Close to the Action

It’s simple enough: soccer is one of the most popular sports on the planet. In Germany alone, millions of people are members of soccer clubs and watch regularly when matches are shown on TV. And all the more when it’s the World Cup. Leica photographer Michael Agel accompanied the German national team with his M camera over the last few months, and he now talks about his experiences on the Leica Blog.

Michael Agel, ‘Close to the Action – A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the German Soccer Team’ is the title of your current exhibition at the Leica Gallery, Solms. How does a photographer manage to get so close to Germany’s top professional soccer players?

Well, it is certainly something new. Four years ago, Sönke Wortmann made a documentary about the German national team that also got very close to the players. But a photographer has never accompanied them in this way before. That’s why my constant presence was a bit unusual for them all at first, particularly for the squad’s support team. Since, in my capacity as a photographer, I found myself in places that outsiders had never seen before. Of course, it was essential to let a sense of mutual trust develop between the players, the support team and myself. An important factor is also that a lot of the pictures I take can be seen on the DFB website.

The players and National Coach, Joachim Löw, must have liked your pictures, too – after all, you could be described as the official photographer for the national team. What do the players and fans say about your photos?

To a certain extent, I am the ‘approved photographer’ for the team, but the actual title of Official Photographer doesn’t exist. The DFB likes using my shots on their website in the ‘national team’ section. Fans are always coming forward to say that they’ve enjoyed my pictures. That really is a vote of confidence.

Your pictures don’t show the typical action-packed game scenes, no hard tackling or headers on the pitch – but rather, they show the players in situations often quite removed from the pitch. What made you decide to shoot scenes like these?

The games themselves are already documented in such detail that even the DFB didn’t really have a need for any more shots of that kind. What I hope to show with my reportage is another side to soccer that is still an integral part of the game – for instance, the training sessions, the concentration and the emotions off the pitch.

You began your reportage with your Leica M8 and then switched to an M9 later on. How did your choice of equipment influence your encounters with the team and the resulting pictures?

What’s really important is that I showed up with absolutely minimal kit. If you can imagine the barrage of flashes the players have to suffer almost every day, you can understand the positive effect of a small, unobtrusive M camera with no flash. As soon as the players saw the results of the first shots and what a special mood an M picture creates, my Leica and I were accepted very quickly!

Why did you decide to shoot in black and white? Because the omission of colour sets your photography apart from the usual photos we see in newspapers and magazines?

Certainly, I could have used colour, too, but black and white really does underline the particular character of reportage photography. Colour often says ‘too much’.

Your current exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Solms displays shots that were taken in the run-up to the World Cup qualifiers. The players have now been in South Africa since Monday and the World Cup kicks off on Friday. Are any further reportage shots in the pipeline?

I was last in touch with the team on Sunday, just before they flew off. I went on board with the players and took some shots of the team on the plane. I’ll be flying out to South Africa as soon as they successfully make it past the last sixteen.

Which experience from your tour with the national team left the greatest impression on you?

I’ve had experience of similar reportage assignments in the music industry. But in all honesty: I was never really aware of the cult status of soccer and the national team in particular – it’s very impressive!

You already have many years of experience in the field of reportage photography. Which musicians have you and your Leica accompanied?

Bands like Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Motörhead.  And Bryan Adams – who actually found Leica photography so much fun while I was working with him that he now has an M camera of his own.

Michael Agel, many thanks for the interview.

-Andreas Dippel

For the interview in German, please click here Michael Agel’s Interview featured on the Leica Camera Blog June 11, 2010.