The Spirit Of Rugby
We interview photographer and rugby player Lara Miller about carving out her niche with abstract Michelangelo style shots of the brutal game
By Jess Hayden
Photography by Lara Miller
Photographer Lara Miller grew up surrounded by rugby, but she did not discover her real passion for the game until she spent time behind-the-scenes with the Saracens Women’s squad. Lara worked at top club Saracens from the age of 18, serving food to the men’s players as part of a catering job. While Lara was interested in men’s rugby, her passion was photography – specifically portraits.
She developed this trade while studying BA Photography at Middlesex University. Lara’s keen interest in the representation of women, her growing talent for portrait photography, and her links to rugby, placed her on an unexpected path that has since moulded her young career: women’s rugby.
“Up until a few years ago, I hadn’t played sports since primary school. I never played a team sport,” the 23-year-old said. “When I worked at Saracens, I started to realise that the men had matchday programmes, they have a whole day for a game, and they sell out the stadium. But the women didn’t even have a sheet to say who’s playing. It’s a tiny percentage of what the men get. So I used my links at Saracens to ask if I could start photographing the games for the women, just to give them some media.”
Lara got the chance to shadow the respected sports photographer Matthew Impey. “I had never done sports photography before,” she said, “I had never used some of the gear. Most of the time I’d get funny looks because I was quite young, I was 18 or 19 at the time, and I was the only girl on the pitch taking photos.”
Despite being new to sports photography, Lara was quickly inspired by the brutal physicality of rugby. Women’s rugby is a high contact sport, but like men’s rugby, is full of camaraderie and team values. “As I was taking these pictures of the women in the game settings, I found that my lens was veering more towards zoomed in sections of them,” she explained. “It wasn’t just about the game, it was about their body and the power, and what they were putting themselves through. Rugby is good for your heart and for your mind, but actually it’s quite a lot for your body to take. I just found it so inspiring. I had never seen women in this light before. They were so cool.”
Rugby photography is often a wider shot of key moves such as the scrum, lacking detail or emotion in the physically demanding and complex sport. Lara’s work is about capturing the heat of that moment, the anticipation as the scrum sets, and the trust instilled in teammates. “It’s how people are hooked on and how their hands are gripping onto certain things that shows the strength,” she said, “so the grips represent their community or the bonds people have in order to play better with each other. I try to be a bit abstract. When I was doing that, it looked a bit more like classical art, like a painting or a Michelangelo statue. It wasn’t just rugby that I was trying to photograph, it was these elements of it.”
Lara describes the power and ferocity of the women she photographs as beautiful, and like a painting. For those outside of rugby, a player with a scrum cap and gum shield in, on a muddy pitch with dirtied kit, isn’t a standard definition of beauty. But, as Lara testifies, it is the human connection and the strength of female friendships that makes women’s rugby so beautiful.
Very few women are professional rugby players. In fact, England is the only fully professional side in the world. Those who play at the elite level around the world are mostly amateur and play rugby alongside full-time jobs. Once you understand the dedication needed to play women’s rugby at all levels, the images become a powerful story of dogged determinism. Lara wants those who view her work to understand the strength in womanhood, and the determination and bravery of women’s rugby players. It’s about “creating your own experience of being a woman,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Lara was inspired to step in front of the lens and play rugby herself. She plays for Thamesians RFC, having attended an ‘Inner Warrior’ camp in 2018, a training session hosted by the club in partnership with England Rugby, to encourage more women into the game.
“I really became passionate about the sport when I watched Saracens Women train. I saw myself in that. With the men, it’s cool, but that doesn’t represent me,” Lara said. “With the women, I saw what they were achieving, and it felt possible.” Lara’s final university project was called ‘We Defy,’ a celebration of all that women achieve. “I had a whole project on women defying stereotypes and doing these amazing things. I thought, well, it’s probably about time that I did the same then.”
Playing rugby gave Lara a new appreciation for the subjects of her shots, and her sister Ellie, who plays for Bath Rugby Ladies. It’s a brave move, having been inspired by the brutality of the game, to play it yourself. “It’s a completely different thing, photographing something and actually doing it. It hurts more after playing because during the game you don’t really feel anything. I think once you commit that first tackle at the beginning of a game, everything goes out the window, and you’re not scared. And you just don’t care. You just go for it.”
Her work is emotive and powerful, which is why she won the Rugby Journal’s Portrait of the Year Award. She prides herself on capturing the feelings of a player – something she now understands herself. The winning portrait, a quick snap of her teammate Orla (who only agreed so she could send the photo to her proud Dad in Ireland) is a fine example of Lara’s skill. For the prize, Lara had her work displayed in the Twickenham Rugby Museum, plus the chance to shoot the cover of a future edition of the Journal.
The photo shows Orla in the centre of a muddy, decrepit field, after a “particularly brutal” game. Orla is caked with mud, the medal of a hard-fought game. Her socks, once red, are now an indistinguishable colour due to the ferocity of the winter weather. Orla looks tired and defeated, but shows the dedication and commitment of a women’s rugby player. She is brave and strong, but not so much that you cannot relate to her. You can identify yourself in her, which makes this portrait such a striking depiction of women’s rugby.
Lara believes that women’s rugby are the “real influencers,” whose bravery and strength deserve more attention between the newspaper pages. Women’s rugby players are often subjected to vile abuse online from trolls who tell players that nobody cares about the sport. “They aren’t playing to make you like them, they’re playing because they love the game, despite you not caring about it. These are the women that we need to have on our screens. They’re so physically and mentally powerful. Despite the abuse the women still play. And that’s really inspirational.”
Lara’s relatively newfound love for rugby has encouraged her to make it more accessible and engaging for women and girls. In June 2020, Lara launched Pace, an online magazine dedicated to women’s rugby, with her friend Lara Di Ferdinando, a graphic designer at Saracens. Pace defies the norm of rugby journalism. There’s no snobbery, gatekeeping or an air of middle-class pomposity. Instead, it feels honest, exciting, and inclusive. The photos are as important (if not more so) than the writing, and paint the picture of rugby as a sport for all.
“When women’s rugby is spoken about in newspapers, it’s kind of boring,” Lara said. “There are boring images and nothing that entices anyone. So we really wanted to create Pace to bridge that gap in representation for women in rugby, and create something that’s a bit more current, modern and visually exciting.”
There are many false assumptions about women’s rugby, and Lara is still often asked if women play on the same size pitch as the men, if women tackle, or even if women really play rugby. Often these comments are not meant maliciously, but come from ignorance around the sport, which is why increased representation is so important to Lara.
In rugby, two teams can battle on the pitch for 80 minutes, then all drink together afterwards. It’s a sport full of beautiful female friendships and camaraderie, joined by the collective defiance of stereotypes. It’s a sport where you are both incredibly vulnerable yet so strong. Women’s rugby participation is growing fast across the world, and Lara is keen to continue capturing the stories behind the players.