Living in New York is a constant battle. Packed subway cars, exorbitant rent, trash everywhere—sometimes it’s enough to make you want to clobber anyone who crosses your path. Yet there is something magical about the city that draws so many people in. Maybe it is the array of cult groups and activities that cater to any and everyone’s fantasies. Luckily for this jaded born-and-raised, there is one community that actually encourages hitting anyone you come near. And unlike underground boxing parties or S&M orgies, this is a world where you dress up to fight rather than strip down. I spoke to Walker Esner about Dagorhir, an international battle game like no other.
The Epic of Dagorhir
Walker Esner may seem like your average New York City photographer. Starving artist who takes headshots for a living? Check. Brooklyn native who is cynical about the future of his home borough? Check. Avid lover of whiskey and hand-rolled cigarettes? Double-check. But there is more to this brooding figure than meets the eye. Walker is not just a guy with a camera, he is an urban sociologist; he is a stealthy observer; he is a wizard of reality who peels back its layers to expose raw humanity underneath.
Dagorhir (pronounced DAH-gah-hear) is a live action combat game including individual costumes, foam swords and shields. However, members of Dagorhir are not dressing up like magical characters from Lord of the Rings and “casting spells,” they are participating in serious full-contact fighting. If you get hit in the arm, you no longer use that arm, etc. Walker stumbled upon a Brooklyn sect doing their thing in 2011 in Prospect Park, and proceeded to follow them for six months, attending the biweekly gatherings with his camera in place of a weapon. Walker explains, “Shooting these people turned into a project because I realized that they’re all pretty enthralling characters and I was getting great pictures, that’s why I kept it going. I could bounce around and shoot a lot of different people. I’m generally drawn to weird looking stuff. This stuck just because there was a lot of it and the pictures were just getting better.”
Casual onlookers of the sport assume that these people are outsiders to society, that they have a lot of pent up aggression to release, or that they are just plain crazy. But the power of Dagorhir is deeper than simply allowing a bunch of weirdos to dress up and hit each other. “It’s just a really brave move,” Walker tells me. “It shows they’re connected to what they want, and what they want to be. In a large way they’re role-playing, but they’re so open about it and it really makes them happy. Here’s this desire that they’ve embraced and that they’re really into. It could almost be related to a sexual kink or something where it’s not your fault that you want some particular thing, but if it’s not realized and you don’t act on it or act it out, then you’re not going to be as happy.”
Over the course of six months, Walker watched individuals being drawn into the Dagorhir community. Participation usually occurs spontaneously at first, when the rare passerby chooses to dive in rather than just gawk and/or laugh (been there). Despite spending half a year immersed in the world of Dagorhir, Walker never made it to actually fighting a battle. He admits, “Even if I really wanted to, I would be embarrassed. I just would never even consider going there.” But for the fighters in Dagorhir, embarrassment is not a factor; apparent in every photograph is an expression of honor and self-respect that they do not necessarily retain in the everyday “real world.”
Aside from regulated violence, the major component of Dagorhir is embodying a character. Most hardcore members have a unique alter ego with a specific costume that they make and wear every time. The diversity of costume pieces in Walker’s photographs shows the value of the individual within this collective, and reminded me a little bit of what you would see at a rave. They cover all bases, from chain-mail armor to metal masks to fuzzy boots. Despite his lack of participation, Walker had an important role in these gatherings. “It was like getting prom pictures every other week, basically. Dressing up in what you think is the best looking possible thing you could be dressed in… yeah, I mean, who wouldn’t want a record of that?”
When I ask Walker about photographing members of the Dagorhir crew in different settings outside of the park, he immediately reproves the idea. “I tried hard not to get into that. It was suggested to me to maybe shoot these people out of context, like at their house in their outfit.” Walker firmly continues, “I think that would be not intentionally demeaning, but the pictures could very easily go to a place that I didn’t want them to get to. I try really hard to take dignified portraits of people. When they’re dressed up as these characters this is their environment and this is where they belong. I think taking them out of context would be demeaning and that might look like I was making fun of them.”
After my conversation with Walker I look at his Dagorhir photographs with a new eye. Here are people manifesting the idealized version of themselves, which is an inspiration for the rest of us who only dream of acting out our fantasies. Walker agrees, “Embracing what you truly want to do despite maybe looking crazy from an outsider’s perspective, that stuck with me.”
Now if I encounter medieval battles in the park come springtime, maybe I’ll stop staring and muster up the courage to let go of my inhibitions and take a whack at it.
All photos courtesy of Walker Esner. Article by Sophia Archilbald