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The best seat in the house: my season on the boundary

Kel Rowe spent AFLW Season 8 on the boundary, documenting the competition for the first time as an accredited photographer. She shares her experience and fave photos with us.

It’s the Round 1 opener — Melbourne’s freshly unfurled Premiership Flag is gently tussling in the light evening breeze and Ikon Park is alive with footy fever once again. The Dees and Pies have already delivered some hotly contested play, and I’ve been steadily snapping away, my first time on the boundary. The game is well into its third quarter. Bri Davey has been prolific in her first game back from knee injury, but it is Eden Zanker who has delighted me for much of the evening, her ariel prowess in front of goals makes for excellent photos.

Just as it looks like Collingwood might have made a breakthrough inside their 50, the Melbourne defence sends the ball rocketing back out, up the field and into the hands of Sarah Lampard. Lampy kicks away from 55, sighting Zanker leading hard, out into the right pocket. The mark is a tricky one, Zanks is running with the flight of the ball and has to look back over her shoulder to track it’s fall. But she does so expertly, falling to her knees as she pulls the Sherrin to her chest, sliding along the dewy surface of the pitch. It looks impressive on the broadcast. But I, of course, have watched it all play out through the lens of my camera, finger fixed on the shutter button. As she slides towards me on the boundary, ball in hand, I see the slightest hint of a smile cross her face.

It’s in this moment I decide that this season, I’ve got the best seat in the house.

Eden Zanker marks the ball expertly in the Round 1 opener, finishing with a classy slide. Through my lens, I saw the moment when we both realised just how cool it looked.

I’ve been playing footy for the last 6 years and been an avid fan of the elite league for just as long. In my day job, I am a creative storyteller, so it was a completely natural move to pick up a camera and start shooting the sport I love. There were simply too many stories and incredible athletic feats for me to resist capturing them on camera.

Like most amateurs, it began with snaps on my smart phone. These could never rival those taken on the complicated kit that the professionals use, but the process did reveal something. I had an eye for it. So, I invested in a camera and began shooting as much footy as I could — VFLW, AFLW, local competitions — anything that would develop my skills as a sports photographer and visual storyteller.

My work in sports media brought about the opportunity for official accreditation with Siren Sport last year; and my commitment to practice and develop, alongside connecting with the work of photographers I admire, helped me to feel at home on the boundary. Here are three of my reflections and some favourite images from Season 2023…

Newly-minted Melbourne Captain Kate Hore takes a moment pregame with teammate Paxy Paxman. There were high expectations for Hore, filling the shoes of AFLW darling Daisy Pearce, and she looked right at home in the opening round.

Bonnie Toogood was simply too good in 2023. Her elite contested marking proved a mighty challenge for any seasoned competitor, with the opposition often coming off second best. Here she makes a grab in front the crowd at a sold-out Windy Hill. As you can imagine the noise was deafening.

1. As a photographer, playing footy has its advantages.

I’m still learning how to best wield my tools, but one thing gives me a distinct leg up as a beginner photographer — I know footy. Anything can happen in AFLW, but if you hold some knowledge of the game, you can make decent predictions about where the ball will go, look for specific patterns in play, and know when to turn your focus to particular players at pivotal moments in a match.

Centre bounces and stoppages around the ground are some of my favourite things to shoot. In local footy, I am a Ruck, so I get a real thrill watching the elite Rucks go toe-to-toe. The strength and strategy that plays out between two giants of the game often turns out amazing images — I love capturing the focus, grit and determination in their eyes.

Locked in a stoppage, Caitlin Greiser and Jess Good only have eyes for the ball, during the Round 4 Carlton Respects game at Ikon Park.

Ever an excitement machine, Alyssa Bannan continued to kick goals and celebrate hard in 2023.

Aine Tighe and Gabby Seymore battle it out for dominance in a stoppage during their Round 5 clash.

2. Being a fan can make you better.

As I shot different games throughout the season, I began to realise there were some common threads that helped to improve my work. A footy IQ is incredibly helpful, but being a fan also brings a palpable sense of admiration and care to the stories captured by my lens. You follow your favourite teams, celebrate the milestones and capture the raw emotion of players on the ground. Some games, I found myself so enthralled; I’d realise that I had been holding my breath as the action unfolded!

In Round 1, new Blue Harriet Cordner returned to footy after a lengthy absence due to a knee injury. As a Carlton supporter, I was stoked to have Cordner on the team, boosting the defensive stocks. As a footy fan, I am always happy to see players who return to the game after a serious injury

The scream was almost primal, but it signalled just how much that first goal meant to Renee Tierney, as she made her way back into the Essendon side, facing off against Richmond in Round 7

Sometimes, being a footy fan does let me down. I love AFLW, so it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and forget why I am sitting on a tiny camp chair with a camera in hand. That’s part of the magic of this game, especially when it comes to high-stakes footy. Working during the finals series was a great learning curve for me. I try hard not to openly favour either side, but sometimes you can’t help but ride the bumps and feel second-hand the adrenaline of the game.

With just 3 minutes to go in the 4th quarter of the Preliminary Final, Najwa Allen took a set shot from the edge of the 50. If her kick was true, the goal would get the Crows within one-point of the Roos. I watched as the ball sailed through the air, and suddenly, as it looked like it might drop short, Anne Hatchard launched from the back of the pack on the goal line. Plucking the Sherrin from the air just above the searching fingertips of her opposition, Hatchy crashed back to earth, and quickly sealed the effort with a kick through the big sticks.

As the closest photographer, with a direct line of sight to what was arguably the best Speccie I’ve seen in the competition — I’d had my eyes on the game, and my lens pointed at the ground the whole time.

Najwa Allen takes a set shot from just inside the 50 on Ikon Park. Allen’s kick was the only thing that I captured in that frantic moment of play.

3. Boundary mates are great.

It can be intimidating, making the jump from one side of the boundary fence to the other. On game day, there are so many people focused on playing their role to get the match underway, rules about where you can and can’t be, and it can all seem a bit overwhelming being in such close proximity to your favourite athletes at work. Thankfully, all of that was made easier by the genuine comradery of the boundary community I worked alongside.

Throughout the season I worked closely with Siren co-founder and photographer extraordinare Megan Brewer, who showed me the ropes as a first-time freelancer on the boundary. I’ve long been a fan of Megan’s work (her images from last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup were elite!) and am extremely grateful for the time she took to answer my questions and review my work, offering support and advice along the way.

Being on the boundary meant that I also was able to connect with friends and peers who work in footy and expand my network to include others who capture the magic of the game. Making new photographer mates really helped me to feel like I was part of the gameday sanctum. Like Megan, they shared their knowledge and experience generously, and were generally good folk who loved to chat footy just as much as I do.

Sometimes there are just days that are fun to shoot. The light is golden, the vibes are high, and Greta Bodey is on a four-goal run.

At Megan’s encouragement, I ventured into the winning locker rooms after the Preliminary Final. In his post-game address, coach Darren Croker spoke to the overwhelming pride he had for the effort the group had put int to get this far. “Preliminary finals are hard to win”, and this team song was an occasion to remember.

Shooting the Grand Final was like being in a dream state. Such an incredible day, huge footy moments, and a thunderous Ikon Park crowd. I kept pinching myself that I caught moments like this — Alice O’Loughlin, mid-mark, turning the possession in favour of the Roos.

The Grand Final post-game celebrations were unreal, a rolling juggernaut of joy, relief and jubilation from those in the Lions’ camp. Everyone wanted their moment with the silverware, and this snap became the basis of a League Tees design!

This opportunity, and the experience gained along the way, has me pumped for my next chance to shoot from the boundary. If I look back on what I captured in Round 1 last year and compare it with the work that I produced at the final curtain call — I can see the leaps and bounds I’ve made in just over the course of a season!

I can’t wait to get stuck in again. With the VFLW coming up, as well as my own local competition, there will be plenty of opportunities to keep building, and plenty more footy stories to be told. And I’ll be there, snapping it all from the best seat in the house.

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