The Best Photo of the AFLW Season
Minutes away from history. At half time of the first ever match of AFL Women’s at IKON Park on the night of Friday February 3, AFL photographer Michael Willson caught the Carlton Blues waiting on tenterhooks to hit the field. It is a shot over 100 years in the making and encapsulates that historical significance.
Centre of the picture and looking past our gaze towards the waiting ground is Carlton captain Lauren Arnell. And it’s Arnell, more than any other character in this wonderful shot, who embodies the subtext of the night. Arnell is an eight-time Darebin Falcons’ premiership player with a superb football brain and ice in her veins. Yet in the split second in which the champion’s gaze locks with Willson’s lens, there is a clear vulnerability in her eyes. Maybe even fear. What do you feel when a decades-awaited history is within arms’ reach, when the dreams, hard work and ambition of so many forebears is falling on your shoulders?
The contrast between typical demeanour and the reaction to this historic moment is not just embodied in the Carlton captain. To Arnell’s immediate left is Shae Audley, a pugnacious midfielder renowned for her grit and ratbag yap in equal measure. Not that the casual observer could see that in this shot as her eyes are downcast, her head is bowed in introspective preparation and that mouth is not saying anything any time soon. Furthest on the left is Bella Ayre, Carlton’s youngest player. At 17, she has a career in AFL Women’s ahead of her beginning on this night. She is caught in a moment of nervous energy, a scream that could be excitement and could be terror. Over the next hour, she will fall on either side of that divide.
The focus is on Arnell, Audley and Ayre because the lighting catches their faces most strikingly. Photographers can work for hours to set up the natural noir mood of this shot, which Willson transcended by opting for a black and white filter which enhances the scene’s emotional gravitas. Lit by two everyday fluorescent tubes, the incredible intensity of the shades between shadow and light – the wide eyes, the unchecked emotional rawness and the cinematic shadows à la Frank Hurley’s shots of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic explorers in 1916. Equally important is the tight angle of the race from which the players are emerging. Not only does it increase a feeling of tension but it captures the unity and purpose of the Blues in the face of this brave new world.
At the rear of the shot is Carlton coach Damien Keeping. He is visibly still encouraging his troops but is – metaphorically and literally – out of focus. After four months of preparation, it is all up to his charges. He is surrounded by his trainers, bench staff and assistant coaches, who fill that claustrophobic race up right to the back. There’s something poetic there as well. For the 22 players in Michael Willson’s shot, there is no going backwards. The only way – metaphorically and literally – is forward.
“I did have the idea of capturing this shot, or something similar, either in the race or running onto the ground,” says Willson. “But I didn’t really have a pre-conceived notion of what the shot may actually look like. So many variables, like TV cameras obstructing or trainers, come into it that I couldn’t bank on it. I was fortunate that before they ran onto the ground, Arnell stopped the players and spoke to them, which gave me time to fire a few frames.”
“I think the dark, dingy lighting is what makes the shot. Also, the dirty concrete, the pipes, the enclosed space – it all works. I didn’t expect the faces to be so intense. There’s such a mix of emotion on the girls’ faces. There’s many layers to the photo. The more you look the more it reveals.”
“Looking back now, I think the photo will stand the test of time as an image people will remember and associate with that historic night. It rates highly in my folio of work. It’s an image that has real impact, coupled with the fact it was such a historic occasion, it all works together to make a memorable photograph.”