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 bodies, 70-200mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/4, 8-15mm f/4, 1.4x teleconverter and a Speedlight, the match I’m covering…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 many years ago. This is my journey from photographing everyday people on empty fields with taped up football nets on bent posts on cold wet early afternoons with one man and his dog in attendance, to professional athletes in giant stadiums.
Sucking on oranges, smoking cigarettes and 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. I wanted to photographing something more connected to me, more thrilling and fulfilling.
So after my Dad threatened to use my camera for his own use (most probably photographing his flowers & birds (feathery kind) in the back garden), 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.
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, the novelty of a camera on a phone was not common, so when I turned up with my Nikon D60 covering a match I kept getting asked by nearly everyone when standing next to the touchline “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. I absolutely loved coming back every weekend. With my Nikon D60 there was always something new and dramatic to photograph, I was hooked.
Cutting my teeth
Another great suggestion from my Dad was why don’t I show some of these photographs to the local Gazette newspaper (now named Get West London) to see if they needed a local sports photographer. After a few emails back and fourth, the Sports Editor Paul Bishop 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 “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 the house, the 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 photographing the Premier League). After a few hours gone by both teams arrived in escort’s, civic’s, micra’s and white vans. Received a hand-written team sheet, 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 pick up the latest Gazette and to my absolute shock my picture was printed in a small article within 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 showed my Dad he was pleased as punch.
Within three seasons of covering non-league football for the Gazette and finishing at the Non League paper, I gained experience, photography skills and more importantly confidence.
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, I’d done trials for football and athletics clubs but never unfortunately reached the professional level due to medical reasons. However that never stopped me, I would still buy magazines like Sports Illustrated, World Soccer, Four Four Two, Tennis Magazine, Rugby World, Athletics Weekly and studying photographs at the back pages of national newspapers whilst having the desire to photograph the world stage.
What I wanted at the time was a direction to be on the right path (no matter how long it would be) to get the opportunity to photograph at the highest level, but I couldn’t do it on my own I needed to seek out professionals who might be able to direct me to the best route possible. So to get to the next level, I had to get in contact with some professional sports photographers to critique my photographs, give me advice and hopefully a 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, Staff Photographer at Getty Images, and at the time, England National Football Team Photographer. In my email I sent to both gentlemen I was very honest with my situation and camera gear and express how much of a hard worker I was. All I asked them was to be completely honesty with regards to my sports photographs, don’t play nice, if you think my current body of work is awful then please say so, but at least tell me why and how to improve. To my surprise both Paul & Michael were willing to put the time through countless exchanges of emails filled with golden advice, tips, direction and more importantly honest critiquing of my latest body of work. Both Paul & Michael have been a massive help to me the early development of my sports photography, I’m forever thankfully and feel incredibly lucky to have such experienced photographers take the time out of their busy lives to help me.
In time, whilst working 9-5 jobs I was able to save up enough to purchase better glass, camera bodies and by listening and taking in to Paul & Michael’s words, my body of sports photographic work dramatically improved.
Tribute to Getty Images
Getty Images sports gallery for me was filled with the best sports photographs in the world captured by the world’s best staff photographers and it was free to view!. This was ultimately how I learned every day. Apart from taking in inspiration & ideas, I quickly understood how to correctly capture goals, celebrations, managers, stadiums, athletics, tennis, rugby anything. For example, I would be watching a live football match on the television and keep refreshing that particular match gallery on Getty Images website and constantly learn how that match was photographed from pre match to final whistle. So a big thank you to Getty Images for the free viewable content.
Not the way I wanted to make it
In 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, offered me an opportunity to photograph some sporting events. Although it was good news, it came at the worst time and the least important compared to the current horrible situation our family was facing.
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 explained that after following my work for a number of months based on the recommendation from Paul Roberts, he offered me a London-based position to photograph the Premier League. I was stunned I could’t believe it. Mum said that this was a “sign” and also said “Dad would want you take it”. One of the most heartbreaking moments of my life was telling my Dad, even though at that that stage he was now unresponsive and moaning in pain as the Cancer was spreading quickly, that I finally got an opportunity to photograph the Premier League. 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. The cruelest part is I never got to tell my Dad I’d finally make it. You see my Dad was a keen photographer himself, he once owned books of David Bailey and Terrence Donavan when he was young and even studied photography at University. He really enjoyed his photography but had to do less of it because he had a family to support. When I picked up the camera he always said get a proper job and just do photography as a hobby. When he eventually noticed that I too had a keen interest in photography he couldn’t help himself but get involved and give me great advice and guidance, he was over the moon every time my images got published in the local press, he’d even take a screen shot of a non-league & lower league football matches that I was covering, spot me in the frame and make a note of it. One of the best memories I can remember having with my Dad was calling him early in the morning to inform that my winning goal photograph of a striker from AFC Wimbledon got published in The Sun newspaper, he was over the moon and bought loads of copies that day to show to his work colleagues.
So it hurts from time to time when I’m covering a event or getting published in the national newspapers I can’t show him. I desperately miss him, every time I get home from covering a match I wish I could still hear him say “How did you get on Son, get anything good?”.