Fresh off the back of scooping the Illustrated Book of the Year 2020 at the Sports Book Awards, NB caught up with Chief Sports Photographer for The Sun, Richard Pelham, whose life and work has been collected in his book A Life Behind the Lens.

Can you tell us a bit about how the idea for the book came about and how you went about curating three decades worth of work and choosing the photos you’d feature?

Pitch Publishing got in touch with me and basically said we’d like to do a book with you about your life story. We had this idea at twenty years and nobody took it, nobody wanted to know, so I thought that’s never going to happen, so when Pitch Publishing came to me and said would you like to do a book, I jumped at the chance. It was pretty simple really to put the images together because we already had them for twenty years, so I just had to go back and put the last ten years together, but I wanted to do better scans for the earlier years, from about 89 to 99, because they were in negative form, so that was really good because I got to go through the archives, where News UK keep all their images, and going back and trawling back through my history was brilliant, seeing Paul Gascoigne and the Euro 96 images, the Olympic Games and the Michael Johnson picture.

The life of a sports photographer seems rather glamorous, is it all it’s cracked up to be or can it be stressful?

I don’t allow myself to get stressed. I just turn up and do the event. There’s more stress getting there and worrying about what gear you carry to an event, especially if it’s abroad, you have to think about how much gear you’ve got to try and get onto a plane. I don’t really stress about the event… I get annoyed when I miss a picture when I miss something, knowing I should have got it better, but I don’t lose many!

As Nick (the writer on A Life Behind The Lens) says, we are sitting on the edge of the world because everyone else is behind us and it’s very true, we’re even in front of TV cameras, so yes it is the glamorous position, and especially at the moment, following lockdown, with COVID, we’re very, very restricted with how we shoot. They only allow 10 photographers to go to an event and the one that is really hitting home is boxing because you can’t shoot boxing, you’re not allowed to shoot through the ropes. At the moment, only one person is allowed to do it and my first show in three months will be this Saturday (15th) night; we’re at a place called York Hall, so it’s really good to have boxing there. There’s a really big pay-per-view event next Saturday as well with Matchroom so hopefully we’re in for that, but not shooting through the ropes. It’s going to be a long, long time before we start shooting through the ropes.

I guess when you’re at an event you’re completely focused on getting the shot, so are you ever able to enjoy the occasions?

I remember when Beckham scored that goal against Greece; he hit the ball and then all you heard was a massive eruption of noise and then he ran the wrong way, then he ran to the bench and then for some reason, he ran directly in front of me, jumped in mid-air, the crowd were going crazy and he did this amazing celebration and it wasn’t until after that, I went ‘get in there, yes, we’re going to the World Cup’. The hardest one, which isn’t in the book, was when West Ham played Liverpool in the FA Cup Final and we went 2-0 up. Watching Dean Ashton score the second goal, knowing as a photographer you couldn’t celebrate – that was the hardest one. Shooting the FA Cup Final of your team that was very, very difficult.

Having said that, you have been to some of the most incredible sports events in the world, what have been your particular highlights?

Michael Johnson at my first Olympic Games, when he came across the line with the World Record on the scoreboard in the background. Lennox Lewis undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, that was my first one. In boxing, everyone says what is the biggest thing and it’s definitely the heavyweights, but to see someone win undisputed heavyweight champion and have all those belts around them, it’s great. And the first fight was a dodgy decision at Madison Square Gardens, it became a draw, then we got the rematch, went to Las Vegas and Lewis won it on the rematch. Football is easy, but to get the ultimate picture in boxing is a big achievement.

You must have visited some wonderful stadia around the world, but I just wonder how the experience differs between the older grounds like Highbury and Upton Parks and the new grounds like the Emirates and the Olympic Stadium?

Highbury was an amazing stadium, same as Upton Park – they had history about them. Emirates is good, but the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, they’ve done a brilliant job. But, once again, White Hart Lane was a good stadium; it was great to work at, the fans were on your shoulder when you were taking pictures and Spurs have done such a great job of still creating that football stadium atmosphere – the fans aren’t on your shoulder, but they’re directly behind you at the new ground. It’s probably one of the best stadiums I’ve ever worked at.

In terms of the actual process of getting the picture, how do you go about situating yourself at an event, are you allocated a position or do you have to choose your own spot and hope for the best?

In the lower end of it, in Premier League matches, when we’re in a normal state, without lockdown, you can go where you want behind the goals, to the right, to the left. I try and work out who’s maybe going to win the games and try and do it that way. Boxing, I do tend to sit in the middle of the ring. I get on well with most promoters, so I sit towards the middle of the ring and work there. Olympic Games, you rock up, have your position and that’s it. At London Olympics 2012, LOCOC (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) allowed us to go wherever we wanted, we were treated like royalty, which was really good.

There are some incredible shots in the book, and I love the Olivier Giroud scorpion image, how did that one come about?

I can remember that day: it was pouring down with rain and I had such bad flu, and I didn’t want to get out of bed and I’m never like that. I went to the game, got there about twenty to three, got to the ground and just sat down in what we call ‘lazy corner’. And all I can remember is that the ball got crossed and I thought OK, he’s going to go up for a header, and I let the shutter go and all of a sudden you heard the roar, and it was like oh my God, what has happened. And I looked at the back of the camera and there was just this amazing goal, that later on they called the scorpion goal, and I thought OK, cracked it here, got it. No one else got it, people got versions of it from the other side. And it went in the paper, all well and good, but then I think it was about October and it was voted FIFA goal of the year in the Ballon d’Or and that’s what made that picture more valuable and that year I won the SJA, which is the competition  to win. If you can win the SJAs, it’s like winning the Oscars.

At the start of the book you say that people have pictures on walls, not words, and it’s absolutely true but I hadn’t really thought about it until then. Do you think sports photography is perhaps taken for granted when compared to journalism?

Journalist have got time to write their words. They’ve got deadlines, but as photographers we’ve literally got sixteen hundredth of a second when the shutter is clicked to get that shot right. Whereas a reporter has time to write their words or if they miss something, they can always see a replay – we can’t see a replay. If you’ve missed it, you’ve missed, and as a photographer that’s when you kick yourself for having missed a picture, because it could have been the ultimate image.

In an era of smartphones and Instagram, where everyone fancies themselves as something of a photographer, how has this changed the world of sport?

I think Rio Ferdinand once said that everyone’s a photographer now because they’ve got a camera phone, so footballers and the like have to be so wary. In the early days of my career, Ian Wright, Paul Gascoigne, Vinnie Jones, etc, we had a camera, but it was a trust thing, and I’d never do anything wrong, because once you get a bad name you’re tarnished.

Also, I imagine that across the thirty years you’ve worked in the industry there have been seismic changes in equipment and technology, but what would you say has been the most revolutionary change you’ve seen?

Digital cameras. The moment we used the digital camera, it changed the way we worked, because instead of waiting 25/30 minutes for a picture, I think it was the World Cup France 98, and all of a sudden the images were on their desks within about 12 minutes. So instead of waiting 30 minutes to get an image developed, they were digitally moving these pictures around the world. Luckily, my boss bought me two digital cameras for that World Cup so I could compete and we (The Sun) were probably the first British paper to have digital cameras. They were like twenty grand for two cameras and the managing editor said why does he need two cameras, but luckily my boss said he has to have two cameras: one for long lens and one for short lens.

Similarly, you’ve experienced the rise (and fall) of individual athletes and teams, whose journeys have you most enjoyed charting?

I’ve seen Wrighty start his career; I’ve seen Wrighty end his career. I’ve seen Beckham start – I remember photographing Beckham when he first came through at 17 years old – and I’ve seen Beckham retire. My last game with Beckham was at La Galaxy. I’ve seen Naseem Hamed start his career and end his career. Lennox Lewis start his career and end his career. It’s so strange and now we’re on a new cycle with Anthony Joshua. I saw Joshua at the Olympic Games and now we’re halfway through his career. Joe Calzaghe, I remember seeing Joe at the start of his career and the end of his career and yes, it’s really strange. But we say the circus moves on, because we are the travelling circus.

You seem to have developed really great good relationships with a number of sports stars over the years, is it possible to build up that rapport nowadays since sports have become more of a global business?

No, those relationships are gone. The days of a reporter or a photographer having a mobile phone number of a footballer in his phone are long gone. I’ve still got boxers’ numbers, they’re still on a par with us. The boxing fraternity still need us. But tennis stars, I’d never have tennis stars’ numbers. It’s all agents now, it’s run by agents and PRs. If you want to talk to a footballer or an athlete, it’s done through Nike, Adidas or whatever they’re promoting really. You see players when they’re on national duty, because they’re put up for press conferences, because the FA get them to do their press duties, but there’s not that one-to-one relationship. The days of going round a player’s house all afternoon and playing pool are long gone and that used to happen! These players that I worked with when I was younger when they were coming through and they helped me so much, they still respect you, they still talk to you. They’ve still got time for you, which is brilliant.

We can’t really avoid talking about the last few months, presumably the postponement of sport had a major effect on you?

As soon as I got the inkling about lockdown, I rang the picture desk and said I want to work. They said you’re a sports photographer, and I said I want to work. My boss said right, you’re on the team, no problem at all. But now it’s changed, you don’t rely on reporters now, it’s photographers coming up with ideas and I said look, everyone’s going to the beaches and going out. So they said, right, watch the beaches in Essex. So I was going to Southend Beach, I was going to Clacton – I got a great tan! I had a mountain bike and I was just patrolling the areas, watching the police telling people to get off the beaches, etc. I shot the nurses when they were allowed to jump the queue at Tesco, I came up with that idea. And I was getting the nurses to do the pictures for The Sun and then I said would you just do an interview on my phone with a reporter who just wants a few words and they said no problem. And I gave my phone to at least three nurses, and four days later, I’m coughing and spluttering and I definitely I think I had a mild version of COVID. But stupidly, you don’t think, you’re just trying to do your job. And the moment I got it, the office said, that’s it, no more, stay indoors for two weeks. And then I came back and I was doing the same sort of stuff, and then they said do the Thursday clap for carers, and I did those and that was very emotional. You see some emotional things at football stadiums, but to do this clap with the ambulance services and the fire services, and the nurses in front of them, that was really emotional. And then even with lockdown, the athletes had to train, so I was just using all my contacts from Olympics and boxing to get to athletes’ houses, to shoot athletes training at home. I was photographing Lauren Williams, who does taekwando. I went all the way to Wales to photograph her for twenty minutes, just training in her back garden. Then I had Paralympians and I went to one athlete’s house and she had no weights and I said, don’t worry, I’ll bring some weights. It was getting some really good shows in the paper for these sports because the paper needed content.

And how has the restart of sport been?

I think I did 21 games in Project Restart, it was like doing a mini World Cup, day after day after day. I could be at Wolves one night, Brighton the next, Manchester City, Manchester United, it was brilliant, but the clubs were brilliant. Wolves allowed us to put remote cameras in the stands where you’ve never seen cameras before, so the pictures that came out of Project Restart were so good, different angles. Goal pictures were going in from angles we’d never been able to photograph apart from at the World Cup in what is called a tribune position. It was horrible not having fans there, but our cameras were in their places.

In terms of working in empty stadia, how has the experience been for you?

The first time it hit home was my first game when Arsenal played Brighton. Bernd Leno (Arsenal goalkeeper) went up for a challenge with a player and he came down and twisted his knee. He hit the ground and he screamed his head off. It was horrible, because he was no more than five metres from us, but as a photographer you had to take the pictures. And when you took the pictures, the players just looked at you, like what are you doing? And I felt bad, I felt really, really bad, because this guy was on the ground, writhing in agony, because he’d done his cruciate ligament, but we still had to do our jobs, so that was definitely the one thing that hit home and after that I started using a pocket radio, because the silence in the ground was horrible, really, really horrible. And the crowd would have muffled out the sound of our shutters going off when the player was injured. That’s why I listened to the radio with the fake commentary in my ear and I found it better.

Are there any sports star you would have loved to have photographed in the past but didn’t have a chance to?

Muhammad Ali definitely – I was the wrong era. I photographed his daughter in the book – she was on the undercard to Lennox Lewis’s last ever fight in Los Angeles.

Have you ever been starstruck?

The only person I’ve even been starstruck with was Clint Eastwood. It was in my early days and I went to Cannes Film Festival and I photographed Clint Eastwood at a premiere for a film and at the end of it he walked along the line and he shook every photographer’s hand and I wish I had that picture, but no one took it.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring sports photographers?

Keep at it. Keep going. But during this COVID situation, there’s a lot of photographers that are not getting into grounds and you feel sorry for them. I’m in a lucky position because I’m involved in a national newspaper, but there’s some really, really good photographers out there who just aren’t getting into games and it’s a great shame.

A Life Behind the Lens Richard Pelham
978-1785315466 Pitch Publishing Ltd August 2019