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Finding and losing and finding myself in 2020

To round out the first year of Siren and our collaboration with Rachel Bach (By The White Line), here’s her final diary entry for 2020.

As 2020 approached, I wasn’t quite sure where my photography journey would take me next. After a busy year that included covering a World Cup, as well as international and league matches around Australia and the world, I’d indulged in a month and a half at home. I savoured each moment with those close to me, having not spent more than a month at a time in Melbourne since 2018.

Whilst there’s always uncertainty in freelancing, I was fortunate to have had two longer contracts in 2019. Without that security going into 2020, I told myself that I’d reassess after six months. I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to make a living out of doing what I loved most.

Mere days into the new year, my phone rang. Suddenly, I had more of an idea about the next part of my journey. A few weeks later, I found myself packing suitcases full of camera gear and team uniforms. The Matildas were in Sydney, preparing for the February Olympic qualification tournament. I was joining them as the team’s in-camp videographer and photographer. Whilst I’d worked with many of the players previously, I’d never officially been a part of the team. 

The Matildas celebrate a late goal against China. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
The Matildas celebrate a late goal against China. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

When I arrived in camp, I was greeted by the other half of the in-camp content team, media manager Ann Odong. Ann and I met back in 2016, at the first Matildas match I ever photographed. We were both volunteering back then. We never thought that we’d end up working for the team, let alone together.

As news about COVID-19 spread, plans changed. We were supposed to play in Wuhan, China. Instead, the matches were relocated to Sydney, where we spent the next three weeks. In that time, I produced hours and hours of video content, and thousands of stills. I relished being in camp, and being in a team environment. Every now and then, a glimpse of my uniform in a mirror would force a double take. It didn’t feel real. 

At the beginning of March, I went back into Matildas camp. The final round of Olympic qualifying involved a home and away tie with Vietnam. The away trip had a few new inclusions in masks and temperature checks, given the worsening COVID situation. We didn’t venture outside of the hotel, but the view across the bay was magnificent. It made for the most stunning recovery session I’ve ever captured.

Aivi Luik jumps into the pool during a recovery session in Vietnam. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Aivi Luik jumps into the pool during a recovery session in Vietnam. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

The match itself was played behind closed doors. I was shooting stills until the final whistle, when I needed to switch to video to capture the post-match interviews. In the final minutes of the match, I started setting up my video camera. I was making my way over to the press room when I was told by staff to come to the changeroom instead. Inside, champagne sprayed everywhere as the team celebrated qualification. Being a part of that moment was special. 

As we said goodbye to Vietnam, we arrived back home to the news that the North American matches planned for April had been cancelled. I had spent five of the previous seven weeks in camp, growing close to many of the people I was working alongside. I sensed that it might be the last time we assembled for a while. Maybe a couple of months, I guessed.

Clare Polkinghorne thanks fans in Newcastle. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Clare Polkinghorne thanks fans in Newcastle. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

Back home, it was W-League finals time. For the first time, both semi-finals were played in Melbourne. In response to rising COVID cases, a number of new rules were put in place. Photographers were instructed to keep their distance when shooting. As someone who loves capturing the emotions and reactions – not purely action – it felt bizarre. 

I went into the grand final the following week, thinking it would probably be the last game I’d shoot for a while. I was shooting for Melbourne City, who I’d worked for towards the end of the season. The match was played behind closed doors, although a handful of players’ families and friends sat in the stands, distanced from each other. Even though it wasn’t how I envisaged grand final day, it was still a privilege to be there.

Lydia Williams and Steph Catley celebrate winning the grand final. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Lydia Williams and Steph Catley celebrate winning the grand final. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

What followed the grand final was the first lockdown in Melbourne. At first, I was grateful for some time to stop and reflect. I had a long list of neglected tasks. I spent weeks updating my website, making sure my taxes were up to date, and organising my gear. Slowly, however, self-doubt crept in and my motivation started to disappear. All of my upcoming work was cancelled. I started to worry. 

Related—Getting closer: capturing moments beyond the match

As the weeks went by, it became clear that I wasn’t going to work out whether I could make freelancing work within six months. I found it difficult to come to terms with what was happening. It wasn’t that I’d done anything wrong. In any case, I had to learn to accept that I couldn’t control the situation. 

Going into the second month of lockdown, I pushed myself to take advantage of the extra time I now found myself with. I experimented at home, playing with lighting and tracking birds from my balcony. I wanted to come out of lockdown with new skills. I spoke to a few athletes and organised to photograph them from a distance. It felt great to shoot with people again, but I found the social side to be the most fulfilling part.

Emma Checker completes a home workout during the first Melbourne lockdown. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Emma Checker completes a home workout during the first Melbourne lockdown. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

As restrictions started to lift in June, so did my mood. I was hopeful, and motivated to find work. Photographing Arsenal’s new signings in Matildas Steph Catley and Lydia Williams was an incredibly exciting opportunity, and a privilege. At the same time, it was hard to say goodbye. They joined a growing list of players whose journeys I’d followed for years, who wouldn’t return to the W-League at the end of the year.

A lighter moment with Steph Catley during her Arsenal signing photoshoot. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
A lighter moment with Steph Catley during her Arsenal signing photoshoot. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

Then, in August, Melbourne was locked down once again. COVID cases had risen dramatically, and restrictions were tighter than before. We were only allowed outside to exercise for one hour each day. Masks became compulsory. Photography was no longer permitted outside of one’s home.

I still had one assignment waiting to be completed, which had been postponed over and over as restrictions changed during the year. The new national team football kits belonging to Australia and New Zealand were sitting in a box by my bed. Launch dates fast approached, and so, we couldn’t delay any longer. I ended up photographing the jerseys in my backyard. 

That project was the closest I had felt to football in a while. That feeling didn’t last long, however. Photography, for me, is comparable to a sugar hit. It gives me this rush, this energy. However, as I found out this year, when I’m not shooting consistently, I can crash pretty hard.

A behind the scenes look at the New Zealand kit shoot. Crossbar in the backyard? No problem! Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
A behind the scenes look at the New Zealand kit shoot. Crossbar in the backyard? No problem! Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

My identity is so tied up in sport, and in covering it. Without it, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. I felt disconnected. Towards the end of September, my cameras had spent weeks in the cupboard, untouched. There were days where I struggled to get out of bed. I’d scroll aimlessly through my phone, watching as people outside of Melbourne enjoyed simple freedoms, until the envy became unbearable. 

I started to question everything. When would I shoot sport again? Would anyone hire me? Were the sacrifices I’d made worth it? I felt like I wasn’t good enough. As the pressure to find work mounted, I browsed job advertisement websites. I felt empty sending off my resume. It only took one interview for me to realise I desperately did not want to give up on my dream. Not yet. 

I thought back to when I started covering sport. It was my final year of university, and I had to pick a social issue for a design project. Climate change, homelessness and bullying were among the popular topics chosen by my peers. I chose gender equity in sport. I spent hours on the sidelines taking photos and videos of women playing football. I found myself still working on the project long after the semester finished. Right from the start, I wanted to make a difference. I created By The White Line so that I had a space to tell the stories of women in sport.

Sam Kerr celebrates with fans after a win. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Sam Kerr celebrates with fans after a win. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

Football was the natural starting point for my coverage, as it was the sport I’d played most. It was familiar in so many ways. I’d also enjoyed shooting other sports along the way, such as ice hockey, tennis and AFL. I wanted to keep challenging myself. I wanted to work with people as passionate about women’s sport as I am. So, I put the mindless phone scrolling on hold, and composed a message.

Immediately after I’d pressed send, I left my phone on my bed and went outside to distract myself. It was a simple message – I asked if the recipient would consider working together. It was hard for me to put myself out there like that, but I knew that I needed to. As it turned out, my forwardness was appreciated. A phone call and a catch up later, and Sabrina and I had a plan for our first shoot. 

I was nervous on the morning of the shoot. It had been over six months since I’d photographed any action. Sabrina’s warm nature instantly put me at ease. It ended up being the most memorable of mornings. You couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face. I felt like I’d found myself again.

Sabrina Frederick finishes an early morning training session. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line
Sabrina Frederick finishes an early morning training session. Image: Rachel Bach / By The White Line

My initial six month deadline has long passed. In the most challenging of years, finding and losing myself taught me so much about what I want to do. It taught me so much about what drives me. Whilst I’m able to shoot again, I know it won’t be easy. Rest assured, I’ll be doing everything that I can to continue telling the stories of women in sport.

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