“i don’t know what i’m looking for” — ben oldham, turf & white lineBack
Football can be a form of bombardment, depending on how you play it.
Even Barcelona, with their constant pressing and tackling in the attacking third, can be a kind of artillery battery, their opponents placed under constant fire. Bombardment doesn’t always have to mean the old-fashioned, OG Wimbledon and John Beck kind.
The bombardment doesn’t end at the limits of the pitch’s white lines. If you’re a Premier League football fan, it has never been easier to follow your team, through television, radio, newspapers, Twitter, blogs, videos, gifs; and it has never been harder to get away from it.
Sometimes, amid the hype and the hysteria, you just want to focus on why you liked football in the first place.
“I used to get really, really into games, to the point where my dad was a little bit embarrassed about me,” says Ben Oldham, graphic designer, photographer, and season ticket holder at Manchester City Football Club. “But I care less about it now. To me the constant analysis of football in the media is so over the top, it rips all the fun out of going to games.
“I love watching Barcelona on Sky on weekends, just for the way they move the ball. They play great football and that’s what you pay to go and see. That bit is great. I wouldn’t mind seeing City get beat if they played good football, but if you go, you end up near someone who is screaming their head off and I just wonder, why do you care so much?”
On his Instagram account, Turf & White Line, Ben shows one of the ways he cares about football these days without screaming his head off. If he was, he wouldn’t be able to hold his compact camera steady and capture one of the ethereal moments football only lets you see if you’re inside the stadium and love football — the art of foot meeting ball — with a depth that is more immersive than any live in-game photoblog.
“I was desperate to do something,” he says. “I didn’t want to do something necessarily different, but I didn’t want to take the same pictures anybody else would take. There are plenty of photos of footballers out there.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for when I take them. I’ve been asked that before and I’m not quite sure myself what it is. But I do like that you can tell it’s from a fan’s perspective.”
Ben’s images take football back to its ball, grass and players essence, but without denying its modernity; he’s not on a quest for grass roots or tin sheds for stands. Watching the Manchester City Women’s team at the new Academy Stadium, Ben photographs the England captain, Steph Houghton, heading a ball as if defying gravity; and the padded seats in which people sit and watch her do it.
“There’s a better atmosphere at women’s football,” says Ben. “I don’t know why. People seem more supportive of their team, rather than screaming at them to play better.
“They had a succession of games while the men’s team didn’t play at home for a while, and I almost forgot I had a season ticket for the men’s team. With women’s football, as a fan, you still feel like you’re a part of something, like you’re making a difference by being there, that you don’t get from the Champions League.”
For Ben, being part of something extends beyond football fandom and into creativity, and guides Turf & White Line’s presence on Instagram. Although he still feels the helpful pressure to post images from recent matches before the hurried world of football moves on to the next thing, his growing archive is finding an audience among people who don’t care about the latest match action, but about the aesthetic grace of the photographs themselves.
That reaction completes the creative structure necessary to keep Ben working; like any striker, he’d rather score in front of an appreciative crowd than an empty stadium.
“We’ve all played football when we were younger; everyone knows the feeling of being a player on a pitch,” he says. “And that’s all footballers are, that’s how they got interested in it. My dad always says footballers must think it ridiculous that 50,000 people come and watch them. But why? They were football fans themselves once. Just because they’re being paid to do it doesn’t mean they’d be happy if nobody turned up.
“I want to do things that people are interested in. I could take pictures just to remedy my lust for doing creative things, but what’s the point? If you do it for yourself then that is remedied for a short space of time, while you are creating. But if you show it to people you get feedback, and you want to do it more and more.
“I think social media plays as much a part in making the images as going to the football and wanting to take photographs. I suppose it’s the same as wanting to be part of something at football; you want to be part of something outside of that as well.”
Although Ben studied art for three years at university, he says he “Spent three years doing things I wasn’t really interested in doing.
“I say I taught myself but I do have an art degree. But that was a case of going in and the teachers saying, you go on ahead, we’ll be in the pub if you need us. I was absolutely terrible at photography, but I did it because it meant I didn’t have to spend hours painting. I got into using shutter speed to take light-stream photographs; when I went to Champions League games with my mum and dad, I’d be shaking the camera around in the car on the way home, then I’d have seven hundred pictures and didn’t have to do any work for six months.
“I’m still not any good at photography. I just know how to lay something out nicely so it looks better than it is.”
The reason Ben’s photos look better is because, even if he doesn’t know photography, he knows football. It takes a certain strain of football knowhow to spot the moments Ben captures, and it’s football that is driving Ben to take his compact camera along to games.
“There is a nice challenge in taking pictures of football because you can never get a big camera in. They want the official photographers to get the best shots.
“I do like getting the shots of one player on their own. There can be 50,000 people there, all looking at twenty-two players, and if you can capture one on their own — it just looks cool.”
Cool. It’s an underused word in the spoiling heat of modern football, a media crucible where friction and pressure crush. But cool is a right word for Ben Oldham’s photographs, that capture something rare, which is something valued in the game. If you stay calm under the bombardment, whether it’s coming from Barcelona or Stockport County, you’ll stand out. And as a team game, football cries out for those individuals; the cool ones, who the crowd revere.
Originally published in The City Talking: Manchester, issue 02