"Football is the hardest sport to get on camera"

Welcome2018.com talks to Aleksander Demyanchuk, a well-known sports photographer who works for TASS, in its World Cup Professionals column today about such things as learning to anticipate a good photo opportunity a split second before it actually happens, why football finals are fraught with injuries to photographers, why a photo of Roman Shirokov is always a good shot, why Russian football fans are the cutest, and about many other secrets and challenges of sports photography.

16 August 2016
Aleksander Demyanchuk at work during Euro 2016 © Photo from personal archive
- Tell us a little about yourself. How did you start to photograph sports events in general and football, in particular?

- I was born in western Ukraine. I finished high school and went to technical school, where I was trained to become a television and radio mechanic. I finished technical school and was conscripted to the army. They sent me to Sestroretsk, near Leningrad (this was in the Soviet Union). When I demobilized, I stayed in Leningrad, enrolled in the Institute of Electrical Engineering, got married, we had kids… I was always very much into football. My mother sent me to music school, but my dad sent me to football school. There was a conflict in my family: my mother didn’t want me to play football, but I naturally preferred playing football to playing music. I played in the army, playing for my unit team, we had some wins… I played for my institute’s team, too. Football is my favourite sport for life. So when I developed a passion for photography, it naturally blended with my passion for football to destine me for a career in sports reporting.

- When did you start photographing football?

- When sports photography became my passion, I landed freelance deals with several papers: Vecherny Leningrad, Leningradskaya Pravda, Sovietsky Sport, and Komsomolskaya Pravda. My first photos were sports photos, in fact. But not only of football. If there happened to be a chess championship going on, I would do a photo report of the chess championship. But football remained my favourite. I did Zenit. I did the national team the few times they visited Leningrad. I knew, as a photographer, I wanted to do football more than anything. Those were the years 1986-1988. When I became a staff photographer for Vecherny Leningrad, I continued to do sports events all the time.
After I got a new job at Reuters in 1991 (where I would work for 24 years) I would do less sports. It’s an international news agency and, as such, had no interest in reporting a football game between, say, Spartak and Zenit. I did European sports events: Champions League and the Euros. Those gigs didn’t happen very often. I went to the Olympic Games in Sidney, Australia, and in Salt Lake City, USA, taking photos of different sports competitions, except football. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to do football those times. I’ve had three major football photography gigs: Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland, Euro in Ukraine and Poland, and Euro 2016 in France just a month and a half ago.
Aleksander Demyanchuk after the volleyball final at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing © Photo from personal archive
- For a photo reporter, is football any different from other sports?
- In fact, football is in a league by itself when it comes to photography. I think football is the hardest sport to get on camera.

- А почему?

- When you do ice hockey, there’s a lot of wrangling going on, and a lot of goals are scored within a limited space. The same is true for handball: lots of action in a small court. Ditto for basketball and volleyball. Football is different. First off, the court is five times bigger, so you have to use different equipment – the long-focus lenses, which are not easy to handle. A beginner-level sports photographer will have everything out of focus, he won’t press the button at the right time. When you are shooting up close, your lenses are close or medium-range, so you have enough time to catch things on photo and they’ll be in focus. But when you use long-focus optics, you have to anticipate things. Football is always a challenge for me. Good photos of football play are few and far between. So when you manage to take one you feel so excited, as if you yourself had played – and won.
Many photographers do football and sometimes they think they’ve got a good shot. Nothing of the kind! The websites of the major news agencies, that’s where you find good football shots. While you’re at it, try to figure out how football and other sports are photographed, and model your own work on how it’s done for those agencies.

- Was that how you learned, too?

- Well, I was a good photographer before Reuters. That’s why they gave me the job. But when I got this assignment and went to my first Olympic Games - in Australia in 2000 – I realized what awesome photographers work there. And there has to be a top-notch editor, too: it’s teamwork. The editor can edit the best photo so that it becomes the worst. Every major tournament, be it the Olympic Games, UEFA Champions League or Euro, is all about promptness – it’s the essence of competitive edge. You send your pictures to the agency instantly as you take them. When I’m doing a football game between Zenit and Spartak, for example, I can afford to edit my own photos during the intermission. But when it’s a Champions League game, the editor has to have your photos while the game is still on. Good chemistry between you and the editor, and the editor’s professional level, are all-important.
Aleksander Demyanchuk before the Russia-Spain game at Euro 2008 in Austria, 10 June 2008© Photo from personal archive
- Is there competition between sports photographers?

- There is no personal competition whatsoever. But whereas AP or Reuters had eight photographers each onsite at the Euro 2016 final in France, TASS had only one: me. You look at all these great pictures on their websites after, and you’re jealous on account of how many good photo moments they had caught, which you had missed. There was nothing you could do about it. You were just one man, sitting at one point in space. They had eight people on the scene, who had the whole pitch covered…
Portuguese footballers Raphael Guerreiro, Pepe and Antonio Eder (right to left) jubilant over a goal scored in the Euro 2016 final between Portugal and France. Saint Denis, 10 July 2016© Aleksander Demyanchuk/ТАSS
- A footballer is as much a star as an artist or politician these days. Does it ever happen with sports photographers that they fight over best vantage ground, elbowing their way like some paparazzi on a celebrity hunt?

- No, nothing like that happens at football matches or any other competitions, where everyone is assigned their own numbered seats.* The only time when that shoe might fit is when someone starts running with the cup after the final, and everyone starts chasing him. All hell breaks loose: cameras, lenses and the occasional limb will get broken. There’s no society column-type photography in sports. Not even on an occasion such as Hulk coming to bid farewell to St. Petersburg. Sports photography is never similar to the work of the paparazzi.

*Every photographer is assigned a numbered seat for the duration of the game

"Good photos of football play are few and far between. So when you manage to take one you feel so excited, as if you yourself had played – and won"

- What are some factors leading to a good photo? Do the players have to be good actors or possess some special charisma for the picture to look good?

- Exactly. You cannot change life, you can only register it. The more emotional the subject, the more interesting the shot. Your job is to choose the right angle and take as many photos as you can, all in focus. If the guy is not ordinarily emotional, Leonid Slutsky for example, there’s very little, if anything, you can do: he just sits there without as much as lifting his arm. You could perhaps zoom in on his eyes, or change the angle, but that’s it. But a guy like Shirokov, he will scratch his head, shut his eyes, sneeze, cough, drink water… The more emotional the guy is, the better photos of him you will take.

- Could you name those Russian footballers or coaches who are the most rewarding “material” in that regard?

- Everyone’s emotional when a goal is scored. Even Berezutsky, who is normally a tranquil fellow, will scream his head off, make faces and flail his arms when he scores. Ignashevich, who is also a pretty impassive guy, rarely scores goals, but when he does, he will morph into a completely different person right before our eyes. It’s all about the moment.

- Did you ever miss a good shot? As in, you saw the moment coming, but you failed to capture it?

-- Oh, my God! I must have missed thousands of them, thousands! Take one match – any match - and you can safely say that at least half of the good photo ops will be missed. Why? That’s just how football is. You see this guy doing an overhead kick, for example. If you catch one or two of those out of a hundred, consider yourself very lucky. In football, a moment lasts not a whole second, but perhaps a thousandth of a second. That’s why they teach photographers to shoot “before,” not “after.” If you pull the trigger “after,” i.e. you see the moment and you shoot, you get nothing. The ball is gone. A pitch shot without the football does not count as a football shot. It will accomplish nothing. Or else you shoot, but the picture is already out of focus.

- That must be frustrating?

- It sure is. When you fail to catch a good shot, and you see that a colleague of yours has nabbed it, you feel jealous. Perhaps he got lucky: his autofocus didn’t shift, or he pressed the button a split second earlier or later than you did, and he got it – and you didn’t. That’s normal competitive process.

- Sounds like sports photography is a sport in its own right. You guys get so competitive and stuff?

- Bingo! But the competitiveness is somehow never felt. The sports photographers who happen to do the same game or tournament will never brag or show off their photos after, arguing about whose shot is better. But competition does exist. You gear up for a football match like you would for an important exam: your adrenaline starts pumping about forty minutes prior. You feel that adrenaline in action during the game and after.

- Do photographers ever develop any contact on a personal level with any footballers?

-No, never. We’re from different planets. Except maybe Slava Yevdokimov, Zenit’s “personal” photographer. He lives with them, wherever they go, he goes with them, and so on. He sure has personal contacts and friends among footballers.

"You gear up for a football match like you would for an important exam: your adrenaline starts pumping about forty minutes prior"

- Could you name some sports photographers you look up to as your models? and/or some photographs that you deem to be your professional benchmarks? or some photos that really impressed you?

- Soviet photographers could not, and did not have to compete with their western counterparts, so the kudos they received were not quite fairly deserved. But if you look at western photographers and their work, there are some incredible photos there. It would be hard for me to name any one, or three, or four or five photographers. It would not be fair. Russia and the rest of the world have seen very many great sports photographers.

- Did you have a mentor?

- No, I taught myself everything. My training was really something. It was not a good idea to learn from photographs back in those days: about 80% or 90% of them weren’t very good. In the 80s and early 90s I would go to the library and grab some files of famous periodicals like Esquire, New York Times, Time, or The Guardian, which covered politics as well as sports. I perused the photos in there attentively very often, a few times a week. I tried to remember every detail and I tried to bring my own photos close to those photos in terms of composition, theme and colour scheme. When I got a job at Reuters, we would feast on this website they had where more than 400 photographers across the globe would post their photos, and you could get a very good idea of how they treated their subject-matter. That was some good schooling for me. So, my training was purely visual, but I think it did a lot of good for me. My advice to those photographers who wish to do sports is: do not seek an instructor, you never know what you’re getting into with that instructor, but no instructor will ever teach what you can learn simply by looking at some great photographs. The same holds for the editors: go to the museum and take a good look at some 18th-19th-century paintings to appreciate the artists’ take on composition, because no one knows composition better than the Old Masters. See where they seat their human characters, where the moon is, and the reflection. That should be your training. No manner of institute will make a photo reporter out of you. Only practice will, and more practice, and still more… A man must love what he does. If he loves what he does and is passionate about it, he will succeed.
French football fan before the Euro 2016 semi-final between Germany and France. Marseilles, 7 July 2016 © Aleksander Demyanchuk/ТАSS

- Are you happy with how your professional career has worked out?

- I’m happy. I love my work very much.

- As a photographer, what other sports appeal to you?

- I love to do ice hockey. It’s my second favourite after football. Ice hockey sizzles with action and emotion and, like with football, a good photograph is hard to come by. In fact, all game sports are fun to photograph.

- - Is there any single photo of yours that you consider to be superior to all your other works? A concentrated embodiment of your vision of the sport, so to speak.

- No, there is not. If such a work existed, I would send it to World Press Photo and win. But I never exhibit on principle, I just don’t like it. I don’t think anyone has such a photo. I do have photos which I like, but that’s it.

- What’s in them? Some sort of conflict? Personal drama?

- I had this challenging and traumatic gig once, five years ago, when Zenit was on its way to winning the national championship, and the fans were starting to lob flares. The police were on the ready in front of the fan stalls. Then the firemen came and started removing the flares. Eventually the riot police showed up – the SOBR, the OMON. There were scores of them, hundreds upon hundreds of law enforces, who formed a wall, standing in several rows in front of the fans, screaming frantically from their stalls. When the game was over, the fans somehow broke through that wall. In some photos you can see police kicking people down to the ground, and yet they would rise and run onto the pitch, wrecking the goal, tearing up the mesh. That was drama alright. I remember a somewhat similar debacle at the UEFA Cup Zenit – Glasgow Rangers match in Manchester, when Zenit won 2-1. When our guys scored their winner, a crowd of about a hundred Zenit fans poured onto the field. Now the field there has no running track, and the fans had to run “through” the press photographers somehow. When they ran, they would step on the computers and break a lot of equipment. It was an unpleasant moment and a drama. Surprising as it may seem, drama is more frequently generated by the fans than the players.

- Did the Russia squad’s failure at the latest UEFA Euro affect you in any way? Did you stay and continue to do your work?

- - I had arrived there in advance, two weeks before the tournament, to do the friendlies with the Czech team in Monaco and with Serbia in Austria. I could see what was coming already by those friendlies, especially the one in Monaco. I was psychologically prepared for the team’s loss. There was some hope, of course, for a miracle of sorts, but alas, no miracle was forthcoming. To make up for it, our fans were simply the best at Euro 2016: they were cuter and better dressed than their peers from elsewhere, I photographed them repeatedly at many matches. Icelandic fans showed similar unity and projected a fantastic visual identity. I had never seen a fan community so closely wedded to their team and to each other. They were a bunch of Vikings, really. But in terms of emotion, our fans were matchless. As far as I could tell, press photographers from around the world really loved taking pictures of them, the beautiful women and girls, many of them wearing Russian national dress. They were great photograph material.


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