Football photography sometimes seems like a ridiculous, unprofitable and sentimental enterprise. It’s incredibly competitive and massively popular, the marriage of two common passions: football and photography. Lots of people are obsessive about both. Canon and Nikon are two of the most dominant brands in the world for a reason.
There’s often the idle thought that images might entertain me in my care home a number of years from now, if I’m that lucky. Aah, dyou remember old Marcus Rashford / Delle Alli *insert other current fledgeling talent*? In part that’s the reason people take photos: a vague investment in a possible future when you’ll take time to reflect. When we were young, before they flew the nest, that amazing dinner we had one Thursday night in March 2016.
Sport photography, and particularly professional football photography is tougher than ever. That’s football photography in Cardiff, Wales, the UK and pretty much everywhere. By tougher than ever, I mean harder than ever to get publications when working for smaller agencies as I do, mainly at Cardiff City, Swansea City and Newport County.
— Mark Hawkins (@MHphotos_) 8 March 2016
It’s an industry largely monopolised by media giant agencies and subscriptions. When shooting for smaller agencies you have to be philosophical and relaxed about it not feeling fair. You need to bide your time as kick off approaches, wait for everyone to arrange themselves, then give yourself the best chance by trying to sit where nobody else is. The idea is to get a different angle from which to photograph a hopefully key piece of action: a goal or celebration, a tackle or red card. You can sit in an obvious position where you might get great goal celebration shots (the most used shots along with goals), but if you’re sitting in a long row of other photographers it can feel fairly pointless because your shots won’t get used.
Life isn’t fair. It can be frustrating when you know you have the best shots of a key piece of action: the only goal or celebration in a 1-0 win. You know there were no other photographers near you, so nobody else would have pictures as strong, a clean and close image of the strike or header, the goalscorer roaring down your lens. You can’t help hoping your picture will be printed in a newspaper. Still, the next day it’s not unlikely you’ll see other images used which were taken from the other end of the pitch and cropped heavily. Disheartening, but you can’t let it get to you.
Try scanning the picture credits in the sport pages, or even news pages, of national newspapers. You’ll find it dominated by the likes of Getty, PA, AP, AFP and Reuters. There are many obvious reasons for this. The media industry is shrinking all the time – as the loss of The Independent print newspaper shows. Why would picture editors bother wasting time looking for more or better images if they can quickly and easily find one which does the job? And of course those images by the top agencies are likely to be very high quality most of the time.
Football photography in Cardiff and Swansea shouldn’t really be as busy and competitive as it appears from the swarms of photographers at Championship and Premier League matches, internationals and cup finals.
If football photographers were rational, clinical businesspeople, it probably wouldn’t be. But an unspoken truth is that plenty of professional football photographers are football fans, passionate about the game and hopelessly in love with the stupid sport. Expressing this at a match is not really allowed. You’re almost obliged to be a professionally blank automaton, or a weary ‘I hate my life’ sort of person.
It’s worth remembering that football photography is not restricted to the professional domain. There can be considerably more charm, honesty and truth found on the semi-professional, amateur and parks pitches. Players pay to play, grounds are more original, authentic and the people care about the game just as much, if not more.
[Read the Composed Images blog – AFC Butetown and amateur football culture]
There should be no shame in admitting you photograph something because it’s fun.
(Unless it’s, you know, awful and illegal or something).
Of course it’s not always fun. There are plenty of terrible games anxiously spent trying to protect expensive equipment against horrendous weather conditions. Evenings spent peering through a misted viewfinder with one cold-numbed hand or body-part resting firmly on a waterproof laptop tent to ensure it doesn’t go skidding off down the touchline into the raging monsoon: they are not so fun times.
But you have to take the rough with the smooth. Like living in Wales, by enduring the torrid weather you appreciate the kinder weather so much more. A match without any rain at all can seem like the most precious gift. After a string of downpour battles, a dry match is so much easier it almost feels like cheating.
There’s a veil of hard-skinned emotionlessness to football photographers, a sense that to openly express positive emotion would be unprofessional. Is expressing any emotion unprofessional? That’s probably a whole other blog post.
Sure, we all have tasks we’re concentrated on doing to the best of our abilities, even if seems utterly futile much of the time. And this needs serious focus for sustained periods. But it feels like you cannot smile, even afterwards in a press room. It seems to me like it would be frowned upon to dare saying that you’re looking forward to a match, or that you enjoyed it.
One of my first ever big Premier League matches came around this time of year a couple of seasons ago. Cardiff 3-6 Liverpool. One of the most dizzying matches I’ve photographed, to this day. Liverpool were pushing towards to the top of the league, serious contenders. Luis Suarez was on fire up front with Daniel Sturridge. The match was breathless, intoxicating. But on retiring to the press room, not a word was uttered about what an insane match we’d all just witnessed.
Naturally there are some professional football photographers who are not football fans. I was disappointed that one highly respected big agency photographer shrugged away his supposed inability to identify Netherlands star player Arjen Robben in a press conference not long ago. “Who was it? I’ve no idea,” he chuckled at me as we photographed the training session. “You’re asking the wrong person.” Of course he may have just been playing dumb and unwilling to help me. The aloof manner of many suggests this is not impossible.
But there clearly are photographers who care about it much less, (or can’t bring themselves to converse with minnow pond-life like me).
Football is an incredible sport that routinely spins unbelievable tales. This season’s story of last season’s relegation certainties, current Premier League leaders and surely now favourites for the title, Leicester City, is one nobody could have predicted. No wonder people are passionate about it, as they are passionate about photography.
The sport also attracts people because of its constancy; because it is simply always there, a reliable lifelong crutch of distraction. As many a long suffering wife will testify, football never really ends. The soap opera ebb and flow as seasons bleed into each other, the match day routines, the pantomime performance of villains and heroes. Highly evolved or not, humans still instinctively cling to simple rituals and tribes. That’s partly a reason why football photographers hang on in there too. What else is there? Weddings? Cricket?
[Read the Composed blog Coping Without Football During The Off Season]
Football is one of the biggest social adhesives the world over. Whatever happens to the world governing body of FIFA, you can virtually guarantee football will be as popular in 25 years as it is today. Its popularity goes far beyond its governance. In an age of obscene wealth in the upper rungs of the game, that guaranteed popularity is arguably what makes it so vulnerable to corruption. And equally, what can make the world of football photography a mercenary one.
Photographers are never exposed to such untold riches of course, and they can’t emotionally invest in the same way as the people in the stands. You can be sentimental and emotional afterwards, in the privacy of your own home, or perhaps years down the line. But not at the time, or in the media room afterwards. Not even on those rare occasions when it’s been quite fun, you enjoyed the game, captured some half decent images, and it didn’t rain once.
Please get in touch if you need Cardiff football photography services, or sport photography services across South Wales and the West Country.
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