One of the unexpected spin-offs of my recent exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh has been the opportunity to look more closely at the subject of emotional responses not only to the photography on show, but to those associated with the game of football itself.
During my recent ‘In Conversation With…’ event at the gallery, myself and writer Kevin Williamson contemplated the different emotions that football engenders, both from the perspective of the fan and, in this case, the gallery visitor. I described the intense feeling of melancholy which comes over me around 4.30pm on a Saturday, irrespective of whether I am watching a game, covering a match with my camera, or merely listening to the scores and commentary on the radio (or more likely following it all on social media these days). That intense, but temporary, low comes not as a consequence of how a particular match is going (is my team winning, losing or drawing?) but rather from the realisation that a weekly ritual is almost at an end. Building towards a Saturday afternoon involves a series of internal triggers and mechanisms, few of which I recognise nor understand. Until recently, I had been blind – or better to describe it as unaware – that this melancholy was a part of a routine, an internal clock which winds round and tightens in expectation. As stated, the release comes not from the result of a game, but from a realisation that the growing anticipation begins, in fact, shortly after the final whistle one Saturday and reaches its next crescendo around 3pm seven days later.
So much for all that. I have always been very sceptical about people who show their emotions as a result of the score in a particular match. Not for me grown men crying at some minor infraction such as a relegation or a cup final defeat. These are mere synthetic reactions, controllable, indeed preventable. When faced with the obvious truism that football is not a matter of life or death (and we’ll excuse Bill Shankly his assertion that it is more important than that), how do we arrange and prioritise our emotions in relation to what we would term ‘real’ tragedies which have engulfed football? Thinking specifically of the reactions to the Hillsborough disaster verdicts recently, these emotions are completely genuine and understandable. We can comprehend where they come from and empathise with the grief and heartache of the victims’ families, denied justice and truth for so long. It took me a long time living on Merseyside to ‘get’ the depth and scale of Hillsborough. The sense of grievance and loss was often camouflaged by other emotions around that particular football club and its supporters. The question now becomes what is a ‘good’ emotion, and conversely what is a ‘bad’ emotion when laid bare by football? Maybe it is less a question of categorising our emotions, but rather understanding that each-and-every-one of us has a trigger and that at some point we will show our feelings, whether it is anger, joy, relief or celebration? Our history, investment (in the emotional rather than the financial sense) and the footballing community in which we involve ourselves with are the building blocks of our emotions.
And so it came to pass last Saturday. Having spent over 40 years watching and photographing football, being involved intensely as a supporter but more so as a detached observer of other peoples’ emotions, I was overwhelmed by what was happening as my team, Edinburgh City, won a match and achieved promotion. Big deal, you might say. But part of the premise behind the When Saturday Comes exhibition was that followers of smaller and lesser clubs invest just as much emotion into their teams as the fans of soccer’s giants. If a club has 10,000 more fans than mine, it doesn’t mean that their experiences and emotions are some many thousand times more important than mine. The size of the club doesn’t matter. The scale of the emotion is equally weighted. On Saturday, for the first time, I momentarily crossed an emotional Rubicon between being a working photographer and a fan. Would I have done the same at Hillsborough in 1989? Would I have put my camera down as a response to what was happening in the surrounding chaos? I can’t answer that, and I don’t wish to trivialise it by speculation.
What I do know is that in one, glorious, spontaneous moment on Saturday 14th May at around 4.50pm, I lost control of my emotions and celebrated as wildly and freely as any fan or any club anywhere in the world. And once I had wiped away my tears, I continued shooting.
A small gallery of emotions…