Frozen dreams - a review of 'No Mercy' by Jules Doyle

My partner is an amateur photographer, and also, just like me, a bit of a roller derby fanatic.

These two facts made the choice of buying her the book 'No Mercy - Life on the Roller Derby Track' by Jules Doyle (a.k.a Axle Adams), an easy one. I'm glad I did, because then I got to 'read' it :)

Derby photographers have fascinated me for some time now. As the foreword, written by Jennifer Warnick aka 'Shovey Case' for the Rat City Rollergirls observes, derby is mighty tough to shoot: the speed of play and the lighting can wreak havoc for those behind the lens. I consider my practice of writing about stuff to be damn near a walk in the park by comparison, because I have the luxury of being able to capture many of those moments in retrospect in words, and with the benefit of reflection. Photography, by contrast, is the instantaneous snaring of a situation, frozen just at the right time, before the image melts away, never to reappear in exactly the same way.

However, as I began to leaf through this collection, it dawned on me that there actually are similarities that are shared among all of us who are involved in the media world of derby, that aren't restricted to our desire to document events and expose them. Jules Doyle, I realised, began his journey in much the same way as I: he innocently made his way to a couple of bouts, eventually bringing his tool of the trade along just for kicks - and then was suddenly swept up by the sport, as though its pace and energy were a moving current. There is simply 'something about derby' that stirs awake the creative drive in people, in a way unlike anything I've ever experienced watching any other type of game. In my case - though I am certainly not in the calibre of this artist and don't mean to suggest so - it began with wanting to put down my thoughts on a documentary I'd seen... then the post-bout reviews began.

'No Mercy' is Jules Doyle's collection of 352 derby photographs taken over the years of 2006 to 2011, across at least 60 leagues in North America, Europe and the United Kingdom. Throughout the book, we are treated to a montage of derby experience through the perspective of his cameras, which observe anything from mid-jam action, to big hits and stacks, pre-bout and post-bout activity, the crowd, other photographers, officials, and massive panoramas of packed stadiums. More significantly, though, it's the emotions he's been able to capture. This is not snap after snap of jammer facial expressions as they collide with the hips of their opposing blockers, but the shoe-gazing of a pivot sitting in the penalty box, her slumped shoulders bearing the weight of a bad decision, and frustration. It's the skater with her iPod prior to the game, summoning the audible energy as part of a ritual that's delivered for her before. It's the player locked in an embrace with her partner, obviously after the match, but less obvious is whether she's crying, joyful, or simply relieved it's over. It's the crowd lined up outside a venue, the cushions jammed under an armpit, eager eyes ready to search for the best spot on the suicide line.

In short, it is as though every human to have set foot in a derby arena is a vessel of information, experience and emotion, unique in every which way. It takes an exceptional photographer to depict this, in ways that words simply can't. This collection seems to be an insight to the way Doyle experiences derby - as a reflection of everyone else surrounding him. His gear and his talent is obviously top notch - but really, perhaps it's everyone else doing the hard work by unconsciously sharing with him their stories.

I've made it all sound very deep and meaningful - rest assured there is also plenty of fun and goofing around depicted throughout this collection. I think this show-ponying is a trait of roller derby that has carried through from the early days - a desire to express even while the nature of the sport grapples with itself as it grows, receives more focus and balances the pressure to 'be taken seriously'. It's still fun, and so are many of the moments seen across these pages.

'No Mercy - Life on the Roller Derby Track' is a colourful and entertaining visual tour of roller derby. It is, of course, a different experience from actually being there at the bouts - but for those of us who have, it's a great reminder of why we keep going back. For me, as someone only recently starting out on the journey of contributing back to the derby community through media, it's also inspiring to recognise that an accomplished creative began his from the same place: absurd, unadulterated love for this sport.

'No Mercy' was published in 2011 and can be bought from a variety of vendors - see the book's website. To fellow Australians: I recommend checking out Booko.com.au, to find the best price.

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