Never give a sword to one who cannot dance
In which a prominent cyberpunk author makes a cameo.
I’m not sure how many of you know that I’m also a bit of a photographer, so I wanted to take a minute to share a few portraits from one of my favorite shoots. In 2013, I reached out to Academie Duello here in Vancouver to ask if I could set up a couple of lights for a makeshift studio during the Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium. On the first day, people were hesitant to step in front of my camera. I think there’s often a social barrier between niche communities like sword fighters or fantasy readers and the general public who don’t put much of an effort into trying to understand why those communities are so passionate about their interests. I’d been concerned that the symposium attendees (who were just trying to enjoy an event that had attracted participants from all over the world) might worry I was there with the predatory aim of portraying them as a quirky group of geeks who couldn’t just play normal sports.
Fortunately, a few friendly souls stepped up on that first day. After I made a few rough edits and showed the results to the people I’d already photographed, word got around that I was there to celebrate these people and the activity that transcended mere hobby to become a lifestyle that shaped their sense of identity and community. Years later, I was at a writing conference and I ran into one of the people I’d photographed. I wasn’t sure if she’d remember me, but when I shyly re-introduced myself she recognized me immediately and told me that the photo I’d taken that day was still one of her favorite images.
One of the things I love about this kind of documentary portraiture is that I get to cheat my way into tight-knit communities in a way that lets me experience their passion as though it were my own. Someday when I have a bit more free time, I intend to go back to Academie Duello—not as a photographer, but as a student.
Fun fact: Somewhere in the portraits below is a famous cyberpunk author. See if you can guess who it is. I’ll leave the answer and a little anecdote about them at the end of this post.
If you want to see in an equal balance
the blonde Phoebus and red Mars,
procure to look upon the great Carranza,
in whom the one and the other are not separate.
In him you will see, friends, plume and lance
with such discretion, skill and art,
that fencing, in divided parts,
he has reduced to science and art.
~ Miguel de Cervantes
There is a common image of the modern day sword fighter as a white-bibbed fencer, but delve beyond that and you will discover a growing culture of practitioners of what is known collectively as Western Martial Arts. They train with rapiers, longswords, axes, knives, batons, and even walking sticks; but what binds them together is the desire to learn and improve, both as fighters and as human beings.
"At its surface old swordplay is the study of lethal violence. As you delve deeper it becomes a journey of holistic personal development. The original Spanish master [Carranza] said that Destreza was a method for improving the young men of Spain for the good of the kingdom. If you train a student, you transmute the potential for violent destruction into knowledge, personal growth, and creation. That is the great paradox of the sword; it is an extension of the person. Ultimately, learning to know the sword is learning to know yourself." - Puck Curtis
The title of this series is derived from the Italian word for sword fighter, giocatore, translating directly as 'player'. The practice of sword fighting is often referred to as swordplay, but the strata of practioners ranges from lifelong masters to quite literal weekend warriors.
Did you spot the author?
I was shooting these portraits in the main hall at Academie Duello while people were socializing and sparring around me. During a lull, I was watching the action when I noticed how cool the armor was on the guy in the far right of the 3rd image. When he eventually took a break, I skulked over and asked if I could take his photo, to which he very kindly obliged even though I could tell he’d probably rather just continued sparring. We chatted a bit about the photo project, I snapped a few frames, had him sign a model release form, then thanked him for his time. It wasn’t until I got home and was matching model release names to images that I realized the Neal Stephenson I’d photographed might actually be the same guy who wrote Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. A quick image search confirmed it, and I’m glad I didn’t recognize the Neal beforehand, or I’d probably have avoided pestering him for a photo in the first place.
There’s no sword fighting in the Library, but if you do need to draw steel, remember to stick ‘em with the pointy end. See you among the stacks.