England international Rachel Yankey, formerly of Birmingham City Ladies FC, wears Arsenal strip at a Premier League Cup fixture, 15 Oct 06. Arsenal won 3–0. (Copyright © 2006 Jaskirt Dhaliwal. Used by permission.)
Birmingham, England| When Jaskirt Dhaliwal trained the lens of her Mamiya 7 II on players of Birmingham City Ladies FC, she told them not to smile. Instead, the players were asked to think about their lives in football and all that such a life entails.
One problem I’ve learnt being a photographer is that when you put a camera in front of someone their initial reaction is to smile, but this isn’t necessarily the best thing in every portrait. The message I wanted to communicate through my photographs wouldn’t have worked had they been giving cheesy smiles. I asked the players to think about what football meant to them so that passion would come across in the portraits, which hopefully it did.
A slideshow of Dhaliwal’s portraiture and grounds from grassroots football: “Faces and Spaces | Women’s Football in the West Midlands.”
Dhaliwal has made a somewhat counterintuitive choice in presenting the Birmingham City athletes in street clothes. The background is uniform, with nothing to help a viewer place the women among England’s top footballers. The anonymity is the point in that it raises telling contrast to the worship accorded images of the players’ male counterparts, the Premiership icons readily recognized in or out of uniform. Dhaliwal’s pictures of park and training grounds in the West Midlands relate to the portraiture in that they support the grassroots theme; on display, they are meant to contrast with her pictures of swaths of highly glossed, meticulously maintained seating within some of the foreboding temples of men’s football—another sign, Dhaliwal says, of commercial fruits that have yet to trickle down to the women’s level.
Of the portraits, Dhaliwal’s statement accompanying a winning entry to the UK’s Photo Imaging Council, an industry group, elaborates on the theme of identity: “There is a deception, in a sense, because these women look like your best friend, your average student, the woman you sit next to on the bus … and they have no airs and graces about them, but surprisingly they are all of these things, yet also England’s best footballers on the weekends.”
Collections of photography of female athletes with which we are familiar—the primary example being Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like? (Random House, 2001), also a touring exhibition—feature, almost exclusively, the woman in the midst of athletic performance: the telling image Brandi Chastain‘s chiseled arms and torso as she celebrates the winning penalty kick at the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Game Face project director Jane Gottesman‘s mission, in part, was to demonstrate that the absence of women’s faces in sports pages and in glossies such as Sports Illustrated did not reflect reality, but editors’ circumscribed vision. (The magazine’s swimsuit issue, Gottesman writes, “was … the only issue each year when a woman was guaranteed to grace the cover of America’s premier sports magazine.”)
Seen within the more than 100-year history of women’s football in the United Kingdom, another novel aspect of Dhaliwal’s presentation is that she concentrates on her subjects as individuals. Pictures within Jean Williams‘s recent work, A Game for Rough Girls? A History of Women’s Football in Britain (Routledge, 2003), show the players of post–World War I vintage in standardized group photos. Williams picks out the common elements: “mobcaps, tunics and full-sleeved shirts” marking women as working class, with the women’s body shapes hidden to suggest “restraint and order” (84). Male trainers and female chaperones are prominent.
The women in Dhaliwal’s portraits must be identified in accompanying text, yet they stare down the lens, proudly, almost defiantly. In creating these images, Dhaliwal has contributed to the public memory of the women’s game, a notable deficiency when compared, Williams writes, to the profusion of memorials and stadia that commemorate male players in the UK. Starting in 1921, after the rise to prominence of munitions teams such as Dick, Kerr’s Ladies of Preston—and marking the beginning of the Football Association’s nearly 50-year ban on women using FA grounds—women’s football largely faded from public view. Williams writes:
In conversation, people frequently ask if women play for ninety minutes, on full-size pitches and so forth. The common-sense idea that women can’t play is evident in these, mostly innocent, enquiries. The assumption that the sport must be very different from the men’s game is also a factor. This sense of the unusual is reinforced by the human geography of Britain: male participation in football is so ubiquitous that we know about it and will probably have seen at least part of a game even if we don’t want to. To appreciate when, where and how women play, we have to take the time to find out. (69)
While difficult to find evidence for such statements, other than the oral histories that Williams compiles, football seems to generate special passion among women players. One must consider the sacrifices in time, the necessity to integrate training and matches with school and work schedules—the famous example involves England internationals Eniola Aluko and Karen Carney sitting for A-level qualification exams during the 2005 European Championships. Inhospitable weather in the UK can be another deterrent, topped on the fact, as Williams writes, that football is “rarely a casual exercise option” compared to swimming or other individual pursuits.
A charity-match program promoting a Birmingham derby, Aston Villa Ladies XI v. Birmingham Beau Belles XI, 2 May 1971. (http://www.btinternet.com/~bclfc/)
Dhaliwal herself says she grew up “football mad” and played the game with support from her parents. Her work transpires at a unique period in the story of Birmingham City Ladies and of women’s football around England. Having qualified for September’s World Cup finals for the first time since 1995, the England national team again has raised the sport’s profile. But, as in the United States, women’s football struggles for a financial and cultural foothold.
The Birmingham City side, as written in Dhaliwal’s own history for BBC Birmingham, grew from supporters of the men’s team who wanted to play themselves. The first players gathered in 1968, a year before creation of a Women’s Football Association and lifting of the de facto ban in place since the FA had declared the game “unsuitable” for women. The team, as pundits say, had moved from “strength to strength” until reaching a point in 2003 when the side contained nine England internationals; a quarter of the host England team at Euro 2005 came from the Birmingham ranks.
The same year, the Birmingham City board had offered to assume financial responsibility for the team, independent throughout its history, but then withdrew a £75,000 sponsorship offer at the last hour. Perhaps they knew that relegation was on the horizon for the men’s side in 2006. Writing in the Guardian, Georgina Turner points out that Birmingham City chief executive Karren Brady, one of the few women in football’s top ranks, had offloaded a six-figure sum for sock ties for players and the team shop (“That’s No Way to Treat the Ladies,” 4 Aug 05). What are sock ties? The board, for its part, questioned whether the women’s game offered a “viable business opportunity.” Scathingly, in her own assessment, Dhaliwal wrote that viability was not the real issue, given the club’s fruitless £6.25 million gamble on Emile Heskey.
Remarkably, Birmingham City Ladies have survived in the top flight but are typically outclassed by teams with solid financial backing, such as Arsenal and Charlton. “Lack of viability” remains a damning phrase, with Fulham—which, in 2000, became Europe’s first professional women’s team—having barely survived last year after announcing that the team would be discontinued. Manchester United has shut down its women’s team; Sunderland and Cardiff City have just managed to hang on. A House of Commons report last summer recommended creation of a summer women’s league and a home nations championship so that women’s football might carve its own niche.
In their own way, Dhaliwal’s luminous portraits could be marshaled to back the cause.
Dhaliwal’s photographs will be on view at Focus on Imaging 2007, a trade show open to the public, at the NEC exhibition center in Birmingham, Feb 25–28.
Zohreh Soleimani captured this image of women supporters in Tehran following Iran’s qualification for the 1998 World Cup finals. (Copyright © Zohreh Soleimani)
An interview with Dhaliwal appears in the online edition of Asian Today, part of a series of three articles on Asians in women’s football in Britain (“British Asian Women in Football,” Mar 8). Dhaliwal maintains an archive of Birmingham City Ladies photographs—she is the team photographer—at Flickr. Mark Hodsman forwarded us a link to his in-process chronicle of Scunthorpe United Ladies of the Northern Women’s Combination League.
During the 2006 World Cup finals, organizers in Berlin brought together work from 11 women artists (including Zohreh Soleimani of Iran; see above), most from Central and Eastern Europe, in “Fussball_Frauen_Fotografie” (Football, Women, Photography). The online gallery testifies to creations that are more “self-consciously artsy,” to borrow a phrase from a former critic acquaintance, than Dhaliwal’s photographs. They show, nevertheless, that women’s perspectives offer a way to move beyond cliché about the world’s most popular game.