The Scrabble Portraits


Written by Tshepo Mokoena
Photos and illustrations by Roger Cullman
13 Sunday 13th November 2011

Main image: Jeremy Hildebrand, 36, from Ottawa

Nigel Richards

Two-time World Scrabble Champion Nigel Richards, 44, from New Zealand

I've seen you're trained as both a journalist and photographer. How do you think that choice has informed your work?

For me, it's all about storytelling. I can accomplish this through images alone or through words alone, or sometimes through words and images together. The journalist side comes through when capturing an image — or series of images — that tells a particular story.

I love the Scrabble Portraits series and wanted to know, first, how you came to cover the Scrabble tournaments?

About ten years ago I got involved in the competitive Scrabble tournament scene. At one point I created Scrabble Player Trading Cards, which was a neat way of combining my photography with the passion for the game. It was well received in the Scrabble community, but that project didn't have enough of a broad appeal, so I shelved that idea for a while. About three years ago I thought of doing a Scrabble portrait series that showcased some of the top players in a unique way. Creating these mug shot-like images with the Scrabble tiles was a novel idea.

Jackson Smylie

School Scrabble Champion Jackson Smylie, 13, from Toronto

How much did you know about the World Scrabble Championships before you started shooting the series in 2009?

I learned about the WSC when I started to play in the tournament Scrabble scene. My father told me about a cousin of mine, Steven Gruzd, who competed in the worlds for South Africa — placing 6th in 1995. I decided to play in hopes that I'd someday be able to compete at that level.

What are competitors’ general reactions to the portrait idea?

Those whom I've approached are generally supportive of the idea. Some are a little camera shy. But being in the tourney scene myself, perhaps they see me more as a peer and warm up to me more readily than for a photographer they've never met. After sharing my initial series of portraits of top experts in the Scrabble scene, I've been asked by other players to be photographed in this manner. So I’m working on expanding the series eventually to include a wider array of competitors.

Marlon Hill

Marlon Hill, 46, from Baltimore. Cracking up so much his name's falling off the rack

Which champs and participants were your favourites to shoot?

Two-time World Scrabble Champion Nigel Richards was one of my favourites because he's pretty reclusive and pretty camera-shy. Jeremy Hildebrand was a lot of fun to shoot because I know he loves metal music and I was able to cajole him into giving me an angry, metal-face portrait. Marlon Hill was fun to photograph because he was having a good time during after-hour play at a tourney and was laughing so hard that he couldn't keep all his tiles on his rack.

What keeps you inspired, when shooting locally in Toronto?

I find inspiration in the minutiae of life. There's beauty all around us if you know where to look. While I love to shoot portraits, I also get a great sense of satisfaction doing editorial features, corporate events, live music and nature photography.

Adam Logan

2005 World Scrabble Champion Adam Logan, 36, from Ottawa

Finally, which new projects have you got brewing at the moment that you can give us a heads-up on?

I'm working on an ongoing series of photos that document abandoned old newspaper boxes that I've found in a wooded area near where I grew up. I've also got a series of dynamic images that show reflections of buildings in puddles of water from a worm's eye view. I'm constantly striving to find new ways of documenting things I encounter that I can share in a compelling, meaningful way.


See more of Roger's varied photography work on his website.

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