Through the lens: Life as a football photographer

Fans who can’t watch their team in person rely on others to report back on the thrills and spills of a matchday. A stunning photograph, taken pitchside, can go much further than words in showing us the real, human side of football.

Robbie Barratt is one of the best at showing the emotion and action of a match. As a professional football photographer for AMA Sports Photo Agency, Barratt has covered games all over the world.

Since 2017, he has gone from shooting Championship games to World Cup and Champions League finals. His work has given football fans photographs of the most iconic matches in recent years.

The 27-year old’s passion for photography was shared by his grandpa, who he recalls taking pictures and videos of him and his sister as they grew up in Halifax. It’s quite hard to imagine a younger Barratt these days, given his strong beard and long tied back brown hair which make him distinguishable when he’s pitch side on a matchday. Son to a site manager for a building firm and a mother who’s a former school cook, he takes pride from his roots.

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“I’m from a very normal and humble family background really, my dad has worked very hard to get to where he is now,” Barratt says. It’s a type of humility he shares when talking about how he came to have what his friends call the best job in the world.

The route that led Barratt to football photography began at Brooksbank Sixth Form. He chose to focus on a career in the arts over journalism. As a talented English student with a passion for football and music, it was only when he saw that photography was offered at his school that he had a chance to express his interest in a new way other than writing.

“At the time, the school I was at only had one camera in the art department because it wasn’t really a big thing,” he calls. Yet when that one camera was passed around, “something twigged” for him. From that moment, Barratt was hooked. It led him and a good mate to enrol in a photography college course.

This young photographer began gaining experience by taking photos of his mates who were in bands and making music. But while music was a great passion, it wasn’t quite football.

His first opportunity to photograph professional football came with the Huddersfield Examiner. Under the mentorship of Huddersfield Town photographer, John Early, Barratt was tasked with shooting his boyhood club. John trusted him to cover matches and offered up advice that has stayed with him throughout his career.

During his time here, he was able to forge friendships with Huddersfield Town players who enjoyed the photos that he took of them.

“I had a good relationship with Sean Scannell and Adam Hammill when they were at the club,” Barratt tells The Set Pieces. “They were always interested and keen in getting images for their social media channels.”

Before joining AMA four years ago, Robbie spent his final season with the Huddersfield Examiner covering Town’s ascension to the Premier League. His last game was the Terriers’ Championship play-off final, which they won on penalties against Reading in 2017.

It was a game that will live on in the memory of Huddersfield Town fans for a lifetime. As Barratt watched centre-half Christopher Schindler score the winning penalty through his lens, he described it as the “most emotional moment” of his photography career to date. “I was crying, taking pictures with tears coming down my face… I couldn’t even see through my camera,” he recalls.

After the thrilling end to his time at Huddersfield, Barratt first covered the Premier League in the 2017/18 season. The biggest difference? The travel. As a relatively novice driver, he found himself more cautious about which exit to take off the motorway rather than the frame he should use later that day.

His snaps are usually used online, often found in newspapers, blogs and football reports when live shots are needed for their sites. Sometimes, his work is used in-print for national and global newspapers, magazines and even billboards. With this in mind, he tries to prepare for game days as best he can to make sure his output is up to his standard.

“I pack my cameras and laptop in my roller bag and set off to generally get to the stadium three or four hours before kick-off,” he explains. “This depends generally on car parking, some clubs we get parking and some we don’t.

“I’d then go collect my photo accreditation, then I’ll go into the press room to see colleagues and grab some food.

“Following that, I sometimes go out and do some preview images, this provides a build-up coverage for social media channels and other websites. It’s then time to get pitchside and get ready for the game.”

When the teams cross the white line, his focus is always on the match being played in front of him.

“During the game I might have a live editor,” Barratt continues. “This means I can send images directly from my camera to someone sat at home and they can send out pictures to the world for me in an instant.

“Otherwise, I have to send them myself via laptop, which then means I might miss shots and start to lose a bit focus on the game. When the match is finished, I generally take my time to let the fans disperse a bit and upload some more images before packing up. Then it’s the walk back to the car and the drive home before doing it all over again the next day.”

Despite the demanding nature of his work, part of his role is connecting with players as he did with Scannell and Hammill at Huddersfield. One friend he’s made since covering the Premier League is England international Conor Coady.

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“At AMA we used to be club photographers at Wolves and he always questioned my Yorkshire accent, asking what I was doing there,” laughs Barratt. “He used to play for Huddersfield around the same time as Sean and Adam [Scannell and Hammill]. He’s a top bloke and is always keen to chat.”

The 2018 World Cup in Russia and Euro 2020 were Barratt’s first two major tournaments. Russia stood out to him, especially for the travel that he and his colleague had to do between games.

“Overnight trains, flights for an hour, taxis for an hour… your brain turns into, ‘I’ve got to be there at this time, get this taxi here to arrive for then’ and your photography becomes second nature.”

For a photographer covering a tournament, taking photos of every team is essential. When you can’t cover teams outside of Europe during the season, the World Cup provides a chance to take photos of the teams and their fans for the first time.

“You love to be shooting the big stars – Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe – when they’re on the big stage where they belong, it has that added bit of spice to it,” he beams.

From the highs to the lows, tournament football puts everyone through the emotions and photographers are no exception – not least in England’s most heart-breaking moments.

“I was so down at full-time, waiting for Southgate to come out after the game just slumped over the camera,” Barratt remembers.

His despair didn’t last long, however, as his realisation that he would photograph a World Cup Final soon cheered him up.

In the final between France and Croatia, Robbie explained that once he was given his place around the ground, he was focused solely on shooting the most important game of his career. Through the rain pouring down in the Luzhniki Stadium of Moscow, he set about documenting this prestigious match – wanting to capture the moment so he can remember the photos and why he took he took like he did.

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Since becoming a professional photographer, Barratt has enjoyed covering some of the world’s most important football matches. And when the pandemic hit, he was able to continue giving fans their dose of football photographs from behind-closed-door games as the country came to a standstill.

When speaking about shooting Premier League games during the pandemic, Barratt points to the noise – or lack of – as being the most obvious difference.

“You knew that this stuff [on the pitch] went on, but you never properly heard it,” he says. “Like players backchatting the referee for example, or [Virgil] Van Dijk bossing people about and instructing.”

It wasn’t all positive, though. “During Covid, you could hear a pin drop, it was awful… you could hear people moving stuff in the stands behind you or a steward closing a gate down the other end of the pitch,” he recalls.

Once the crowds returned to the stadiums, like many others in the football media, Barratt felt relief to see them back. He admitted their reactions to moments in the game truly give photographers an extra reminder to focus and capture what it going on in front of them.

Through the lens: Life as a football photographer
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