FINDING YOUR NICHE AND WORKING COLLABORATIVELY
In this conversation Adem Aydın and Barley Nimmo discuss Barley’s experiences of approaching the humanist stories behind football and working collaboratively on a photography project they shot in the city of Cosenza in Italy.
“I just started turning my camera to the human side of the game within the fan group” BN
AA You’ve spoken to me about football as a modern-day religion, its affiliates following out a weekly tradition, congregating with the masses, how did that idea come about?
BN For the Leyton Orient project, my initial idea was to focus on the symbolism within football and how for me, going to a football match on a Saturday had replaced the idea of going to church on a Sunday. The away day became almost a pilgrimage for fans in the same way as an actual pilgrimage would be for religious people. When I began the project I was looking for the symbolism in football, things like hands crossed, fans praying and showing these passionate emotions. As it progressed I sensed this idea was becoming somewhat trivial as it was so obvious that it wasn't something I necessarily had to address with my camera. It was far more valuable getting to know the fans personally and understanding what football meant to them. I think it was good how I went into the project with an idea of what it could be but came out with something grossly more successful than I could ever have imagined.
AA Let’s talk about ‘Pisa Merda’.
BN Before heading to Livorno it was very important for me to get in contact with members of the fan base. The way that I intended to do this was by contacting them on Facebook. Most of them didn’t reply at all but one did: his name on Facebook was simply “Curva Livorno''. I thought this stood for the area where the ultras sit: the curve, however it turned out to be his nickname. He had once been a prominent member within Livorno’s fanbase but is now more of an inactive fan.
This turned out in the most beautiful way possible. He said that on the day of the derby with Pisa (the biggest game of the football calendar for Livorno) that his friend: a former ultra like him was getting married and so I cheekily asked if it was possible for me to attend the wedding - it was. Subsequently, the pictures that came out of it were something I could never have prepared for.
AA To clarify, you had the opportunity to photograph one Livorno fan, getting married to another on the day of the derby.
BN That's right! As they left the church after getting married, all the friends lined up in the piazza. The ultras then lit these massive flares - the square filled up with smoke and chants.
AA How do you prepare for that? You can’t anticipate what it’s really going to be like in those moments, can you?
BN Those are the “make or break” points of a project where you almost go into a non-thinking mode - just witness it. You become like an assassin, analysing all areas. Sometimes you just need to be swept up in the atmosphere like a wave going over you.
AA What do you think that you possess that gained you that kind of access?
I was thinking about it earlier today. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m the best photographer but the way I can judge a situation, how to address people or the dialogue I have with them is probably one of my biggest strengths. When to say something, but also when to shut your mouth and merge in with the background.
AA You’ve told me in the past to ‘cast a net and see what you come back with’. I think it’s a very interesting way of putting it because you can never really prepare for what’s out there.
BN One thing I've learned in the time I've been a photographer is that the worst thing that can happen is that someone says no. You miss a hundred per cent of the shots you don’t take. For all of the work I've done, I've messaged hundreds of people until someone said yes. I think people get caught up in their heads thinking: “Is it right for me to document this? Is it my place to do this?” If they are happy to let you in and you do it with sincerity and empathy toward your subjects then it's a hundred per cent right for you. I then focused on clubs, groups and foundations in Italy with strong left-wing values because I felt closely connected to them.
AA To me it seems to be a culmination of interests, I know you love football but I know your political stance and your interest in social undercurrents in your work. It ties back to this idea of identifying a niche area of photography that has underlined your emergence so far. Do you think we can emphasise finding your niche to other photographers? You focused on something you loved and saw really positive results.
BN Me going to Italy wasn't solely to do with photography or football. I suppose I used my love for football and photography as a passport into moments that I’ll look back on with such fondness and pride. It reaffirmed my life. Finding your niche and doing what you love is far more important than money. Of course it's a massive factor but if you can't look back at the body of work and be happy with it, is it worth it? The people I’ve met along the way far outweigh the joy of getting my work published. I’ve met the most amazing people and had the best conversations I could ever have had - all because of photography.
AA In the second part of this chat we’re going to talk about a project we shot together at the end of Barley’s trip in Italy in Cosenza where our paths (sort of) crossed. We thought that it could be quite interesting to talk about our experiences of working on a photo essay together.
BN For those who don’t know, Cosenza is in the Southern Italian region of Calabria - one of the country’s poorer parts of the country. There are specific geopolitical tensions between the North and the South, not to mention the presence of mafia groups in Il Sud. I'd planned on going to document the Cosenza football fans for a while, they're some of the most politically active fans while the community surrounding the football are very supportive and active in social initiatives. It was a story I wanted to tell and it just so happened Adem was going to be in Italy on the same dates.
For me I am a person who enjoys working alone. If there is a job I want to be done well I'd rather do it myself, but I think the good thing about having a relationship like the one that I have with Adem is that we can be fully brutal with each other. If we like what we’re doing or if we don’t then we’ll take it and we’ll deal with it, move on, and hopefully produce something better.
AA Barley had this idea of meeting in Florence, or Rome or maybe even Napoli but it just so happened he picked the literal tip of the Italian peninsula. I'd say it's definitely easier to work alone, but I do think having worked with you that there are positives that have come from the experience - realising I have someone I can work with honestly is one positive. We may have just been out of our comfort zone though?
BN That's when the best work comes about - working collaboratively means you can take on separate roles. With what we do we spend a lot of time getting to know our subjects, making sure they're comfortable and making sure we are, too. Interviews, drinking with them, and last but not least photographing them. Working as a pair meant that I could talk to some of the people while Adem floated around with his camera and vice versa. One of the strengths of working collaboratively is that you can produce a far more three-dimensional project than if you were there alone.
AA Then of course there are the cons, we both shoot digitally so we'd come back with thousands of photos. It meant we had this mammoth of an edit ahead of us but we had different angles, perspectives and more.
I think that by the end of your trip you were already quite exhausted, this was the first time I'd entered a stadium to shoot. Perhaps it was something to do with the beers and local liquors but when I arrived in that stadium I didn't see you for two hours.
BN We were two meters apart but we didn't see each other.
AA It was this atmosphere and experience you'd basked in for two months whereas this was my first experience of it - it was invigorating, pulsating, and the match itself was something I barely focused on. I understand why Barley says his real interest is the fans; they're fascinating, welcoming and eccentric. So much so that upon our arrival in the stadium, ten minutes of the match had passed but I had no idea it had even kicked off - it was brilliant.
BN As Adem was saying, it was the final day before I headed back to London after two months of travelling, I’d had little sleep throughout a very tiring trip. We had different roles in the stadium. Normally I'd be running about like a rabbit, photographing everything but because I had Adem I was able to put myself right in the heart of the action. This allowed me to focus on the key subjects I wanted to include in the story. If I was alone I might not have had that time to focus on what the story needed.
AA Touching on the language barrier, there was a moment in the depths of Calabria where we might have misunderstood what was going on.
BN There was indeed a moment where if you weren't there then I might have suffered some of the consequences. Essentially after the game that finished 1-1, the Cosentini fans started to vent their anger at the owners of the club. This led to the fans arguing among themselves while I and Adem were snapping away - it was goldust! Soon after a man turned to me and said something in the Cosenzan dialect. He had a thick Calabrian accent which I didn't understand so I nodded and carried on shooting. Adem on the other hand spoke to another guy who he understood then tried to catch my attention from the other side of the altercation to tell me to stop!
BN Barley was in the midst of this chaos, snapping away when this guy says to me to take 2-3 pictures but then 'Basta!' I can see it's really kicking off and Barley is still among the civil dispute but eventually sees me - one of the pros of working collaboratively!
BN Sometimes the best pictures are the ones you don't take - there’s sometimes no right to shoot.
AA For those interested, a written article and publication of the photographs from our trip to Cosenza will be published later in the year. In the meantime, a mixed media piece we've worked on during lockdown can be seen here.
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