Weird Sports: A New Book and Photo Essay by Sol Neelman
August 5, 2014
“Riders racing ostriches is a common sport in Africa,” says Neelman. “It’s still not exactly clear how it arrived in Virginia City, Nevada, the famed home of the TV western Bonanza. Thankfully, though, it’s part of the fun had during the annual International Camel Races.”
“Despite severe congestion and slick road conditions, weaving through San Francisco traffic has never been more fun than at the annual Big Wheel Race.”
“The Dirty Dash is a new kind of race, a mud-run obstacle course where, according to the sport’s mission statement, ‘a military boot camp meets your inner five-year-old’s fantasy.’ One of the first tricky hurdles to overcome is a series of super-slick 6-foot walls.”
“Originally called ‘Octopush,’ underwater hockey was invented back in 1954 by four English divers looking to stay fit during the winter months, when it was too cold to dive the North Sea,” Neelman explains. “The goal is similar to traditional hockey: Score by pushing the puck into the other team’s net.”
You’d think Sol Neelman has seen it all: the “weird sports” photographer has stationed himself on Montana’s wintery slopes while people sitting on barstools with skis whiz downhill; he’s sat hunched inside the dark studios of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Knights where lightsaber-wielding participants practice the ways of the Jedi; and he’s pointed his lens at racecar-tractor-speedboats ripping through the swamps of Florida. This specialized niche he’s tapped into unexpectedly materialized into a new career path, as well as a photo book, Weird Sports (Kehrer Verlag, 2011), and soon, a second installment, Weird Sports 2.
“Once I think I’ve shot everything, there’s always something else,” Neelman says. To date, he’s photographed about 200 “weird sports” since 2005, and though he’s just wrapping up material for Weird Sports 2 (at time of writing, he’s on his way to shoot the final piece, “bubble soccer,” in Texas), the Oregon native doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon.
The concept behind Weird Sports may seem unusual, but the project’s inception was almost too obvious, if not inevitable: with a born passion for athletics and a fascination with the bizarre, Neelman left his seven-year stint as a photojournalist at The Oregonian in 2007 to combine the two. A quick Google search of “weird sports” turned up a surprising number of results for Neelman when he started out: underwater hockey and zorbing (racing downhill in a large plastic orb), for example. These days, Neelman gets most of his tips by talking to friends, and he’s created a calendar database of over 500 unusual sports to reference throughout the year.
With the exception of one sport that denied him access (combat juggling—Neelman presumes they may have been slightly offended by and therefore refused affiliation with the title Weird Sports), the photographer has had a breezy experience getting access to the various events. Beyond introducing himself, briefly explaining his project and getting handed the occasional press pass, he doesn’t have to worry about obtaining formal requests like he did when he shot the NBA or the Olympics, for instance—most of the sports officials want him there and are just happy that a photographer is “enjoying the weirdness as much as they are,” Neelman says.
Weird Sports 2, like its predecessor, will be mostly visual with some captioning. Neelman’s boycotting the long lens, deep-action, play-of-the-moment snaps that are so fervently sought by most sports photojournalists, opting instead for shots that are unapologetically busy (or, as he calls them, “dirty photos with lots of information”) and quietly insightful into the pre- and post-action moments that truly reveal the essence of sports culture.
Equipping himself with a Canon 1Dx and 1Ds Mark III, Neelman totes gear sparingly; depending on what he’s shooting, he might take his 70-200mm lens, his 35mm f/1.4 and 300mm f/2.8 if he’s shooting a larger playing field, but he leaves his flash at home—there’s no need fussing around with that, he says. Neelman will, however, take along a plastic bag, just in case he needs to shield his gear from spraying mud or water. “I end up exposing my gear to the elements a lot,” he says. “Everything survived the mud-pit belly flop [a highlight at Georgia’s Summer Redneck Games], but let’s just say I wouldn’t want to buy my own gear.”
Though National Geographic did publish his mud-pit belly-flop shot, his photos were a little too specialized for other publications. He shoots commercial work for clients such as Nike and weddings, too, but everything he earns goes straight into buying plane tickets for events and beer for friends who let him sleep on their couches. “There’s no money in Weird Sports,” Neelman says, adding with a laugh, “but I want to go all over, so I’m looking for a sugar mama.”
The photographer caught his break at a book fair in Frankfurt. Though his initial impression after approaching several photo-book publishers was that he had to either be “a dead celebrity photographer or shooting nudes,” Neelman says, he stumbled upon the independent publisher Kehrer Verlag, which enthusiastically agreed to publish his first book, and now his second. Allowing him to sign off on every detail of the finished product—from the book’s cover to the choice of fonts and even the ribbon in the book binding—Neelman jokes, “For better or for worse, Weird Sports is 100 percent my fault.”
Now that he knows the nuances of book publishing, Neelman admits that he is less stressed about the fate of Weird Sports 2, which is scheduled for release in the U.S. next Spring. “Not that I’m morbid,” he says, “but with Weird Sports, I was just hoping to publish it before I die. I’m not as concerned with the second one; if something happens to me at bubble soccer, it’ll still publish. If anything at all, I just want to leave something behind in the world that’s made me laugh.”
As for what’s next, the photographer says he’ll stick to what’s been working for him and do another installment, likely Weird Sports 3.
“I actually just got a text from a friend about the Gay Games,” he says, “so I guess I’m going to Cleveland in August to shoot cross-dressing dodge ball.”
Sol Neelman avoids looking for the “obvious” sports shots—the peak-of-the-
action moments that everyone wants to shoot.
TIP: Look for expressions and the pre- and post-action shots that provide insight into your subject.
• Canon 1Dx
• Canon 1Ds Mark III
• 70-200mm lens
• 35mm f/1.4 lens
• 300mm f/2.8 lens
• Plastic bag, to protect gear from mud
TIP: Get in the middle of the action—don’t stand on the sidelines. “I want you to feel like you’re there,” says Neelman.
Neelman largely relies on a level of serendipity when he’s shooting—sometimes he learns the rules beforehand, and sometimes he doesn’t.
TIP: Don’t worry about getting the “perfect shot,” Neelman says. Gain people’s trust by showing up and having fun, and you’ll walk away with great shots.