Soccer and photojournalism: playing on the same field


photo by Tom Burton

World Cup has been great to watch with some truly amazing matches. Great players came prepared for the chance of making creative, assertive decisions that make or break the game. In a fraction of a second, they either capture the moment or miss it all together.

Like soccer, photojournalism is a craft of quick reactions and creativity and playing the sport feels a lot like working an assignment.

I’ve been in photojournalism a long time, but soccer is something I’ve some to later, especially playing the game. My kids played growing up and I learned the game that way and helped coach their teams later on. It’s only been the last few years that I’ve laced up cleats and played in weekly pick up games but the more I play, the more I recognize the similarities.

I love the skill of positioning in soccer. When you don’t have the ball and are waiting, you drift into the open position, waiting for a pass. If you’re sneaky, you drift behind a defender who doesn’t see you. It is so much like figuring out the best place to be for a photo, quietly moving into position and then pushing the shutter at the perfect moment. Getting the pass and the clean shot on goal feels just the same.

Being in on a corner kick you are packed in tight, throwing elbows and shoving, you position yourself to get to the ball with perfect timing. It’s the same as being in a media scrum, chasing a celebrity or getting the handshake photo at the end of a football game. You have to guess the right position, move quickly when the opening comes and get the shot in the one moment when it is available.

There is also a tactical similarity between soccer and a photojournalism assignment. In both cases, you prepare beforehand, training and planning for the “game” but you still have to take the unexpected into the flow. A game and assignment rarely turn out as we plan. And I love that surprise. And the surprise can also be disheartening. You can miss “the shot” on an assignment through no fault of your own and a strong team can lose a game on a fluke play. It can be cruel in either situation.

The place where I feel the synergy most is during the moments of spontaneity. Soccer is continuous flow, without many set plays. Creativity is prized and soccer is called the “beautiful game.” If you are moving through the midfield with the ball, gaps open quickly and a small move or pass can start an amazing sequence. On as assignment, I can sense and see a situation develop that will make a great photo. The same happens in soccer. The buildup, anticipation and ultimate realization is the same thrill behind “Goooooooooooooooal!!!” and getting the front-page photo.

My skills in soccer are far, far behind those I have in photography, but I keep working at. I wish I was as quick to react with a ball as I can be with a camera, but I keep playing. And that is one more thing soccer and photojournalism have in common. Regardless of your skill level, you can get pretty far just by playing/working hard.