Jason Andrew: Black Diamonds

Jason Andrew is an American photojournalist who began his career as an elementary teacher before becoming a full-time, professional photographer in 2006. His clients include The Wall Street Journal, FT Weekend Magazine, and The New Yorker. Jason was also a finalist for the Leica Oskar Barnack Award in 2012. His project entitled “Black Diamonds” on Nigerian footballers appears in the current issue of LFI.

Q: Can you provide some background information on your project about immigrant football players in Istanbul for LFI?

A: Black Diamonds is the story about four Nigerian footballers who were lured to Turkey — along with hundreds of other African players — by unscrupulous agents who promised football stardom and rarely delivered. For nearly a decade, Istanbul has been a dumping ground for African athletes who have been abandoned after promised contracts with Turkish clubs failed to materialize, stranding many of them in a cycle of poverty and unemployment. It’s estimated that 20,000 players have fallen victim to this scam throughout Europe.

The idea for the project came one afternoon when I walked into an Internet café and met Akeem, a Nigerian footballer who became one of the main subjects of my project. I was shocked by his journey from hope to despair. The next evening, while sitting in the same café with 20-30 footballers watching a Chelsea match, I realized that Akeem was not alone and I saw that there was a story that needed to be told. Over the past three years, I’ve continued to return to document their lives as they struggle to assimilate into society while trying to find a way out towards the football stardom they were promised, onward to Europe, or back to their countries in Africa.

This January, I will be continuing the story in Nigeria by photographing the players who have managed to return home as well as the players who remain in limbo in Istanbul.

Q: Why did you decide on the title “Black Diamonds,” and what do you hope your coverage will accomplish?

A: I decided on calling the project “Black Diamonds” because these young players, many of whom played professionally in Nigeria, are the result of rogue agents and scouts looking for that elusive African Black Diamond, their next Drogba or Eto’o. Belgian Senator Jean-Marie Dedecker first coined the term over 10 years ago when he was speaking of the corruption that was occurring in Belgian with football coaches there and I felt the term fit these players perfectly. The French-based group Foot Solidaire estimates that 20,000 players have fallen victim to these rogue scams and it’s because of agents promising futures in European football while looking for the one player that will pay off.

I hope this work will put a thorn into FIFA, football’s governing body, and potentially someone will take interest in the growing group of footballers in Turkey and its neighboring countries that are struggling with the same problem.

Q: Capturing something as conceptual and emotional as “struggling to assimilate” or “trying to find a way out” in a series of visual images is certainly challenging. Do you have a strategy or object in mind for conveying these ideas in visual terms or do you just immerse yourself in the sub-culture, open your heart and mind, and hope for the best?

A: Visually, this has been one of the more difficult stories I’ve photographed because so much of their lives revolve around waiting and doing very little. Few of them have jobs and outside of football practice a couple hours a week, they remain inside as there is nowhere for them to go. I’ve tried to work through this by assimilating into their lives, becoming a silent observer.

Q: When you go to Nigeria to photograph the players who have managed to return home do you plan on producing a visual document that parallels and contrasts their lives with those who remain in limbo in Istanbul —in other words, a tale of two outcomes — or will they be separate pieces?

A: Yes, the idea is to continue on this body of work, documenting their lives while also photographing the rogue camps that recruited the young footballers in the first place. Also, for the first time, I’ll be shooting video of this series, which I hope will give the viewers a better understanding about these young players’ lives and the conditions they’re trying to escape for that elusive European dream.

Q: One image shows a  man, presumably a displaced football (soccer) athlete playing what looks like a sports video game in a shabby apartment. The mighty athlete reduced to twiddling his thumbs in a virtual reality. It packs a powerful message but one that relies on context — if I just saw this image out of context it would not mean as much. How important do you think context (that is a series of images on a theme) and words to guide the viewer’s thoughts are in conveying the total story?

A: Yes, Jerry came over to play football but that has become a lost dream as he now works in selling clothes back to Nigeria. His only connection with football now is through the video game he’s playing or watching matches online with friends.

This story has been a difficult one for me because visually, it’s not an easy story to photograph. For these young men, their lives depend on them to sit and wait, something that becomes more prevalent when they have little money or don’t have anywhere to go because of how they’re ostracized within society. Words and audio are very important for this story and, in some aspects, are needed which is why I’m returning in the new year to begin collecting their stories so people can hear, from their own voices, what is really happening.

Q: There’s an image that shows a hand coming into the frame on the right, money on the floor, and if you look closely, a single die that has evidently just been thrown. Again this image suggests indolence, wasting time, and waiting. Is this interpretation on target, and what we you thinking when you took the shot?

A: Yes, the interpretation is right on and for me, I was most surprised that these young men were gambling their own rent money to be able to pay rent. When I met them three years earlier, they were playing football daily and trying to work odd jobs to get by but times have changed and with desperation, comes desperate acts.

Q: The image of two guys standing on an elevated platform is technically gorgeous, but somewhat enigmatic. The details are exquisite and the lighting is great, but what the heck is actually going on here?

A: Dayo and Akeem were on the way to the bus station to see a friend of theirs off who was traveling to Antalya for the summer to work. Akeem, for the past few years, has been talking about leaving Istanbul but has never been able to gather the funds and still hopes he has a shot at playing professionally in Turkey. Akeem was asking prices on luggage and as usual, the retailer was quoting him two to three times more which Akeem has come to expect but as he always says, “What are we supposed to do?”

Q: These images of one of your subjects on the bus with a pained expression seated amidst a group of stony-faced Turkish fellow passengers and of three athletes in what looks like a clinic being eyed by a sour-faced old Turkish guy setting behind a desk all say “out of place,” and all express “not fitting in” in stark visual terms. Do you concur, and can you tell us something about what was going through you mind when you captured these images?

A: No, you’re correct, they don’t fit in at all and are always looked down upon by the vast majority of Turkish people. This surprises me because Turkish society has little historical interaction with people of African descent so everything they learn comes from pop culture which, in their eyes, casts them as loud, unruly criminals. If the bus isn’t crowded, most people will avoid sitting near them at whatever cost. This is why the man behind the counter at the bus station is giving them these looks. If 50 Turkish people are celebrating in the streets, it’s ok but if five “blacks” are speaking loud and enjoying life, it’s a crime and people will begin to complain and ask them to leave.

While meeting up with Akeem a few years ago, we were walking and some young Turkish boys were heckling him from afar. He said “Jason, in my country, I would never be treated like this. But in Turkey, I’m just another niger” and that quote has stuck with me ever since and perfectly explains what they go through on a daily basis while living in their adopted country, one that they used to call “Europe.”

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Photography has always been a way for me to explore and understand cultures within society that live on the fringe of what Western society considers normal. With everything online and at our fingertips these days, I feel we live in a self-induced bubble, protecting ourselves from the realities of life because it’s much simpler that way. The people I photograph, to me, are the reality, the ones who are getting their hands dirty every day trying to make a go at it.

Photography helps me give a voice to the people I document while also, selfishly, giving myself the opportunity to experience their lives. With the world changing faster then we can keep up with, I hope to continue to take a slow approach to the work I produce, giving it legs that will last beyond a quick minute.

Q: How so you see your photography evolving in the next few years? Do you plan to explore any photographic genres other than documentaries and photojournalism, and do you have any other big projects on tap for the future?

A: Photographing long-term documentary projects is where my heart is and always will be. I do shoot a lot of portrait work in NYC, which I find challenging on a whole different scale, but overall I hope to continue the work I’m doing now. I do have a couple new projects on tap, which is the other reason why I’ll be traveling to West Africa in January but right now, funding is still a problem so I’m pitching those stories with the hope of getting the funding I need.

Thank you for your time, Jason!

- Leica Internet Team

Please find Jason’s full reportage in LFI 1/2014. Also available for the iPad. Connect with Jason on his website, tumblr, Instagram and Twitter.