Women who matter | West Midlands photographer offers clearer picture of grassroots game

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.

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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.”)

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