Photography, Drow, Losing Jobs, Looking Stupid, and Being Cool

First off – I’m not going to illustrate this post with any of my photographs. I don’t think it’s fair to do that for many of the things I’m discussing.

Secondly – this is me speaking from my own experience and thoughts. Not as a representative of anyone I photograph or write for.


When I first joined the LARP community, a few people gave me some helpful tips. Several of these revolved around the way that LARP is interpreted by the outside world. This advice was generally along the lines of:

  • The rest of the world thinks that LARP is stupid. It would be good if you tried to make LARP look cool, so that the rest of the world knows that we do is cool and not stupid.
  • LARP can cause people to worry about losing their jobs/friends because outsiders don’t understand what LARP is. If you could be sensitive to those people with your photographs then that would be cool.
  • Sometimes people outside of LARP misinterpret what we do. It would be cool if you could try to present an image to the rest of the world that shows we’re not just treading all over other peoples cultures.

So lets get these points broken down.

The rest of the world thinks that LARP is stupid.

I tried to make LARP look cool. I think I managed. I often get told that my photographs feel cinematic and I hope that most people feel that way. I aim to make my photographs feel like a still from a film. It’s a different approach from most other photographers shooting LARP, but I feel like it works for me. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I certainly feel like I make the hobby look cool. Even MattP said it:

LRPs is developing in so many ways and there are many great games that don’t focus on the visual spectacle. But many of us are used to thinking of our hobby as something to be hidden away from ridicule – and in the 90s much of what we did looked pretty ridiculous. Mum’s old curtains, trainers, jeans, gaffa weapons and people shouting fireball. It was cool in our head, but we were painfully aware that to anyone watching it, it was as cool as two twenty-five year olds playing Mary and Joseph in the infant’s school nativity play.

But LRP has come of age. It’s as fun as it ever was – but now it’s fucking cool.

I get alot of people looking at my photographs who aren’t LARPers. I guess it’s because I write for photography magazines so people look me up on Facebook and they find my pictures. I guess I get on average two enquiries a week about what LARP is all about and how someone might go about playing. I don’t know what my conversion rate is, but I guess I’m actually quite high up in the rankings for the amount of people that stumble across LARP accidentally and enquire about it.

You see, LARP does look cool. Even my Dad thinks that LARP looks cool and fancies a go at playing it. Actually he’s just amazed that you can get a whole weekend’s worth of entertainment – including potentially food and drink via bartering – for about £70 per person. But you know, whatever floats your boat.

So when shown images of LARP that are good quality, people are interested in LARP. And they don’t think it’s stupid. They’re interested. Especially because of all the fantasy films that have come out in the last decade or two. LARP looks cool. Mostly.

LARP can cause people to worry about losing their jobs/friends because outsiders don’t understand what LARP is.

I generally don’t really think that this is a valid concern in most cases, however that’s because I’m quite happy to stand up for myself at work and tell my employer that they’re incorrect (I did that when it came to my poly relationship when I was called into HR once, they soon backed off). I would rather lose a job than work for a company that is narrow minded or even bigoted. However I understand that not everybody has that choice and sometimes people just have to toe the line at work, not discuss their personal life and hope that their employers don’t find out what they get up to at the weekends.

The fact that people are concerned is enough for me. I might hold the opinion that your employer is a dickbag and you should look for another job, but I understand that you are frightened about being found out. Your concern is enough for me to also be concerned about the damage that my photographs can do to your life. Sure it irritates me when I have to take down a photo for these reasons – but my irritation isn’t at you, it’s at your dickbag employer.

I learned very early on that takedown policies are really important to many LARPers. It’s important for many people to be able to say “Hey, I don’t like that photo for X, Y, or Z reason. Can you take it down please?” and I always oblige. I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve only been asked twice to remove pictures because someone thought they looked stupid. Twice in seventeen events. I’ve had a couple more for work related takedowns, but less than I can count on one hand. But anyway, that’s beside the point.

Sometimes people outside of LARP misinterpret what we do.

One of the problems with photographs of LARP is that they lack the context of the game. So when outsiders view my photographs – which they do, the stats on my pages clearly demonstrate this – they don’t understand the roleplay that is happening. Nor can they see your carefully crafted character background. An awful lot of the time they don’t even come from a background where they’ve ever read one of the fantasy novels that LARP has often grown out of. Come to think of it, nor have I.

This means people looking at my photographs will be overlaying their own cultural context and making assumptions about what’s going on based on their own lived experiences. I can’t control who looks at my photographs, they’re accessible by anyone in the world who has an internet connection and access to Facebook or my website.

Peoples lived experiences can really affect the way that they view certain classic LARP images. Like – dare I say it – Drow. If you’re in any way plugged in to the LARP community in the UK, you’ll have seen the fall-out on Facebook about the Drow/racism debate.

The fact is, we can’t control who sees our photographs and how they interpret them. We also can’t control who comes to a LARP event smaller than a little local system, and you can’t control how they will react to various situations that they didn’t expect to see. It’s all well and good to expect military violence at a LARP – if you are a soldier suffering PTSD then perhaps an Airsoft LARP isn’t for you, for example – but why would you expect racism to be part of a fantasy LARP?

I mean this is fantasy. This is supposed to be escapism from every day life. We went through all this when the UK LARP scene debated sexism in fantasy game settings. Lots of people (mostly white men, I’ll note) argued that they have to be ‘politically correct’ in their Monday-Friday lives, so why should they have to bother to be so during their escapism at the weekend? The answer was, quite clearly, because women want escapism from real life too. Including the sexism we have to endure frequently. Sorry bro, you don’t get to have your escapism if I don’t get to have mine too.

To me, racism falls into the same camp. Lots of people find casual racism funny – plenty of people were admitting that openly on the UK LARP Facebook group. “Wait, are you saying we can’t make racist jokes anymore even if we’re not *actually* racist?” The answer to that question is, of course, No. And also you’re a dickweed. Bro. Because to be honest if you’re making racist jokes, you’re probably racist. You just don’t want to be called racist because that’s like, some kind of insult or something. In fact I’m going to post a quote here from an EverydayFeminism blog about political correctness that I really like:

If you feel that you have to walk on eggshells to avoid being labeled a bigot, you might be in the habit of saying things that are bigoted.

 

I mean, given that even KKK groups deny being racist, it’s entirely possible to do and say clearly oppressive things without seeing that they’re oppressive.

 

So I’ll just say this: If the worst thing you could be called is sexist, racist, homophobic, a bigot, ableist, or the like, you have it pretty good.

I’d like to write a few words specifically about this Drow business. I find this very difficult because I’m writing from a privileged position of being a white person, who grew up in a very white area, went to a predominantly white school, who has generally worked in quite white/European environments, and who is studying a very white course. I am loaded up on privilege here. But I’m trying not to be a dickweed about it. Mea culpa, I’m doing my best. Since part of my dissertation is discussing black theory in art history I’ve started to read up on it, but I’m not entirely there yet.

I am ultra rational. I try to run everything through my logic filter and I try to view all situations the same way that I would those that I’ve actually experienced. I’ve never experienced racism. But I have experienced sexism and queer/homophobia, so I try my best to extrapolate those experiences onto racism issues and attempt to find some empathy with the affected groups.

A few months ago I was reminded by a particular photograph (not one of mine) of a player at Empire who was wearing what appeared to be matte black makeup across their face. Nothing else done with it, just matte black, rubbed off around his lips where he’d clearly been wearing it a while (perhaps eating) and not covering the inside of the skin on his eyes just behind his eyelashes (you can run some eyeliner around that bit to stop it looking pink). I commented to my partner that for me it was uncomfortably close to historical blackface. He told me that it was just Drow inspired makeup and it’s very common in LARP to wear black makeup. I looked into the history of the Drow and the historical myths and legends that inspired them and it did little to put my mind at rest. This bothered me. Then I looked through my photographs and realised I’d never published any photographs of this person even though I’d taken a few decent ones. It had apparently always made me uncomfortable.

A couple of weeks ago I started to sit down and try to articulate to myself why. The answer was that many Drow at LARP look really quite close to historical blackface makeup – especially once they’ve been wearing the makeup for a few hours at an event.

Institutional white favouritism harms us all. And silence and complicity in the status quo is as bad as being openly racist. Just as with sexism, if you do not speak up about injustices then you are part of the problem. Simply not being aware of how your hobbies actions could be interpreted by outsiders can also be part of the problem.

There’s a cost/benefit discussion to be had about black makeup to represent Drow. The benefit to black makeup in LARP seems to step from the fact that some Dungeons & Dragons literature portrayed Drow as having ‘inky’ black skin (you know, that black skinned race from a different (underground) part of the world who are all inherently evil… *sigh*). Go back to the faerietales that the Drow seem to be drawn from though and there don’t seem to be much races. So I don’t really consider it much of a benefit to be slavishly sticking to a look promoted by an author somewhere in the mid-70s. The cost is that many outsiders (and insiders) find it to be quite similar to the very racist blackface.

What’s the solution though? The obvious solution to me seems to be for future games (and perhaps current games too) to encourage players to use a different colour makeup to represent evil races from unknown parts of the world. Perhaps purple would be cool, for example. It doesn’t seem like much of a change to buy a set of purple elf ears and a pot of purple makeup. Less than £30 in all. I spent than on a pair of LARP trousers the other week and my trousers weren’t problematic for anyone at all.

 

I’ve had quite a few discussions over the past 24 hours with persons of colour (POC) and many said that they personally found blackface to be quite triggering – reminding them of past racism directed at them. You have to remember that although Britain is painted as a multicultural society, in most places it isn’t as multicultural as we might like to think. I think that in my year at school – 160 girls – there was only one or two POC. I didn’t grow up in a town where POC were an everyday part of my life. It wasn’t until I started working in London (Camden, in fact) when I was about 25 that I even really got to known any POC. I did have some profound experiences though as an outdoor pursuits instructor when I was 21 – we primarily taught school groups from inner city London schools (predominantly made up of children who were POC) and youth offenders who also had a high percentage of POC. Talking to these young people was sobering and changed my outlook on the battles that many of them were having to fight on a daily basis – and it made me profoundly consider my life as a very lucky white person – way before I’d even heard the term ‘privilege’. I enjoyed that job. I suspect that I learned as much from the people I taught as they learned from me.

There’s one thing that bothered me though during the discussions on UK LARP. As a white woman, I’ve always been told to let POC speak up on their own issues. It’s a sentiment I completely agree with. However what do you do when you believe that someone with lived experiences are not the correct way forward? It’s very difficult to negotiate that path.

The topic of colour-blindness came up. The idea that we shouldn’t be bothered by black drow makeup because we now live in a society that should be striving to be colour-blind. (I.e. we should pretend that someones race does not exist and treat everyone identically.) I’m not actually ok with that approach. If we pretend that someone isn’t a POC then we ignore their lived experience. Many POC will have a different world view to me due to the fact that they have endured challenges that I have not and many of those challenges will be directly related to the colour of their skin. To pretend that someone doesn’t have different colour skin is to say that we have all had the same experience in life. We have not.

For that reason I don’t agree with aiming for gender-blind society either at this point in time. I have lived my life as a woman. If you ignore the fact that I am a woman and you treat me like everyone else (or more likely – you treat me as societies default which is most likely ‘white male’) then you are ignoring my struggle and my experiences as a woman. And boy, there have been some struggles. Gender still matters. Race still matters. Sexuality still matters. Because we have all lived our life differently due to those things that make us different from each other.

Can’t we just all get along?

Well yes, that is the goal. I assume it’s the goal for most LARPers anyway. But in order to all get along we have to acknowledge what makes us different. That could be checking in on someones personal pronoun, that could be deciding not to play a misogynistic character, that could be not making rape jokes in the bar, it could even be deciding that your Drow is going to be dark purple instead of black. These things might feel like tokenistic gestures sometimes, but they’re part of saying to new people and outsiders ‘I want you to feel welcome in my hobby’.

Because like it or not, LARP is still dominated by straight, white dudes who are into science-stuff. The rest of us really still are a minority at most games here in the UK. If we want new people to come into the hobby – who don’t come at it from a strict fantasy/D&D point of view – then we need to consider how our actions might be interpreted by people both inside and outside of the hobby. And most of these people will be going on visual clues to form their initial opinions – like photographs.

And there’s only so much I can do with a photograph of you wearing what appears to be blackface. It’s very hard to make you not seem like a racist dickbag. I can’t post your character background next to each shot.