Derby girls

Kingston-based photographer Philippa O’Brien has been capturing Aotearoa’s high rollers for her latest project.


This is roller derby, and it’s the subject of Philippa O’Brien’s latest photo book, Skateface.

Roller derby has been a thriving subculture in Aotearoa since the early 2000s, but it was by chance that Philippa discovered it. She was studying photography and desperately searching for an assignment topic with flair.

“I was walking down Cuba Street and spotted these amazing posters. They were clever images, like a Queen of Hearts with a caricature of one of the teams and then the other. And I thought, ‘what’s that?’” What indeed. Philippa found a whole new world on the skating tracks of Wellington.

Roller derby is one of the few sports in New Zealand predominantly run by and for women, although everyone—of any gender—is welcome and encouraged; the sport’s core values include acceptance, diversity, strength, contact and controlled aggression. But it was the women Philippa found especially intriguing. After all, when someone tells you “this is one of the most defining things I’ve ever done in my life,” you want to know more.

Philippa has had her share of defining moments. A country girl at heart, she grew up on Blackmore Station in Garston. But boarding school and university threw her into city life, and she had almost put a foot on the corporate ladder when fate intervened.

Remember those iconic National Bank ads of the nineties? The horse galloping, a child leaping on a hay bale? The child was Philippa’s youngest sister, Claire, and the sequence was filmed on the family farm. As the stylist rummaged through Claire’s wardrobe for the perfect outfit, Philippa had a moment; she realised clothes were important in the movie world.

Back in the city, she screwed up the courage to approach a film crew, and the costumiers were happy to show her around. “I was hooked,” admits Philippa. “And to the horror of my lecturers, I said ‘I’m going to join the film industry.’’’

She began as a runner for the costume designer on the 1940s period drama Absent Without Leave. “You got a car and a list and a map—no cellphones in 1992—and off you went.” It wasn’t long before Philippa was promoted to become an assistant. It was a relief. “I was a terrible runner because I didn’t know Wellington at all, and I’d already dinged the van.”

For the next 20 years, Philippa honed her skills as a costumier. From budget commercials to blockbuster movies, Philippa’s been there and done that. You’ll see her handiwork in everything from Mulan, to The Hobbit, to Vertical Limit; and while Philippa has done all of the various roles in the costume department, she came to specialise in working with stunt teams and horse riders. It included a lot of mountain work and many helicopter trips, which is not as glamorous as it sounds. It’s stressful to pack equipment in town for a shoot in the wilderness. “You can’t forget the hat,” she laughs.

As for her favourite movie job, she cites The Count of Monte Cristo. “It was an amazing film. We went to Malta for three months. The costumes were from high-end Italian fashion houses: ball gowns, crinolines, undergarments. Gorgeous. They sailed two galleons down from the UK to Malta, where we’d hired the harbour for two weeks.”

Imagine the logistics of dressing 500 extras on a galleon. “It was massive.”

But even though Phillipa loved the exacting work and exotic locations, she needed a change. “I didn’t want to be sixty, looking back on my life and thinking, ‘I wish I’d gone to art school’,” she says. So, at age 42, she enrolled in Massey’s Diploma of Photography and became a full-time student. The course covered everything, from developing in darkrooms to the latest in digital cameras and Photoshop. Yet, with all that wizardry on offer, Philippa fell in love with old-school cameras and film.

It was during this time that Skateface was born, shot in locations around Wellington on medium- format film with a 1980s Hasselblad CM500 camera. This particular model is famous in the photography world. It’s the darling of fashion portraiture. It’s the camera that went to the moon.

In pre-digital days, most of us learned on 35mm “skinny” film. You hold the viewfinder up to your eye, point and click. But the Hasselblad is different. The viewfinder is on top, so you look down into it, and the image you see is in reverse, which can take a bit of getting used to.

It is not a fast-action camera. It’s poised, deliberate, and definitely not made to capture fast-moving skaters, and this fact forced Philippa to develop the concept that makes Skateface different.

There are plenty of roller derby action shots around. The sport is covered by ESPN in the States and there are derby clips galore on YouTube. But Skateface focuses on the women themselves. They pose in their own clothes and skates, and Philippa juxtaposes them with striking backgrounds. These are environmental art portraits.

Philippa’s initial photographs drew praise from her lecturers and caught the eye of respected photographer and curator Dr Anne Noble, who told her to “keep going.” So she did.

From 2011 to 2015, Philippa photographed 60 derby women from Northland to Dunedin. In each place she spent hours driving, searching for that perfect location. One thing was definite. There’d be no iconic New Zealand scenes in the book. “I wanted it to have an international feeling. I wanted the skater to pop but I also wanted the background to be interesting—a bit of an underground feeling.” She drew on her film background to cope with the logistics: “Production, lighting, camera, costume, procedure. It’s amazing what film teaches you. How to approach people, permission, sign-off all that sort of thing. Each skater got a full-sized print, too.”

With 60 portraits, Philippa felt she was ready to publish, until a friend looked through the book. “It really needs some text,” he said.” “Why don’t you interview them all?” It was back to square one, and Philippa spent the next year interviewing each skater and typing up the transcripts. It was worth the effort. The skaters’ words—poignant, confronting—give context to the photos and add another layer of meaning.

Together, the text and portraits are a chronicle of this time in roller derby, and of New Zealand women in a subculture that is not only a sport, but a lifestyle. Interesting as Skateface is now, in the future it will become significant as a record of a sport which is growing and evolving quickly.

Putting Skateface out into the world presented new challenges. “I exhibited 13 of my favourite prints at the Auckland Art Week last year, with a solo at The Grey Place. It had a five-minute video, skating and imagery. Photos, books, posters, t-shirts; it was a full exhibition.” Philippa plans to tour the exhibition in New Zealand this year, and when she dares to dream big, it’s of taking the whole lot to America, the home and heart of roller derby.

Another dream realised this January was the opening of her own tiny gallery in Kingston, a tiny town with about 350 residents set on the southern shores of Lake Wakatipu. It’s a new direction for Philippa, and shows growing confidence, even though it’s “nerve- wracking to put yourself out there.”

“I came home to Kingston because it has all the elements I feel supported in,” she says. “Diversity of climate and seasons, connected community, close to nature (in particular, my garden), a lack of urban distractions.”

The carport gallery is a small step of intent toward autonomy, with the ability to talk directly to gallery visitors, an opportunity to show work from home, and increase exposure as an art photographer. I expected to see a wall covered in roller skaters, but Philippa has more than just the one series on offer, and the featured portraits are of the rodeo world, another defining, and often misunderstood, subculture in New Zealand.

Philippa’s three books are there too. Skateface, of course, and her first book, Photo Fables, which is a series of whimsical photo stories. Her second book, How Art, produced with her Dad, Desmond, is very close to her heart.

“Dad started writing poetry when he was 70,” she explains. “I’d taken these photos in large format when I was home during the holidays. When Dad decided he wanted to make a book of his poems, they were perfect to illustrate it.”

Times change and those beautiful, large-format black and white photographs became a record of the end of an era in the O’Brien family’s farming life. Just like Skateface, it encapsulates people in a time and place that will never be recreated.

And what does Philippa want people to take away from Skateface? “I would like people to start to drop some of the stereotypical things around what it is to be a woman in terms of how she looks. Diversity is life.”