It’s November 10th 2017 and I’m walking through Olympic Way towards Wembley Stadium carrying a Manfrotto backpack and ThinkTank International V2 roller. Inside the backpack is a Canon 400mm f/2.8 USMII. Inside the ThinkTank International V2 roller is three Canon 1DX MK1’s, 70-200mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/4, 8-15mm f/4, 1.4x teleconverter and a Speedlight to photograph an International friendly football match between England vs Germany. It’s a far cry from just an inexperienced shy freezing fan with a Nikon D60 connected to a Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6. This is my journey from photographing empty fields with nine to five workers kicking a ball about on cold wet early afternoons with one man and his dog in attendance, to millionaires wearing sponsored shorts & shirts kicking a sponsored football.
Sucking on oranges, smoking cigarettes & peeing in bushes
“Why don’t you take that camera out to the park or I’ll use it!”, was the threatening tone from my Dad as I paced around the living room at home bored and had enough of photographing landscapes, streets, and small wildlife from the garden. I was board too quickly, I wanted to photographing something more exciting, more thrilling. I needed to have that ‘being busy’ feeling, something to-do, a task, a mission, an addiction of pursuing a fulfilment.
So after my Dad threatened to take my camera for his own use, I grabbed my Nikon D60 camera, wiped the dust off and headed towards the local park. Back then, the whole park had about eight football pitches to choose from, walking closer to the gated entrance you could hear endless abuse and screams of “REFEREE!!!”, “TO ME!….TO ME!”, “FOUL!!!!”, “FOR F***S SAKES!”, “FOUL THE C***”!, “COME ON THEN!” from players, managers, wives, and girlfriends, the place was full drama and heated passion.
So you can imagine when I turned up being the only person with a camera to photograph a couple of matches, the level of unwanted attention was endless. Bear in mind back then the novelty of a camera on a phone was not common, so when I turned up with my little D60 covering a match I kept getting asked by managers & players “Did you get that goal mate” or “Oh mate MATE! did you get that foul show it to the ref”. Although it may seem that this unwanted attention spoiled my enjoyment of photographing football, it didn’t, in fact it added to the drama. So I was hooked, lined and sinked from then on, I absolutely loved coming back every weekend, every weekend was an event, every weekend something was new, every weekend something dramatic was to unfold and it was me and my camera ready to capture the moments. This also pleased my parents especially my Dad who eventually managed to get me out of the house.
Cutting my teeth
Another great suggestion from my Dad was why don’t I show some of these photographs to the local newspaper to see if they needed a photographer to photograph a couple of matches. After a few emails back and fourth, Paul Bishop who was the Sports Editor at the time gave me my first shot at covering local semi-professional football teams for the paper.
I still fondly remember covering my first match for the Gazette at AFC Hayes. I remember walking up to the giant wooden doors at the entrance to the football ground, knocking on the door many hours before kick off to be eventually greeted by a very tired, sweaty and rough looking groundsmen, with that cheshire cat smile on my face I said proudly “I’m the photographer from the Gazette”. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence waiting for a response, the groundsmen caught a breath and said “your too bloody early mate….there’s a club house round the corner, go in there”, the giant wooden doors slammed shut in my face.
After sitting in a very quite club house where the ticking of a grandfather clock echoed all around and the bar maid repeatably whipping the counter spotless to kill time, we both stared at the TV on the wall watching Sky Sports pre match build up of that day’s Premier League matches, asking myself “How the hell am I going to get there?” (‘there’ being the Premier League). After a few hours gone by both teams arrived, I had no identification to show to the ticket man but the site of a camera (consumer level) in my bag was enough to convince ticket man that I’m from the Gazette and he just let me through the ticket barrier without paying (even though I already had £10 in my other pocket ready to pay), so after receiving a hand written team sheet, I set up my consumer camera and kit lens to cover my first match for the Gazette. The following Wednesday I popped into my local Tesco to have a peak at the latest Gazette and to my absolute shock my picture was printed in the sports section, a tiny picture but it was mine and for the whole borough of Hillingdon to see, that was massive deal for me, I bought more of copies then I should of on that day.
Within three seasons of covering non-league football for the Gazette and finishing at the Non League paper, I gained experience, skill and more importantly new friends. Once in while I do miss covering non-league football, its more relaxed and less stressful, the staff & stewards at the clubs are nicer & more courteous and the pressure to get pictures to the photo editor for print & online usage is not as intense. However, the large majority of non-league players & non-league photographers all desire the same thing, to compete at a much higher level of football.
Critique Critique Critique
Ultimately the the dream was to photograph sports at the highest level. I had finally found something that I was seriously passionate about and wanted to learn more to eventually reach to the top. At a very early age, sports was a big deal to me at a young age I had done trials in football and athletics but never unfortunately reached the professional level. However, I would still buy magazines like World Soccer, Four Four Two and studying photographs at the back pages of national newspapers whilst having this burning desire that I know I WILL make it at the world stage some how.
I was sick of amateur and semi-professional sports, so the only was I was going to escape it was fine tuning my photography skills. I knew full well my current portfolio would be laughed at by photo agencies and national photo editors. So to get to the next level, I had to get in contact with professional sports photographers to critique my photographs, advise and hopefully give me direction. Out of the dozens I contact, I was very lucky to get a reply from two well established photographers. Paul Roberts, who at the time photographed for Well Offside Sports Agency and Michael Regan, Getty Images, and at the time, England National Football Team Photographer. Both were willing to help and give advice and even direction. I then replied back asking for only one thing, I wanted absolute honesty regarding my sports photographs, don’t play nice cop if you think my current body of work is shit then please tell me but at least then tell me why and how to improve.
Both Michael & Paul true to there words gave me not only firm critiquing ever time I asked them, but gold dust advice and direction with positive responses which gave me confidence and pushed myself to where I am now. I owe them a lot and I especially didn’t want to let them down. In time, working 9-5 jobs saving up for better glass, better camera bodies, listening and taking in to Paul’s & Michael’s words, my body of sports photographic work dramatically improved.
Tiny tribute to Getty Images
As well as the advice & direction I got from Paul Roberts & Michael Regan, Getty Images sports gallery for me was filled with the best sports photographs in the world photographed by the world best and it was free to view!. This was ultimately how I learned every day. I would either be at a football match a few hours before kick off, study Getty Images football galleries to take inspiration & ideas for my match, or when at home watching a live event on the television I would go onto Getty’s gallery of that event and at the same time study the photographs captured by Getty photographers. So a big thank you to Getty Images for the free viewable content.
Not the way I wanted to make it
Around mid 2013, my Dad John Kenneth Fletcher received devastating news from his doctor that he had a brain tumour and it was irreversible. Over the short months we had with him, my Dad still wanted me to keep taking pictures and not let his cancer effect me. Every match I covered during my Dad’s illness I couldn’t focus on anything except how my Dad was getting on. Eventually he was unresponsive lying in a special hospital bed in our living room when all of sudden I received an unexpected email. The email was from Andrew Orchard, who by the recommendation of Paul Roberts, he offered an opportunity for me to photograph sporting events. At the time this was the worst timing as I saw the email but never read it as all my focus and attention was looking after my Dad.
When I had a spear couple of minutes while my Dad was sleeping, I had taken another look at Andrew’s email and it wasn’t what I expected to read. He said that after following my work for the first part of the current season and being recommend Paul Roberts, he offered me a London based position to Premier League, Champions League, International Football as a start, I was stunned I could’t believe it. During this awful dark period in my life, my mum mentioned that this is a ‘sign’ a light at the end of the tunnel, she said “Dad would want to you take it”. One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life was that even though I told him the good news, he was still unresponsive and moaning in pain as the Cancer was spreading. In a few short days later my Dad John Kenneth Fletcher passed away at home surrounded by his family. That weekend I covered my first Premier League match Arsenal vs Sunderland at the Emirates Stadium. I cruelest part is I never got to tell my Dad I’d finally made it. You see my Dad was a keen photographer himself where he once had books of David Bailey and Terrence Donavan when he was young and even studied photography at University. He never really took it seriously because at the time he had to get a 9-5 job to support his family. When I took it up he always said get a proper job and don’t take this (photography) up seriously. When he eventually noticed that I too had a keen interest in photography he couldn’t help himself but give me great advice and guidance, he was over the moon every time my images got published, he’d even take a screen shot of a non-league match that I was covering, spot me in the frame and make a note of it…
So it hurts from time to time that I’m covering big matches and getting published in national newspapers and I can’t tell him. I desperately miss him saying every time I get home from covering a match “How did you get on Son, get anything good”.