, 15-26 October – deliberately timed to coincide with the Rugby World Cup, to promote an alternative sport.
O’Brien’s background is in costume design for film, with more than 20 years’ experience on big-budget productions such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Vertical Limit, The Hobbit and The Light Between Oceans. The costumier’s influence shows in her artistic portraiture, with carefully juxtaposed images such as gravestones and taxidermied heads. Each skater was encouraged to bring a selection of clothes to evoke her alter ego.
O’Brien, 48, shoots with what she calls a “feminist gaze”, allowing the women to express their aggression and dominance without being judged. “It’s about photographing their strength.” Shooting with film on a medium-format Hasselblad camera also forces her to be selective. “I limit myself to 24 frames, two rolls of film per shoot. That’s the discipline. With film, you have to be a bit more purposeful.”
Finding her subjects and constructing the images has been a labour of love for O’Brien, who’s based in Kingston. She travelled the country, from Whangārei to Dunedin, and saw the women’s strength and sense of unity they draw from roller derby. “It’s not just a sport, it’s a community of women who are constantly in touch with each other.”
She’s met women who credit it with saving them from postnatal depression, or helping them recover from body-identity issues, as well as a myriad of other personal challenges. “A psychiatrist friend has seen girls who self-harm join derby, and it’s been a saving grace for them.”