The men’s faces are obscured. Instead the photographer focuses on their ill-fitting suits, their cheap shoes, and on the solitary cup and a frame containing medals that they are holding up to the camera. In one way, the picture is a parody of the glories of football: suddenly those hopes and dreams of Big Football seem so paltry. In another way, there’s nothing funny about the picture at all. That single cup (what is it for exactly, anyway?) and those medals mean something to the men who are holding them. Everybody takes their own lives seriously, and Burcu Göknar takes the Vefa football team seriously. She followed them for 15 months from February 2008, photographing their fortunes, and what she has produced is a different way of looking at football.
The new gaze starts with the vantage-point. Top-class football is almost always photographed from the same place. The photographers line up in long rows behind the goals. They capture moments of action, usually featuring just one or two players. Those moments have become the conventional way of rendering football – the more so because in the sports pages, each game usually gets only one big picture. Football sets up the stage, and these photographers obediently photograph the stage from the front. Günter Grass, the German novelist, once wrote that if you want to see the truth you should never gaze up open-mouthed at the stage. You should get behind the stage, or underneath it. But most photographers of top-class football aren’t listening to Grass.
These photographers of Big Football are showing us football with its context stripped away. In the newspapers you rarely see a scene with half a dozen players –an entire defence falling apart, for instance. If we see backdrop in the sports pages, it’s usually just rows of fans in the seats in the stadium– and in top-class football, all stadiums from Johannesburg to Istanbul to London are meant to look the same. There is hardly any local colour, and the photographers don’t want to capture it anyway. They give us a game that’s beyond space and time.
The photographs that they come up with are approximations of Greek statues: muscular demigods captured mid-action. These are not real people but superheroes. It’s very far from the football most of us grew up playing.
The first great photographer who began breaking these taboos was the Dutchman Hans van der Meer. About a decade ago he began going to amateur games, first in Holland and then around Europe, carrying a little stepladder. He went to games that took place amid nature, or with houses behind the goals – just as in Burcu Göknar’s pictures. Van der Meer would get on his stepladder, frame a shot of the landscape, wait until the players ran into it, and shoot. He put the context back into football.
I see Göknar as a brilliant practitioner in this tradition. Instead of UEFA she follows Vefa. (Confession: I had never heard of Vefa before seeing her pictures.) Göknar attached herself to this ancient Istanbul side that now plays in amateur football, traveled with the team, went to their training sessions, and met the few fans to whom Vefa means something. But she always made sure never just to gaze adoringly at the stage from the front, and she always puts football in its context.
We can’t help but look at these photo’s with the usual images of Big Football in our minds. In some ways Vefa’s players and fans look just like the players and fans on TV or in adverts. It’s just that the context has changed. Vefa’s players sit devastated in the bus or changing-room after defeats that hardly anyone outside will ever care about. In a couple of rare pictures, they are celebrating arm in arm – and again, hardly anyone outside will ever care what they are celebrating. Their absurd medals and trophy expose the absurdity of all trophies and medals. And yet the people who win them are proud. It’s life in a microcosm: each person’s life viewed from the outside is absurd, with its petty triumphs and inevitable defeats, but that person really cared.
It would be wrong headed to mock these people. There is something magnificent about Vefa’s players and fans, caring without any hope of rewards in money or fame. There’s a purity to it – these pictures are only about football, about winning or losing and about not feeling a failure when you wake up in the morning. They are also about football as a way of loving others. Whereas the pictures in the newspapers mostly show individuals, Göknar often photographs groups, or at least multiple people connected to each other. We see an entire team staring at us (and presumably at an unseen coach), the players admiring a gull together, or putting their arms around each other before kickoff. This is how men express love. And these players are as serious, and care as much, as any good team.
Vefa’s fans, too, are as passionate as the fans in the Coca Cola adverts. The man hanging in the wire netting behind the goal really cares even if it is only Vefa. Perhaps he cares all the more because if he didn’t care, nobody would bother at all.
“I have measured out my life in football matches,” Nick Hornby famously wrote in his fan’s memoir, Fever Pitch. The fans in Göknar’s photo’s seem to feel the same way. Supporting Vefa or any other club is a way of marking your life, of having something that doesn’t change from age eight to age eighty. For these people, the stadium is a kind of home. Life is confusing and full of loss, but Vefa is always there. In one picture, a stubby finger points at a face in a dead team photograph. Where are those young men now? And why does the finger alight on that handsome young man in the back row, an age ago? Another picture shows a bare and faded wall with a club badge that simply says, “Vefa 1908”, and a figure who seems to be bowing to it. The longevity of football clubs is a large part of their grip over us. We want them to have been there before we came, and to remain after we have left. Supporting Vefa is less about seeking victory than about wishing for survival. But most of the people who support Vefa appear to be ageing. One wonders whether anyone is being born to succeed them.
When you support a football club, you also attach yourself to a particular place. Göknar’s photo’s, like Van der Meer’s, are in part just landscape pictures with footballers in them. Football in this book is not a Champions League pitch but part of the natural landscape and thus part of Istanbul: snow, dogs, blocks of flats, clouds over the city, woods, washing-lines, the houses overlooking the pitch, and a mosque, or what looks like a fort facing one stadium. The landscape, like the football is the opposite of glamour. It’s not posed, not cleaned-up, not a postcard. It’s just there, a seamless whole with the football. Göknar gives us football as part of daily life. This is the game in context, less graceful and yet more beautiful than 1,000 action shots of Cristiano Ronaldo.