What’s it like photographing a world-famous football team?

What’s it like photographing a world-famous football team?

Lights, camera, action

Text: Janice Sim

Man behind the lens

Professional football is like a universal language — it's hard to find someone who hasn't heard of the world's most prestigious football clubs, and more specifically, Manchester United. The premier league has after all once sheltered big names like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney.

Just a game on the field? This is a team that has made world history and impacted countless of lives by doing what they do best. Whilst many would pay millions or lose an arm just to be the same room with them, we recently met Eric Sawitoski, the man who has been photographing the club since 2010. As global creative director of Aon (the official partner of Manchester United), the Chicago-born creative has definitely done more than just rub shoulders with the dream team. In fact, you could say they have been close colleagues for seven years now. In our opinion, he has quite the dream job. 

Leica Aon Manchester United

Sawitoski's recent work with the team saw two series of intimate portraits shot with Leica cameras — off the pitch and under the spotlight, the players (present and former) were captured in colour, as well as in black and white. In our chat with him, we discussed Leica's best features, what the Manchester United players are really like in person, and which of them has the most potential to be a model. 

What's it really like working with Manchester United?
One of the things that helps when it comes to shooting a film or a commercial with Manchester United, is that there's a certain benefit to having not been a lifelong fan. But I quickly did throughout our working relationship, not because of the personalities, but because of the sport. We mostly talk about tattoos, tacos, video games, and our kids. All the players are very warm. I'd never say that we're best friends but it's like saying you have friends from work — it's that kind of relationship.

Tell us more about the two separate series of portraits [colour as well as black and white] you've shot with Leica. What was the approach you were going for in these photographs?
It's about making a human connection. If you think of a team like Manchester United, they have 10 things to do before me, and 10 things to do after me. I believe in letting what they are feeling at that moment be caught on camera. Take Wayne for example, he doesn't actually like to smile and I have a way of not pressuring that. He was the first player I met, and I wanted to make him feel comfortable. We didn't talk about the project at hand or the goal he scored last night, but instead we bonded over our tattoos. And out came that smile.

Leica Aon Manchester United

What cameras were used for these series of portraits? What do you like most about Leica?
I used the Leica Q28 and the Leica D109. The D109 is a basic point-and-shoot, but it's fully manual. Its operating system is a great way to start with. The Q28 was used for the colour series.

All the Leica cameras I use have become an extension of my creative process. For me, it's about not having something that's cumbersome or one that comes between me and the subject. With Leica, it easily becomes part of my world and environment. Switching between video and stills is easy, minimal, and awesome.

Leica Aon Manchester United

Was there a memorable moment which you remember while shooting the team?
There was an intimate moment with David de Gea. He had just come from a previous stint and I said, "Take a minute, whenever you're ready." He didn't want to look at the camera; instead he did very subtle things and I just followed his eye movement. That's the photo here, and you can see how beautiful his eyes are. 

Leica Manchester United

Do you think any of them have the potential to be a model?
Who do I think is good-looking enough to be a model? All of them. But in terms of what I've heard? Daley Blind and David de Gea are favourites. A lot of people say Luke Shaw, and I have just as many people say Wayne Rooney. It really comes down to personal preference.

Tips for aspiring photographers?
Another pleasant thing that has happened with Leica, is not necessarily networking but finding your community. Find your group where you can learn more. Through my partnerships with Leica, I've met photographers like Mathias Heng, who shared his experience of photographing Iraq in its pre and post-Saddam Hussein state. We are all very different individuals showing our work. Don't just lose yourself in your work and your equipment but find a way to connect. Sit down with people and have a conversation. 

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