“It’s constant risky business” — Robbie Jay Barratt
BY Jennifer Lee O'Brien
Being a football photographer is risky business.
It’s match day, the day it all goes down. Ninety-odd minutes of click, click, clicking. Trying to be precise and stylish and commercial and creative, because there are hundreds of dreamers out there with cameras ‘round their necks, dreaming the dream the football photographer is living.
Living drawn-out hours on trains, planes and buses, and stuffed into the backseat of cars; endless hours of wet windows and those plastic, waiting room chairs lined row after row. Late nights, early mornings and so much coffee! All for ninety-odd minutes on match day when it’s the football photographer’s only chance to click, click, click away, and boy-oh-boy is it a risky business.
It’s match day, and you’ve got the fans screaming, the whistle blowing. The players are running about, kicking, scoring goals, diving, falling over each other, mouthing off, rolling on the grass clutching their calves.
Sometimes they’re hugging, laughing, throwing their shirts over their heads or pretending to be aeroplanes, arms in the air, and that happens so fast, like BOOM! GOAL! Click, click, click.
And then you’ve got the refs, the coaches, the medics, the ball boys and girls, the managers — crossing their arms, shouting, frowning. Depending on the day there’s mud, grass, rain or the hot, hot sun. There’s lots of beer and sometimes there’s betting and maybe there’s a pie, which means that the fans are (maybe) betting and (probably) eating and (definitely) drinking. And they’re cheering and fighting and waving their scarves, flags and phones, making a real show of it.
Then there’s a ball, zooming its way around the pitch and everyone is chasing it with their feet and eyes and fingers. And the drinks are spilling and the chants are going and the football photographer is just trying to freeze the best of it behind a lens like their job depends on it.
The football photographer is trailing moments up and down the field, click, click, clicking away, trying to squeeze every last kick and shout and feeling into an SD card the size of a thumbnail. They’re always trying to be where they ought to be, which is where all the action is happening and on a match day that is up, down and all around; and they’re doing their best not to miss out.
“It’s constant risky business,” says Robbie Jay Barratt, football photographer. “You never know what’s going to happen in football.”
On a windy, damp afternoon in Huddersfield we met Robbie and his girlfriend, Sophie, to talk about what it’s like to be a football photographer. It was windy and damp, but we were inside Northern Tea House, where it was warm; we drank coffees and tea served on wooden boards and got the story from the start.
“I played football to quite a high standard when I was younger,” says Robbie. “I had trials for Leeds quite regularly. Then, like most young lads, it kind of fell on its head and you sit there pondering what you’re going to do. So I picked up a camera, and that’s what sparked it all.”
For three-and-a-half years, Robbie photographed his favourite football team, Huddersfield Town. Season after season, game after game, Robbie was there with his camera learning how to become a football photographer.
“The media team travelled together,” he says. “I got quite close to a few of the players, because you’re behind the scenes and you see a lot of them. At Huddersfield you can go anywhere around the pitch side, up nice and close.”
On match day, you’re out there, camera in your hands, click, click, clicking after the ghosts of football’s future; the iconic moments that might be history, one day. And when you’re not doing that, you’re trying to condense the shouting and diving and nerves and joy and clean greenness of the the pitch into a few good shots; and that’s your only job! And didn’t you see that goal?
“A lot of fans will ask, ‘Didn’t you see that goal on Saturday?’” says Robbie. “When you’re photographing you’re at eye level. You see the players running about, like shadows, constantly. You don’t take in as much.”
Robbie zooms in on the fragments of moments that comprise the feeling of a football game; the things you don’t always see from up in the stands, when you’re watching for goals. The goals are important; but when you’re right there on the pitch, trying to fit all the feeling of football behind a lens, there’s a lot more to see.
“Trying to balance it out is quite hard, actually,” he says. “You need all that straightforward stuff, but at the same time you want to produce something different that is going to catch someone else’s eye from an artistic view.
“I try to look beyond the norm; what most people would see as your standard football pictures. Where some photographers will focus on the game, I might turn around and photograph the fans for fifteen minutes, just to capture their emotions.”
In the summer of 2016, Robbie was signed to AMA Sports Photo Agency. “They have such a fresh approach to football photography,” he says. He still shoots season after season, game after game, but now it’s Premier League games. He’s had images published in The Mail Online, The Times and The Guardian. In June he’ll be photographing the Confederation Cup in Russia.
“I never thought I’d travel to a different country to photograph football,” he says. “I want to look back in thirty years’ time and say, ‘I was there, I captured that picture.’ And now that picture’s being used here, there and everywhere.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Sport.