“People were very open, and very excited to show us what they were doing,” says Frederick Paxton of his new project exploring football in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. “The way I work, it has a very light footprint. So we could rock up at a five-a-side pitch, say hello to a couple of people, ask if they minded us taking pictures, and just hang out.”
The project was commissioned as part of the LUMIX Stories for Change initiative, a collaboration with British Journal of Photography that highlights photography’s power in driving positive change. As such, Paxton was conscious of the varying ways that photojournalism can impact its subjects, and committed to avoiding its potential pitfalls. “I think a lot of documentary can actually be quite destructive to the participant,” he describes, speaking of the ways that artists and documentarians can enter a person or family’s life, requiring time and the unearthing of memories, all for the purpose of a film or project.
He was keen to steer clear of this kind of disruption, and documenting football felt like a way that he could be exploratory at the same time as unobtrusive. “It’s not that they can’t see me or like I’m hidden in some way, it’s that the sport becomes more of an importance to them,” he says, remembering days spent shooting from the edge of a pitch. “I like that, because it gives you the space to be in people’s lives without enforcing yourself.”
Once his subject matter had been decided on, putting the project together — finding his subjects, his locations, and building a narrative — was straightforward (notwithstanding various cancellations and postponements due to local political concerns). “The access was easy, in relative terms,” Paxton describes. “Everyone was really accommodating.” Regarding his creative concept, the photographer was inspired by other oblique approaches to the subject matter of sport, such as Sarah Morris’s film Beijing, made during the 2008 Olympics, and Douglas Gordon’s project Zidane, which photographed the football player from 17 synchronised cameras over the course of a single match. References such as these, in which unusual methods are used to explore familiar material in order to cast new light on them, were formative.
However, it was the team Paxton ultimately surrounded himself with that really brought everything together. “What was really central to this project working at all is that, very early on in the process, I started working with a Middle Eastern journalist called John Beck, and another journalist called Mohammed Rasool,” the photographer explains. Their combined backgrounds and expertise, accumulated whilst living in the Middle East (Beck in Istanbul and Rasool in Kurdistan) and covering it for the mainstream press, were vital to building the nuanced picture that Paxton was aiming for.
- Frederick Paxton
His collaborators enabled the involved research stage with which Paxton bolstered the work: weeks of Skype calls and communication fed into the project, long before the shooting period of three and a half weeks commenced. “I always like to work like that,” the photographer describes. Even where his images, at times, may appear abstract, they need to be grounded in the empirical. “I like the research to be quite involved, and I have that context within me when I’m making the work.”
An obvious question for somebody making work in a region so often reported on as a site of conflict is that of personal safety: did Paxton and his collaborators feel at risk? “The areas in which we were working had a good level of security,” he describes. “We just made sure to avoid known areas in which security would be compromised. There are also some security concerns in terms of travel restrictions within Iraq, so you obviously have to be aware that you are going in the right areas, and being sensitive and careful around that.” Largely, though, Paxton was unconcerned. “Overall I felt very safe, very secure,” he describes of an attitude which reflects the larger context of the project itself. “I think it’s one of the reasons why football at that level is flourishing in the area: because they’ve been able to provide the security needed, in at least a small part of the country, to enable that to happen.”
Paxton was equipped with top-of-the-range Panasonic gear for the project: a Panasonic LUMIX S1R full-frame mirrorless camera with a Panasonic LUMIX 24-105mm lens, along with the Panasonic LUMIX S1, the new full-frame mirrorless hybrid stills and video camera fitted with a Panasonic LUMIX S PRO 50mm lens. Each allowed Paxton to approach his subjects with ease and confidence. “I think the biggest compliment you can pay to a camera is that it didn’t trouble me in any way,” he says. “It was a beautiful tool.”
The length of the shoot involved some precarious scenarios, and the camera held up to the task. “We were in cars a lot, jumping in and out — it wasn’t a studio shoot by any means,” the photographer describes. “I was running in and out of different lighting locations; we had to do quite a lot of climbing up buildings to get some aerial perspectives…” The S1R was a sturdy companion, never letting him down. “It never malfunctioned, it was very robust; it was intuitive, fast, and didn’t get in my way. It did everything I needed it to,” Paxton says. “It got rained on a lot, it got snowed on, covered in dust, held out of cars, and it never stopped working.”
Quite apart from its practical capabilities, the camera produced beautiful imagery in a wide range of circumstances. “I was really happy with the colour,” says Paxton. Its impressive capability is down to the camera’s 47.3MP full-frame CMOS sensor (the highest resolution sensor in the full-frame mirrorless market). “It was really powerful in low light, and really responded well in contrast and more extreme lighting conditions,” the photographer and filmmaker describes.
Armed with powerful equipment, Paxton produced a project providing an intimate look at football in Iraq, all the way from roadside, community teams, right up to the highest level. “I would like to make more work in this kind of space,” he says: work in which subjects can be explored from new vantage points, and from respectful perspectives. “The experience of making the work reaffirmed for me that there’s a need to have outlets and spaces for work such as this.”