O-Jen Ishii has long been part of the ARG family. Over the years she’s supported us as a superfan, sponsor, and mascot. This season she took on her biggest role yet–ARG official photographer. Her deep knowledge of derby and love for ARG is reflected in every image she’s captured. We appreciate her hard work so much that we wanted to get to know her a little better. We caught up with her as she took a breath between editing sessions.
When and how did you first get involved with roller derby and ARG? I’m not sure exactly when we started coming to derby, but it was around the time my friend Boi Gorge was fresh meat and then drafted to the Denim Demons, so it was very early on. Of course, that was very different derby. I remember describing it to someone back then as Rocky Horror on skates. There were fishnets and tutus and corsets. Oh my! Rollergirls had names you couldn’t get away with in derby today. It was theatrical and risqué and punk rock. People would yell, “Hit a bitch!” and mean it! There was a penalty wheel and a mistress of ceremonies. Afterparties were at Morris’ Restaurant, where the house special was a 40oz. Derby was gritty and garish, and I absolutely loved it. I got derby rabies, and I’ve had it ever since. In all the years we’ve been coming, I’ve only missed three bout days. Derby is my happy place.
How have you seen the league change throughout the years? Derby is a serious sport today, and the rollergirls are serious about it. It’s a very different animal. The women in the league just get stronger and fiercer every year. It had to happen. It’s simply evolution. I remember when we drove to Austin to see the Dirty South Derby Girls play the Texecutioners in 2009. It was absolutely brutal. Now, DSDG gives Texas a run for their money. It’s amazing how much the league has matured. I couldn’t be prouder of their athleticism and their character.
But just because it’s more serious doesn’t mean that roller derby isn’t fun anymore. It’s just a more family-friendly kind of fun. There’s even Derby Brats. Ten years ago, no one would have thought of a derby junior league! (I confess, I miss some of the more risqué elements of old school derby, though.)
You’ve been a mascot, sponsor, and a superfan. Now you’re our official photographer! What’s been your favorite role? I have loved it all. First, we were sponsors. I remember opening the program at my first bout and thinking, I want to see Spoiled Rotten Pet Sitting Service in there. Coincidentally, we started our business in fall 2004 around the same time ARG formed, so it felt a bit like kismet. We put an ad in the program, and we’ve been sponsors ever since.
At one time, each team had a mascot except the Sake Tuyas. (This was in the days before jeerleaders.) Well, I had a big derby crush on Reba Smackentire, who was a Sake. So for the champ bout of 2007, I bought a red, white, and black kimono-esque dress and put my long hair up in chop sticks sort of like a geisha. At the afterparty at Morris’ Restaurant, I told Reba I wanted to be her mascot, and the rest is history. Reba and my friend Stephanie came up with the name O-Jen Ishii, and a few rollergirls actually started out with me as “Sake Bombs” – Zoey O’Path and Shebola (whose name my husband, Andy, came up with after an awards ceremony). When Reba was drafted to the Denim Demons, I followed her and became Blood Jen. Those were fun times, too, because our American bulldog, Minnie Drive-by, was part of the act. Really, Minnie was the star of the side show then.
Being official photographer is by far the hardest role and the most work, but it is also the greatest honor. After I retired from being a mascot, I found my place back in the suicide seating and got out my camera. Last year, I started really getting into it, and people took notice. It was really flattering and encouraging to have people notice my photos. Being official photographer has given me the motivation to grow as a photographer and the opportunity to do something I love, and that means a lot to me.
I think your experiences being a superfan , mascot, and sponsor make you uniquely qualified to be our photographer. Do you think so? Having been a mascot and a sponsor makes me more acutely aware of the full experience of a derby event and all of the people who are a part of it. Derby is composed of people, and each person is contributing something valuable to the experience. Once, a guest photographer told me a ref kept getting in her way. I thought, gee, I’m sorry he is in your shot, but he’s kind of important. (And who is really in whose way?) I think having been around for so long, I just sort of get how it all works and what’s really important.
I take photos for three purposes: archives, action, and art. I have a genuine interest in the sport. I know what’s going on and who’s doing what. I understand what’s significant, and I’m eagerly trying to capture it. Derby actually means something to me. That makes me uniquely qualified.
What connections and friends have you made through ARG that you wouldn’t have otherwise? I’ve met many really talented photographers through derby. At the beginning of the season, I got a lot of help from former official photographers, but there are also rollergirls who are great photographers, and my mentor and friend, Rose Riot, is former Stix Army. I’ve made too many friends to list, many of them LORDS or retired mascots (shout out to Tupacalypse) and jeerleaders. ARG is a real community. It feels like an extended family.
Ever had any desire to join us on the track? Funny you should ask. No.