- Jillian Pretzel
Just a Girl in a Motocross World: A conversation with professional sports photographer Krystyn Slack
Motocross is a specialized sport that demands a particular skill set from its photographers; they need to possess firm knowledge of the vehicles, a quick and observant eye, and enough courage to stand on the field when motorcycles are whipping past. Krystyn Slack has all of these traits, in abundance.
For half a decade, Slack has been making a name for herself as a professional motocross photographer. She’s built an impressive resume working for the largest motocross magazine in Canada, and she has the unique honor of being the first woman to photograph an entire 17-race season of Supercross.
“At my very core, I’ve always been a storyteller,” shares Slack. While her portfolio features plenty of poster-ready action shots, she specializes in capturing the in-between moments — images of mechanics working on bikes; photos of fans watching nervously from the stands; a shot of a rider leaning over his bike to kiss his worried wife before the race.
“[Motocross may] seem like an individual sport, but there are always teams of people behind the scenes. I like that...[I’ve been told my photos] mean more to [the racers] than others because they are the ones that, ten or fifteen years down the road, will spark very specific memories of a very specific place and time. They are the memories [the riders will] keep forever.”
Slack is able to capture shots like these because she is aware of when those important moments are likely to happen, and makes sure her camera is ready. It helps that she’s also well-acquainted with the riders and often knows their families. Even when it comes to competitors she’s never met, she’s usually familiar with their stats and personal histories — like when they’re back on the track for the first time after an injury, or are trying to win their first race.
“People ask me why I love motocross so much,” she shares, “and it’s because it reminds me of my family.” Slack saw her first motocross race when she was a teenager living in Northern California. She was invited by her junior high boyfriend who, “as funny as this is,” was a young rider. “I’d always been a sports fan. But, when I was first introduced to motocross there was something about it — I was like yep, I’m into it, I’m on board.” Though the romance didn’t last, her love of motocross did.
“My dad had always enjoyed racing,” she recalls. “When I found racing too, we realized that it was something we could enjoy together. It just so happened that one particular local race always fell right around mine and my dad’s birthday weekend.” From that point on, their annual birthday celebrations started to involve motocross.
To document the festivities, her dad brought along a starter DSLR which, back then, she called his “fancy camera.” Slack remembers getting to borrow it for most of the race. Looking back now, she realizes that these experiences shaped her life in a way that she could have never guessed. “I would shoot the riders. But, I would also take pictures of members of the media...Never did I think I’d have that cool job.”
Although Slack is now a highly-regarded professional, she admits her start in the field was a little unconventional. “There’s a scene in Legally Blonde ,” she says, “where [people] wonder if Elle Woods just woke up one day, and decided to go to law school...It’s funny, but I always think of that because it feels like that’s really what happened to me.”
Slack was out of college and working a good job by the time she finally realized she wanted to follow her passion professionally. Once her lease was up, she quit her job, moved back home to Northern California (where she knew the local racetracks), and started taking pictures. Tirelessly working on honing her craft, she soon landed an internship photographing kids learning how to ride at a motocross camp.
As one of the (very) few female motocross photographers in the country, growing her career was a challenge. “It’s no secret that motocross is a male-dominated sport — sometimes I’m the only woman on the track.” In fact, she realized that her gender might be a professional roadblock just before landing her first professional race. After a year of shooting amateur competitions, Slack scored a meeting with a motocross promoter at a nearby track.
“I met with him and pitched my case for why I should have credentials.” Credentials, she explains, are like a golden ticket — they give you access to the racing field. “I was taken aback when he protested, saying, ‘Well, what am I going to do with you if you get run over by a motorcycle?’... My response was: ‘I imagine it’s the same protocol if a male got run over. So, whatever you would do with him, just apply that.’” In the end, she got the credentials.
Eventually, Slack broke through the glass ceiling. Though she faced more than her fair share of obstacles, she also made a lot of friends — people she now considers family. “I was working alongside photographers I’ve admired for years, and getting to photograph professional athletes I’ve watched on TV for the last decade of my life. I loved it!” Then, in April of 2017, in what she calls “the great irony of the world,” an accident occurred on the track.
Slack always respects the rules. “I’m involved in such a dangerous sport [that] I follow them to a T.” On the day of the accident, Slack was taking pictures during the Supercross qualifying session for the top motocross magazine in Canada; she was to cover all 17 Supercross races. “I called it 17 in 2017. Hardly anyone can do it. It’s hard to travel all over the country and Canada to these races but I was determined to do it.”
On race number thirteen in St. Louis Missouri, the qualifying session had just started. At the beginning of every race, each photographer was given a map marked with green and red sections, indicating where it was safe and dangerous for photographers to stand. Slack was in the green zone when a rider came around the track. “You see, bikes make different sounds when they’re going to turn, or jump, or even crash,” she explains. “And I was listening.”
Just as the rider drove past Slack, he hooked to the left and hit the gas. She knew something was wrong. “I saw him! I heard him,” she recalls. When riders give too much throttle, the bike can get away from them, and that is exactly what happened — it jumped out from under him, and directly into Slack.
She found herself on the ground, with her leg stuck between the fender and the front tire of the motorcycle. She remembers being worried about her hair; the bike was still on and she was afraid that her long braid would end up getting caught in the chains. This, she stresses, would have been very dangerous. The bike crew arrived immediately and moved the bike from underneath her. The medical staff got to her a few minutes later; it wasn’t until then that Slack looked down and realized her leg was “the wrong shape.”
“I remember saying: ‘My knee is dislocated a lot,’” which it was. Next thing she knew, after a brief count, her knee was back in place. “I was lifted out and carted off to our medical unit.” Although she ended up getting a brace and had to rely on crutches for the next four weeks, the injury didn’t stop Slack from making it to back to the race that day, or to any of the other races that season, making her the first female motocross photographer to shoot an entire season. In the end, when Slack did get hit by a motorcycle on assignment, like a true professional, she got back up and got to work.
Recently, Slack expanded her portfolio to include other sports, and even other projects — like family photography. This decision make sense, since her ability to capture familial relationships and intimate connections are part of what makes her work so special. However, her passion is still motocross photography and the people she encounters on the field: “I see other families there, and with these people, I feel like I’m a part of this bigger family. I want to tell our story.”
Note* All photos are curtesy of Krystyn Slack.