emily berl – our boys

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Emily Berl

Our Boys

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Everyone in Strawn, Texas knows Friday night means football. Located approximately 80 miles west of Fort Worth, Strawn is a small community with a population of around 700. Strawn high school estimates they will have only 39 students in the 2010-2011 school year. Without enough players to field a traditional 11-man football team, Strawn plays a variation of the sport called 6-man football. Unlike 11-man football, all players on a 6-man team play both offense and defense. Although the fields is slightly smaller than a traditional 11-man field, the fact that there are less players leaves more room to run, resulting in a much faster, higher scoring game. While many outsiders see 6-man as an inferior version of the sport, a demotion of sorts, the residents of 6-man towns take great pride in their teams. During the playoffs, towns with populations in the hundreds can draw fans in the thousands. Winning a 6-man state championship, as Strawn has done in 2003 and 2008 is considered one of the highest honors in the state. While 6-man is played across Texas, and in several other states and Canada, the sport is most prevalent in tiny west Texas towns where populations have been steadily declining due to migration to larger cities. In Strawn, the school is the center of the town and football represents the school. People see the kids of Strawn as their future, because if the school disappears, the town essentially disappears as well. People in Strawn see the football players as “our boys.” When one of the players needs something they can’t afford like lunch for a long bus ride, a uniform, and even x-rays, the town will find the funds to get them what they need. The boys in Strawn grow up knowing they are expected to play football, but at the same time, most grow up waiting for the day they get to play on the team, and in the spotlight. In Strawn and many other towns like it, football is a piece of Americana passed down through the generations. It is an ever-present way of life, a source of pride that binds the community together, and it’s what you do on Friday nights. When I first arrived in Strawn, I knew virtually nothing about the place and absolutely nothing about 6-man football. But soon, I was welcomed into the community with open arms. The people of Strawn let me into their lives and for that I am forever grateful.



Emily Berl was born and raised in Washington, DC. She graduated from Boston University where she studied photojournalism and art history. She is currently a freelance photographer living in Brooklyn, NY.


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20 Responses to “emily berl – our boys”

  • Oh my. Many of these are exquisite. Absolutely. Congratulations, Emily.

  • Congratulations on being published here Emily.

    You have a nice way with light. I particularly like the bus pics.

    Overall it is a nice little series, though I must admit it feels a bit dis-jointed and sparce. I would have just stuck with the football angle. Not sure what the cat, containers, or the shot of the older fellow in the chair contribute.
    Your subjects here all display a lack of emotion, flat expressions, which I assume is a deliberate choice on your part, and part of the story you are telling. I’m afraid I’m left feeling a bit flat too. I think I’m left wondering how you really feel about American high school football culture, and the macho/jock, hero stuff that it perpetuates. (I obviously have negative feelings about it.)

    Your colour and contrast are a bit over the top for my taste, although from your site I see it is to your taste. I can’t help but feeling that given the overall emotional tone of the series that toning down the colour and contrast may have been appropriate, or even black and white.

    Ultimately, it’s your show, and your own opinion that counts.

  • Thanks for the comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to look at my project!

    Gordon, thanks so much for your feedback. I definitely understand what you mean about the football angle here. I’ve received this observation from a couple people. The reason I strayed away from solely football was that I was trying to create a less traditional football story. The story is more about giving a feel for the town and the people there, rather than the team itself. This a place were football (particularly high school football) permeates most things, so the goal was to give a sense of that.

    I’ve seen a lot of fantastic football stories that focus on the team and the action surrounding the game and the ups and downs of the season. This project was not meant to be that though. It was meant more as a portrait of the place, that’s why I included the cat, train, etc. I was also striving here to avoid judgment about high school football culture, it’s a unique way of life down there and I just wanted to capture that.

    The subdued emotion in the subjects pretty much just evolved as the project went along and I decided to go with it. I ended up editing out most of the high-action photos and opted instead for the quieter moments. It was definitely a conscious decision and I can see how not everyone would totally feel it.

    Thanks again for the comments, you definitely hit on some of the issues I have been thinking about as this project goes along.

    all the best,


  • I like it. Images are consistent, and the show’s concise. A few rogue images in there which could be lost or given a little more relevance with some captioning – I think this kind of subject needs captions.

  • Congratulations on being published on Burn, Emily. I particularly like 15, 5 & 7. I did not understand some of your choices for your title, OUR BOYS until I went back and read your notes –that it began as a Texas High School Football photo essay and expanded to include the town. I’m from Texas and grew up with both the “football” and Texas culture and can understand why you were drawn to expand your story, however it doesn’t feel like you got deep enough. I do hope you can get back to Strawn, spend some time real there and follow a specific “Strawn football player and his posse” and really show us his life and how Strawn life as they know it has been something they have to work at to keep intact. #15 evokes something of this nature. There’s a lot of Americana stories about people fighting for their way of life — this is definitely one of them…

  • ‘my project changed and it became more about the town itself and not only the team’

    i think this story is completely ‘team’ driven… perhaps your idea changed, but I see this as a story about the team, which includes community :) i too, think the edit could be tighter…


  • In my opinion, you will shoot a stronger essay if you go back to your original idea and then incorporate the community part as the community relates to the team. As anyone familiar with me knows, I am one of the biggest fans of cats and cat photos to be found in this world – but what is that cat photo doing in this essay? And how about that older guy, sitting alone in the darkened room? How do the containers figure in?

    If they do relate, then the images need some captions to set context.

    Like Gordon, I also note the basically flat expressions. I know that in many of the supposedly most knowing and sophisticated photographic circles, the flat expression is what is strived for and seems to be considering the only honest expression of the human condition and soul. By my way of thinking, this is nonsense. These young people that you are following are displaying the full range of human and youthful emotional even as you are with them – from joy to laughter to frustration, pain and tears. Why not show it all?

    I do think your images are good – all of them. And to me, the heavy color saturation works. I don’t think I would do it, but it works when you do it. But my God, I want to see some joy and excitement in those kids, too! I know its there, right along with the bleak flatness that you have captured so well. These kids are not one dimensional people.

    But is your essay and perhaps you are making a statement less about the team than about your inner feelings as a sensitive artist fated to live in this hard world. In the end, I always feel a little bit absurd giving any photographer any kind of advice about an essay or piece of work because, what do I know?

    I do find your essay interesting and relevant to me on another level as well – namely, that a couple of weeks ago I began what I hope will be an essay on the farthest north high school football team in the world – the Barrow Whalers, of Barrow, Alaska, where just about everything from the Mexican Restaurant to the pizza joint to the community college tends to be the farthest north of its kind in the world. It is a huge challenge, in part because it costs a lot of money for me to get to Barrow and when I get there, I have many things I must do besides football and it gets damn cold on the Barrow field, which is blue, not green. Images like 21 – no chance. This will never happen in my essay.

    Now, I am a little worried about that cat. It sure looks to me like it is dead – but maybe not. Please, give us some more information about that cat. Why is it in the essay? How does it relate to the football team?

  • Hi, Emily! Congrats for being published here!! Love the series, but I also want to see more joy, when kids win the game… an also, what about some portraits after, portraits with sweat, with scars, with their faces tired.

    I don’t get the one of the dead cat ?????? Need and explanation!!

    The twilight today was gorgeous, but as DAH says: Smell of season changing :-( Why summer is to short here in Europe???

  • Congratulations on being published on Burn, Emily.
    I like your portfolio slideshow on your website, really nice stuff, but this essay not work for me. Too much anonymous. Just next beginner Pj’s essay.


    the cat…i think it is alive…well, Emily had several animals in her original edit, but i removed them thinking they just did not make sense in this essay…i did leave the cat because at least there was a player in there or the suggestion of a player..Emily wanted the other animals in there as a suggestion of the player “life” in the town etc…i got the concept/idea, but it just did not work with simply having an animal in the barn or in the backyard….normally i prefer a very tight focus, but in this case, i too would like to see what Emily refers to in her text as being her now primary interest…the town….working the townsfolk into this beyond just their standing in the bleachers would i think take this from as Marcin says “a beginners pj essay” to something more relevant in the long run…however, simple “beginner” essays have their own space in the my heart and this one works for me if for no other reason than getting to that last shot of the player and the queen candidate

    cheers, david

  • Nice work Emily, Really shot nicely and great use of light. I understand why you would want to keep the cat in relation to the essay but I also think it is sort of out of place. Some really nice portraits too.


    “however, simple “beginner” essays have their own space in the my heart ”
    Just like me, just like me…

    It is very hard for me to write here sometimes. First of all I try to be very honest and I don’t want to make Burn another forum where everything is “amazing, wow, great, etc.”
    If everything is great nothing is great.
    if everything is great why anyone would need to perfecting them-self.

    I like simple photography, I like snapshots, everyday and amateur photography but if I want describe Emily’s essay it will be word “anonymous”.
    this is only advice. I hope constructive.

  • Some fantastic images here, and I’d never heard of 6 man football before. Love your use of light and space. But like the others have said the overall focus should be on the football, or if you want it to to be the town as well then give both equal weight. The cat, containers and lawn mowers don’t make much sense as the overall story as presented goes (the old man actually more so as he was a past player).

    I too would like to see some more emotion and grit and action – get in the huddle with them. What must these boys look like after/during a game that scores in the three figures, playing both sides at that! And a smile too – be careful of this trend of contemporary photography that favors artsiness over emotion.

    Thanks for showing us this world. Go back and shoot more!

    Best of luck,


  • Thanks for all the feedback everyone. The captions are now posted for all the images.

    As far as the cat goes, yes, it is a dead cat, it was hit by a car on the main street coming into Strawn. The woman is checking if it has a pulse. Here is the caption for it:

    “Long-time Strawn resident Helen Brock checks the pulse of a cat she found in the middle of Strawn’s main street, Rt. 16. Helen then moved the dead cat to the side of the road, saying “If this was mine I would want someone to do the same for me.”

    It’s is included here as one of the images that is supposed to show a little bit about the residents of the town. They’re caring people who watch out for each other and maintain their community.

    As far as emotion goes in the story, I will definitely agree with everyone that it is subdued. These kids do have fun and celebrate, but at the same time they are also serious. They understand how important the sport is to the town, they understand how much winning means to everyone there. These kids don’t mess around football, they are there to work. In editing this story I consciously chose to use this type of image as opposed to images showing lots of emotion (the edit started out this way and I decided to go with it). I feel like everyone has seen the celebratory football photo many times, and I didn’t think it was totally necessary here. That’s the same reason I did not include any sports actions photos in the story, everyone knows what the game looks like, and I didn’t want to include one just because sports stories generally have an action shot.

    This is an edit that I think is still fluid and all these comments are very helpful for me. The community aspect is important to me here and I feel like after hearing a lot of these comments I’d like to rearrange the edit a bit to make that come through more. Thanks so much again for all the feedback!

  • Emily,

    Definitely a fan of this essay. Like all essays I take the time to view here on Burn, I play the essay then read the accompanying text. I think I got the story right from the get-go. I am not bothered at all by the non-football images. The story of the town is there and you are getting it. Congrats.

  • Thanks, Emily. I really did need to know about that cat. I will go back and read all the captions now. When the snow begins to melt, I sometimes find cats frozen into a puddle below and when it becomes loose enough, I will move it to where I hope its owners will find it. They never do, though, so then I take it back into the woods where the ground is still too frozen to dig in and I give it a raven burial – which is better than leaving it at the side of the road.

    I hope to see the essay when you finish it – and I will agree – you have to shoot it according to your vision. If I had paid too much attention to all the earnest advice given me I would now be nearing the end of career spent shooting at the Salt Lake Tribune and I would never have stood on the back of a bowhead whale or crashed an airplane in the midst of the great Alaska interior. So stick to your vision and see where it takes you.

    Far, I hope.


    i know well how you write about photography and feel about it…i have ALWAYS appreciated your comments and have enjoyed our conversations all along….getting to be about time for another skype chat i think

    cheers, david

  • EMILY…

    i am a bit confused on your references to the “community” aspect here…i did not see pictures depicting the community except for the animal pictures if that is what you mean….however, we can re-arrange the edit as you see fit…but i do not know where the “community” pictures are going to come from…let me know please…

    cheers, david

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    There’s a lot to like about the photographs in this collection. Though I think by Emily’s own statement and the mix of ‘kinds’ of images that follows there is some conflict or confusion about what the collection represents. But that doesn’t stand in the way of the good work that’s here – it only dilutes it somewhat. Whether the cat photo represents something about the town or not seems immaterial; sometimes an essay just needs a good cat picture right in the middle of it!

    Anyway Emily, just keep working with your eyes open (as you seem to be). There’s something very genuine in your work and that’s to be celebrated (as it is here on burn) and encouraged. I think your portraits are very nice and reflect both the people and their environment in a really fine balance.

    Some numbers – 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 14, 15, 21. Outstanding.

  • It is lovely to see the stories of other towns in the US. Sports have a crazy way of bringing people together and this essay made me very nostalgic thinking back on my own sports days. Thank you for sharing and congratulations on being published!

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