It has been two years since I approached the Premier League with an idea to photograph their fans around the world. I had gone out of the blue to pitch the idea to them, something I had never done before. As a photographer there is often a separation between commissioned work and personal work but occasionally the two come together and beautiful things occur. Thankfully the Premier League were interested, better than that they brought a whole new element to the project that I didn’t expect and made it far stronger.
That was why I was running down a Soweto street with ten kids and an old football trying to photograph them in the last of the evening light. These kids can go up the road after school to train with some of the best coaches in South Africa. As part of the Premier Skills program run by the British Council, Premier League coaches travel to some of the most impoverished communities in the world and train locals to be football educators. A domino effect begins as these educators spread the best coaching practices throughout their area. The scheme has reached a staggering 1.2 million kids. It gives them dreams, teaches them the benefits of commitment, and keeps them out of drugs and crime. I knew nothing about this program which the Premier League runs in partnership with the British Council, but it sounded interesting and I was eager to develop the project to include this.
I love collaboration, particularly when both sides gain from it. Without collaborating with the British Council and the Premier League I would not have been able to tell these stories. Staff based in South Africa and India opened the doors for me, they introduced me to the people they had been working with for years and then gave me free reign to tell their stories as I saw best. I embraced the challenge with open arms just like I do my personal work. I spent months before my travels chatting to coaches on Skype, talking football with the local fan clubs and finding out about India and South Africa. I slowly developed the best way to make this project. On the ground this freedom continued, I could photograph the way I wanted to and embrace the situations I found myself in. The resulting exhibition is very different from how I first imagined the project two years ago, but that’s the thing about collaboration - you change your viewpoint and learn new things when you work with others. The photographs show the power football has to promote positive change in communities around the world. They tell the stories of the inspiring people I met. It’s been great collaborating in this way and I hope I can do more projects like this in the future.
9 Feb - 24 March 2017, Monday-Friday 9-5
Nomonde is a coach educator in Soweto. She sees herself as an important role model for children in her local community. She teaches children football skills and educates them about social issues.
This girl lost her mother a year ago. At fourteen, she has taken on all her responsibilities. Without the Premier Skills sessions, she would never have a chance to play, and never have a chance to feel like a child.
In Kolkata, visually impaired girls are partnered with visually able friends to play football together. People with disabilities are often not included in sporting activities, but this makes them feel valued within the community.
I was eager to also capture the many football followers I came across on my trip so I visited super fans in South Africa, businessmen in Mumbai and stopped regularly on the streets of Kolkata and Johannesburg to capture the everyday people we saw in their favourite team’s jerseys.
I would like to say a huge thank you to the Premier League and British Council for making this project happen. Tim Vine for keeping his faith in my ideas, Chris Chadwick who travelled with me, helped endlessly and made a beautiful film of the experience. And to all the many staff at the British Council both in the UK and abroad without whom this project would not have been possible.