The Manchester Village Spartans where founded in 1998 in Manchester, U.K., becoming the second gay and inclusive team in the United Kingdom, after the Kings Cross Steelers in 1995. A full and founding member of International Gay Rugby Association and Board they hosted the Bingham Cup, the international gay and inclusive rugby championship, in 2012. As part of their 20th anniversary, I was approached to photo past and present members and also the players from Sale Sharks (gallery & BTS), their local English Premiership rugby union club. The project has since been named Pride in Union and celebrates the passion and diversity of players across the game with signed Sharks portraits being auctioned in the lead up to the Spartans’ gala dinner with proceeds helping to grow inclusive rugby.
Photographing the Spartans the night before Sale Sharks, I used the opportunity to test and adjust various lighting set ups and develop the direction I was to offer the professional players. Unlike the Sale shoot where the Sharks players arrived as a shiver, the Spartans arrived individually, allowing me time to tweak the lights and engage with them. Over the course of the evening I was able to confirm and also discard several lighting options and to refine my direction to the extent I was confident in taking a mere three frames per subject. My distilled direction to the players as they stepped in front of my camera was;
‘What does being a Spartan mean to you?’
My reasoning for such few frames was that it was these first shots that, generally, captured a subject’s real emotion, emotion that faded with every subsequent pressing of the shutter. The reactions from the Spartans threw up some interesting shots. Here are some which I found particularly memorable.
A relatively diminutive centre Charlie admitted how he always feels calmer after a rugby match, using the opportunity to channel his aggression. A particular attraction is the contact the sport offers; his favourite part of a game being singled out by big ball carriers targeting a smaller player and then tackling them into yesterday. I believe his portrait accurately reflects his ‘you won’t tread on me’ attitude (even if the gun show was my idea).
When asked what the club meant to them, some players just couldn’t help but smile.
While others presented a sterner and, in Marc’s case, a more aggressive tone which I believe was more associated with the physical confrontation the sport provides than his feeling towards the Spartans.
Elaine, the club’s first treasurer, recollected the occasion she was invited to share the club’s communal bath with twenty or so players after a match. She wore a cossie; as for the players… I didn’t ask.
When asked what being a Spartan meant to him, George literally grew three inches and offered what I can only describe as this Superman pose.
Some Spartans took their time to think what the club meant to them and *name withheld admitted his first thoughts about the club are the opposition members he’s slept with.
Alex was the last Spartan to be photographed. Arriving late from work he had run from the bus stop/ train station (I forget which) and offered a variety of reactions when asked what the club meant to him. Between his work, (literally) running late, the club’s AGM which he was due to attend after being shot and being in front of the camera, there was a lot on his mind.
I end with Stan, one of the club’s founders. Photographed without any bystanders, as the club was holding it’s AGM, Stan was proud the club had outgrown his playing career and involvement and was alive and kicking under the direction of a younger generation.
The full gallery of images is here.
As an aside the Spartan images were taken at their clubhouse, the Sale Sports Club, which is home to not only the rugby club but also other local sporting clubs such as hockey and cricket. The clubhouse was built in 1854 and due to increasing maintenance costs is nearing the end of it’s life as the construction of a new clubhouse is cheaper than staying in the original building. Shooting in a building that’s nearing it’s best before was a strange experience; photographing in a location that would have hosted hard fought victories and narrow defeats, that would have seen friendships started and observed chat up lines go down in flames… I have never before felt as if I was working surrounded by ghosts.