(Story and pictures published in The Big Issue, June 24, 2014)
I’m lying on the boundary line at a community football match, my camera turned to the crowd, when someone yells to me, ‘Hey bozo, the game’s that way!’
Moments later I’m trampled by a herd of muddy footballers and a guy leans over the fence with an empathetic look, ‘Mate, there has to be an easier way.’
In the two years I’d been working on this series I’d been asking myself why I’d been spending my Saturday afternoons at mud-level, risking health and dignity.
I didn’t even like football.
My family wasn’t into sport, so I grew up with little knowledge of its importance. The only footy match I’d seen as a kid was when dad – influenced by 1970s work politics – herded the family into the car to glumly watch his boss play community football. The highlight was when dad honked the horn as someone kicked a goal, before realising it wasn’t his boss’ team.
Through primary school I faked interest in football by learning faces and names from swap cards, so I could nod with conviction if someone mentioned Jacko or Dipper.
I kept up the facade through my teenage years, but in my early twenties I was bothered by how football dominated culture, wondering how a footy player embroiled in an affair could make front-page news for a fortnight.
I made a stand: footy was dead to me.
But a few years later fate and irony conspired and I married into a family of football fanatics.
My father-in-law took me to an AFL match and I sat with my arms folded. Towards half time the scores tightened and the crowd became raucous. Curious, I turned to see their faces as they yelled praise or abuse – often in the same sentence – and discovered rage, joy, anguish, hope, frustration, celebration, and even grief.
For the rest of the match I spent more time looking back at the crowd, the faces reflecting everything that was happening on the field.
And that’s when I had the idea for this project.
The next Saturday I went to a community football match at Bayswater oval and asked a spectator if I could take his picture. He shrugged consent and we shared an awkward moment as I stood in front of him and he tried to see past me. I took some shots and was disappointed: my subject looked embarrassed. I tried lying down out of his field of vision and after a few minutes he forgot about me and focussed on the match, grimacing and gesturing like a symphonic conductor. I clicked the shutter.
After a few matches I sat at my computer frowning at the portraits, doubting if I was on the right track: there was nothing to indicate they were even watching football – it could have been anything.
And then it clicked. It didn’t matter. The pictures on the screen showed the gamut of human emotion – ecstasy to tears – and that was the point.
I was no closer to understanding what was happening on the field, but I now understood the importance of the game: it made people feel something.