The Story Behind: Football in the Snow
Winter is unpredictable in Kabul. Some years it starts in December and seems unwilling to leave in March, whereas in other years there is barely a flurry of snow. This was a year of dense snow, white skies, bitter cold and difficult movement. In such conditions it takes resolve to go out and take photographs, especially considering that this is not Central Park. However, on this occasion, I was motivated by gut feeling. The cloud base was low, the snow thick underfoot and it was still coming down like the contents of a down pillow.
Along with a friend, I headed out towards Bibi Maru Hill, which is the site of the Russian Swimming Pool – one of the four locations that made up Russians and Royals. Ascending the access road was incredibly difficult, due to lack of grip. We did not have snow chains and despite our best efforts, the pretend 4×4 we were using just could not get good grip. We headed home, switched to a vehicle we knew to be a more capable and came back for a second try. As we slipped and slid all over the place, I did wonder how I was going to explain any crash damage that might result, but our driver did the business and we were on our way.
The route is one I knew well, but visibility was limited to about 30 metres/100ft and so I had no expectation of seeing anyone, when we reached the fare end of the plateau. We were still driving through dense ‘cloud’, when we could make out the faint sound of a commotion. As we drew closer, the unmistakable elevated tone of jubilation was clear, even though individual voices, or words were not – the sound still being muffled by the falling snow. I felt buoyed by the mere notion that you can tell happy shouting from massed anger so easily and soon we were able to see shapes perched along the edge of the swimming pool. The serenity was only punctuated by occasionally flailing arms, figures standing up and then crouching down again.
A football match was underway in the shallow end of the swimming pool and there were more people playing and watching than I had ever seen before. While this may seem to make little sense, I wondered if it was because of the soft snow underfoot that promised to absorb falls and make this ragged and ‘rule lite’ game less painful than it would be on bare concrete. I watched the players and crowd, noticing one man’s evident enthusiasm. After a few warm up frames, I managed one shot of a pass that looked promising and the next frame was the goal, made clear by the spectator rather than the players or position of the ball. Two consecutive frames than one might wish to exhibit is rare, but sometimes it just goes our way!
Feeling confident that I had caught the moment earlier, I walked towards the far end of the pool, where the diving boards are situated. I shot a few more frames along the way, showing the action in more open terms.
From the ‘deep end’, the action was surreal. I climbed up the steel frame where the steps used to be (no easy task without a camera bag, never mind with) and settled for the view from the medium board. The top board would have offered a less appealing view due to the additional height above the players, as well as a greater probability of serious injury or death should I fall! Each board was a concrete slab covered with snow and so, devoid of safety rail, even with my conservative choice felt like I was pushing my luck. It was one of those times when you are absolutely a thousand per cent focused on the task of not falling. I’m not afraid of heights per se, but taking my eye off my immediate situation and looking through the viewfinder was really unsettling, so I refused to move feet or body while doing so.
I took quite a few frames from that position, enjoying the empty space in the frame and two-dimensional, low contrast feel of players barely separable from their background. I can’t be sure, but one of the shapes at the far end is almost certainly the same man shown in ‘Pass’ and ‘Goal’. I waited until the ball was just in the right space for the frame that is shown here. Big and somewhat clumsy the Mamiya 7 may be, but the shutter release feels instantaneous. It’s extremely light and fires with a barely audible ‘snick’ just as you think ‘fire’. That sort of precision really helps make shots like this.
Printing these images to a reasonable standard was remarkably easy, but making them sing was much harder. I’ve printed with more contrast than the scene actually possessed, although I have been tempted by other interpretations that make the action far less easy to make out. Perhaps I will print it differently in 2 years from now.
I have a fondness for these images, just as I have a fondness for any image that depicts moments of joyful abandonment. Five years later, they are all but absent.
‘Pass’ and ‘Goal’: Leica MP, Fuji Neopan 400, 28mm Zeiss ZM Biogon, f11, circa 1/8 second.
‘Football in the Snow’: Mamiya 7 II, 80mm (I think), Fuji Neopan 400.