Sports Photography As Meditation

I never thought I’d be photographing sports as part of a fine art MA. That’s not because of the sports, it’s because I never thought I’d be doing a fine art MA.

Some of the first pictures I ever took were sports photos. When I was dragged out of bed to stand on touchlines while my brother played soccer (which is a dumb game, and I will hear no arguments) I figured out quickly that the hours would get shorter and less cold if I had something to do. Bring on the camera. Standing there, with the Practica compact I’d gotten for my seventh birthday I figured out how to pan, how to play with the shadows, how to work the light and catch action at the right moments.

It’s probably not a coincidence that my first published photograph was a sports photograph, and when I came back to photography it wasn’t long before I was reverting to old habits. Not so much of it at first – I spent far more time on Street Photography and in the theatre. I’ve got the pictures somewhere from when I’d run across baseball games on the diamonds in Central Park. And when I got back to the UK I spent a memorable day in Barmouth photographing motorbikes shooting around a course bulldozed out of the beach.

So far no big deal. It was fun – I’ve always liked being outdoors, and it kept my eye in – capturing fast moving subjects through a telephoto lens is an art that needs to be practiced. And I did. Just not all that often.

Anyway, September 2018 rolled around, and I started work on pulling together a portfolio. And one day when I was sitting in the University Library flicking through an exhibition catalogue of portrait photographs, I came across one that arrested my attention. The photograph was of a man wearing ice hockey armour – the full goalkeeper’s rig, covering everything but the eyes. Brilliant image it was as well. Technically great, beautifully lit, and with a singular focus of expression about the eyes that really caught the attention.

Well, thought I, the University has an American Football team. Could I take this idea outside? Monochrome images of football players growling and roaring through the face guards of their helmets? Why not, sounded like fun. But they weren’t playing too many home games this year, and some sort of practice looked as though it might be in order. And a quick look at the schedules showed that the University’s Second Rugby Union Team was playing the very next day, and a brief message brought the reply that they’d be happy to see me.

So, under an October sky in Mid-Wales, I packed the longest lens I could lay hands on and strolled down to the rugby pitch. The idea, insofar as I had one, was to try and capture portrait shots in amongst the tumult. To get images of people who were unconscious of the camera and engaged in their own struggle – to capture the extremes of emotion, anger, frustration and whatever else.

Well, I photographed that game. And I got some images I quite liked. Liked them enough that I went back for their next home game. And a few more. And the more I photographed, the more the games became part of my weekly routine, and the more I noticed about the team itself.

The thing about the second team, is that a large part of its remit is to supply warm bodies to the first team. So if someone pulled out a particularly impressive performance during a game, then there was a very decent chance that they’d be gone the next week – “not scoring tries for us, keeping a bench warm in case they get an injury” as one of the senior members put it. The other thing is that other Universities have seconds teams as well. They also have thirds, fourths, fifths….in fact sevenths and indeed eighths are present. And, as you’ll have worked out, any University with eight Rugby teams is liable to take its Rugby pretty seriously. And while I can’t say a bad word for my own Alma Mater, they don’t have eight rugby teams – nor do they offer undergraduate degrees in Rugby Science, they don’t have an indoor 3G pitch, their staff does not include a sports nutritionist and they do not enjoy official links with professional teams. The opposition have most of those things, and they show on the scoreboard. The victories were rare, and things to be cherished. But the pictures I took I treated in monochrome. The opposition, their colours muted, were not true opponents. The opponent was the game, the set of rules that made the match. The portrait shots are of people far gone in anger and frustration over the last few inches they can’t push forward, or the kick that went astray by a foot.

Contrasting with that, with my eye to the viewfinder and no idea of the score, I found myself in a relaxed place. Usually the only non-participating witness (on some especially bleak days I was the only spectator) I could stand with the wind howling around me, appreciating the game. It was rather removed from the theatre, although bearing it a few resemblances. Both required a group of people to unite, each playing their role in the greater scheme of things and striving toward the same goal. Both required skill, trust in the fellow man, faith in yourself. Of course theatre, at its worst, is a game of the snide put-down, the passive aggressive and the hissy fit. Hearing a Rugby coach addressing his fly-half as Edward Dildohands at a volume audible from three hundred yards away makes for a refreshing change. And, as I still refuse to own or carry a smartphone, this whole business made for a good mid-week break in which to concentrate on the techniques of photography.

Technique there was. A 400mm lens is an unwieldy object, and when the subject is sixty yards away and charging full-pelt toward you it takes timing, a steady hand and averagely good luck to make a decent image. Later in the process I’d take to carrying a second camera, loaded with Ilford’s finest black and white film and mounting a 70-210mm lens. And the pictures I got (or, more accurately, the ones I elected to show anyone) were the action-portraits that I was after. They made up a solid part of my Semester One Portfolio, and several of them are in the slideshow at the top of this article.

We’re constantly told – I am anyway, normally through Instagram posts by people I don’t like very much – that we should all practice mindfulness in our daily lives (presumably when we’re not drinking two gallons of water a day, eating kale and whatever else). Some would say that what I’ve got here isn’t meditation. Meditation is something you do while sitting in a small room, burning incense. They’d say it’s not about mud, screaming or aggressive displays of machismo. I personally think that if Pirsig can write until the cows come home about cross-country motorcycle road trips as a form of zen (Yes, I know, there’s a lot more to it), then I can write about rugby.

I did also watch some American football. Stay tuned for some writings on that.

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