Laurence Griffiths has been involved in photographing sport from the time he was a teenager, and has been covering the World Cup since the 1994 tournament. Very few people in the world have a relationship with football quite like his. He’s travelled the world, watched some of football’s finest moments over the last few decades and won plenty of awards.
It all started with an ambition to play, he tells us. “I loved football growing up. I very quickly realised I wasn’t good enough to play professionally, but wanted to stay involved in the sport somehow. Not wanting to do a ‘normal’ job, I found photography was a really fantastic opportunity.” His uncle happened to be a photographer, and became both an inspiration and a guide into the industry.
“[My uncle] used to take me to my local club Nottingham Forest, and I would sit beside him [while he took pictures]. He used to give me the camera when I was about 15 or 16 years old.” This informal assistant-ship developed into a more serious pursuit and in 1990 Griffiths was hired to photograph football by an agency in his home town of Nottingham.
His first big assignment as junior photographer was at World Cup USA. “Ireland qualified for the World Cup and my assignment was to photograph the Irish training sessions and then assist photographers at matches and develop their material. Jack Charlton, Bobby Charlton’s brother, was the manager of the Irish team then and he was just so charismatic. He used to smoke cigars during matches and training. It was different then. That was 1994.”
Particularly during the World Cup, the coming together of players and cultures from all over the world makes for very interesting subject material, Griffiths tells us. “I think we take a really creative approach to how we cover the World Cup; it’s not necessarily about everything that goes on on the field of play. The flavour of the World Cup, the fans, the stadium are just as important, and it all depends on where you are on the world. The last three [locations] were just amazing, the smell of the place, the feel of the place, it’s such a heady mix of things that you have to try and capture. That’s what I love about the World Cup.”
When speaking to Griffiths it becomes apparent that categorising him as a ‘football’ photographer may be doing him a disservice because his work seeks to capture the entirety of the cultural event. He is sensitive to the impact of football within communities and what the sport means to fans.
“When I was looking back at my own pictures, I think my favourite World Cup pictures are taken around the stadium; more about the fans and the features we do outside. In South Africa, we did features in townships and I got lovely pictures of children playing football. In Brazil, I did a feature on children’s football in the favelas and I was out there two years before the event shooting that. I found that so interesting.”
When I was looking back at my own pictures, I think my favourite World Cup pictures are taken around the stadium.
“Of course, [during the matches] you have to cover the editorial aspects of the game, the tackles, the passion, the goals and the celebrations,” he says, but what Griffiths enjoys, he tells us, is the variety of characters on the field and their individual idiosyncrasies; certain players more than others. “I look at creative players, Zinedine Zidane is an all-time favourite. The Brazilians are always amazing. I enjoyed photographing Ronaldo. Ronaldinho is also a massive favourite of mine, with his flowing hair and his crazy skills.” The team he actually supports hasn’t quite provided him as many photo ops as he would have liked. “I’m from England so it’s been an emotional rollercoaster,” he admits. “There’ve not been a lot of highs. I’m not old enough to remember the 1966 win.”
Things have changed so much since Griffiths first started working in the field, not just in the rules around cigar smoking in the technical area. This time around, he is a member of a 60-person team sent to Russia by Getty, the authorised photographic agency of FIFA. The team is under a lot of pressure to deliver images of play as it happens. “[In the early 90s] it would take us 30 to 40 minutes to transmit a photograph – from the time we had collected the film from the photographer to developing and scanning it to sending it. Now clients demand pictures even before the replay is shown on the television. Now our images are transmitted [back to the Getty studio] as soon as we’ve taken them. It’s crazy!”
In the early 90s it would take us 30 to 40 minutes to transmit a photograph […] Now clients demand pictures even before the replay is shown on the television.
Fourteen editors are stationed at a studio is London where the images are sent, edited and published within 59 seconds; it has to be under a minute, we were told by Getty. There is however, a staggering amount of preparation that goes into those 59 seconds.
Planning for an event like the World Cup begins about three years ahead of time, Griffiths explains. “I was out there [in Russia] last year for the Confederation Cup, which is like a test run for the World Cup and it gives us a chance to check that everything is going well. I used that time to find accommodation in Moscow, which is going to be our base for the entire duration of the tournament. I was fortunate enough to go to every city [where World Cup games will be played] in 11 days on a stadium tour and check out the sites. The cities are all so different and interesting.” Making sure things are in order beforehand is very important because of the sheer length of time the team will spend out there, explains Griffiths.
When we spoke to him, Griffiths was getting ready to leave and set up base in Moscow ahead of the tournament, and was bracing himself for the frenzied work that would follow. “It’s not as glamorous as you would imagine. When I tell them I’m off to shoot the World Cup people imagine me at the football stadium. They probably don’t realise the amount of flying, airports, really terrible food and sleep deprivation. I just worked out that I have to take 20 internal flights during the group stages alone. So, it’s a lot of waiting around and managing your time.”
Quite like the sportsmen themselves the Getty team has to stay healthy and focused during the tournament. “On rest days, you have to eat well, rest properly and catch up on sleep. You’ve got to rely on your team to get you through times you feel down and get tired. We work with great bunch and it’s all about having fun when you can and enjoying the experience.”
Shooting a football match, not unlike the game itself, is a carefully improvised team effort. Practice helps but it really comes down to whatever happens in the moment. At each game Getty has five teams of six photographers each, four of which are editorial photographers and two are FIFA photographers. The photographers take different positions around the field, with some in elevated positions for clear sight of the action. There are a few dedicated FIFA positions on the sides of the pitch. “Football is a phenomenally hard sport to photograph. It’s one of the fastest and most unpredictable sports, it’s also that the action can happen on any point on the pitch, so you have to rely on the experience of everyone on the team,” Griffiths says.
It’s all I know really. It’s also the only way I’ve watched football now for about 20 years.
The working environment isn’t exactly comfortable, he adds. “It’s the number of photographers next to you, the busy-ness of it, and whether you’re going to be able to see the goal past the guy sitting next to you who leaves his lens dangling out, it’s all kinds of things that make it difficult. But it’s what I love doing, and I’m quite relaxed in that environment now.” Griffiths says that, as with any craft, it takes experience to get used to it all. “It’s all I know really. It’s also the only way I’ve watched football now for about 20 years.”
Predictably, there’s a grapple among all the photographers on the day to capture the key moments and a rush to get your pictures out there as soon as possible. In the digital age with social media, the gratification is also just as instant he says. If you get a good moment in the game and get it out to social media right away, the images spread around the world quickly. The competition to get images out there isn’t just with the other professional photographers and broadcasters, it’s also with the fans themselves.
“Everyone [at the game] has a camera and everyone is sending video out from the ground now,” Griffiths says. But he doesn’t see this as a bad thing. “I think that it just generates more interest in the event. People want to see content right away, whether it’s good or bad. What we try to do is provide ‘the moment’ from the best position. I think it all just complements each other. I personally have got no problem with the fans putting up pictures on Instagram because I just think it generates more interest in our content. And when someone likes my pictures, regardless of the platform they appear on it’s hugely rewarding.”
Once it’s all done, Griffiths will undoubtedly need some down time. “I’m away for six weeks, when I come back I will have to look after my family and focus on them for a few weeks. It has a huge impact on your personal life, this job. You need an understanding partner.”
Top banner: Luiz Gustavo of Brazil and Thomas Mueller of Germany during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Semi Final match between Brazil and Germany at Estadio Mineirao on July 8, 2014 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Photograph by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Read all of CR’s World Cup 2018 coverage here.