Sol Neelman woke up beneath a blanket of stars outside Virginia City, Nevada, scratching the mosquito bite in the middle of his forehead. Turns out he was snuggled up in his sleeping bag on private property. But he didn’t care, because his assignment that day was to shoot camel racing.
This has been a fairly typical day in Neelman’s life lately. The former newspaper photographer has been on the road for several years, chasing the wacky world of weird sports. He’s got a new book filled with his collection of the oddest things, and he's still out there shooting the most obscure sports he can find.
“My goal with this project is go to places where there are fun pictures and milk things as much as possible,” Neelman said. “One friend said that hanging out at weird sports is like celebrating Christmas — there are presents everywhere.”
Neelman said the idea for the book was born of a convergence of events. In 2005, he was based in Eugene, Ore., working as a contract photographer for The Oregonian. He loved working alongside what he called “some of the most creative photographers on the planet” but was unhappy in his role at the paper. He felt stifled and he worried he wasn’t growing as a photographer.
That same year Neelman attended his first GeekFest. The conference was a kind of rebirth for his photography, motivating him to find and make pictures for himself instead of a predetermined space in the newspaper. GeekFest also was when he discovered his first weird sport; roller derby.
During the next two years Neelman shot a weird sport here and there when time allowed. But it wasn’t until he quit the paper in 2007 that the idea of a body of work revolving around weird sports started to percolate.
One of the first things he shot after quitting the paper was the Redneck Games in Georgia. He covered the event with friends and photographers, and one of his pictures appeared in National Geographic. From there it was onto a myriad of other weird sports, and before long he started thinking of making it all into a book.
By this time, however, the financial realities of freelancing set in. Neelman had money from a big advertising gig that kept him going, but like every other freelancer on the planet, he soon worried about staying afloat financially.
He financed the book through what he called “a monster commercial job” and has supported himself the rest of the time with the occasional editorial, corporate, adverting, or wedding gig. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s often broke.
“In some ways I’m doing better than some, and in some ways I’m not doing well at all,” he said. “The lows come with trying to support the habit.”
Nonetheless, Neelman said he doesn’t plan to give up his pursuit of weird sports anytime soon. Camel racing was the first stop on a two-month road trip that will include a dozen weird sporting events across the United States. In between he’ll be promoting his book at the American launch party in Denver.
If things go as well as they did that day at camel racing, we can expect another book soon. Neelman said he arrived to find the event also featured ostriches and zebras. As if things couldn’t get any more ridiculous, he said some Penthouse dancers also showed up.
“It’s that type of serendipity that makes photographing weird sports worth it,” he said. “It’s also what I love about life. It just gets squirrelier and squirrelier.”
To see more of Sol Neelman’s work or buy a copy of his new book, visit his website.
"Unbeknownst to me at the time, photographing roller derby in 2005 would be the very start of this Weird Sports book project. I went with the attitude that I wanted to make photos that I liked and not worry about what would or would not run in a publication. This was so profoundly liberating. I quickly found myself looking for other weird, quirky sports to cover. Next thing I knew, I had stumbled upon a life-long project."