Paul Cooper is a photographer who has shared the stage behind the scenes with many of the games' biggest names. Most notably being on hand to exclusively photograph the arrival of Paul Pogba at Manchester United, his view on the game is exclusive as well as artistic and is a fascinating place to take in the game from. We caught up with him to learn a little more about his experiences.
You've had the opportunity to photograph many elite players from the game, what goes through your head when that email drops in and it's got a top flight player attached to it?
There is always a bit of added pressure when you are involved with a big name. Invariably it means a high end campaign and the expectations are greater. But I try to approach the shoot as any other in the planning/preparation although the scale of the shoot may well be different. Strangely the pressure often comes from the brand associated with the shoot rather than the player. If it’s an editorial request then I’m often thinking about how to get something that’s not been done before and will work potentially on a cover and spread. I’ll normally get quite excited if it’s a player I’ve not photographed before.
What does your preparation look like? Is it important for you to understand a bit about the personality in order to unlock something unique?
It depends on whether it’s advertising or editorial, the approach is quite different.
With advertising the client will normally have an idea of the type of photographs they need, sometimes it is very strict, in which case I manage the lighting style and shot required but on most occasions they have a concept that I can add my creative input/style to it. Often if time permits, once I have the shots needed by the client I will try to shoot outside the brief and it’s always satisfying when the client prefers my take on the shoot.
Editorial portraiture generally means I have more creative freedom and most of the time I can shoot it as I like.
I will often go into the shoot with at least one idea for the shot and lighting. This may well change depending on the location, background etc and the time constraints. It’s not unusual for a planned 20 minute shoot to change into 2 minutes as players have other commitments, so I often have to adapt to the situation. I have to make sure everything is 100 percent prepared, that everything is sorted from assistants, to stylists/wardrobe, light set ups, photographic kit and back-up, mood boards. When I get ready for the shoot I know what I’m after, things may and often do change during the shoot, and sometimes there is an evolution towards a shot that I may not thought of during the planning. These often turn out to be the best ones!
I will research a player I have not photographed before as it’s good to find out about their hobbies, playing history etc and sometimes you may find something in common which could be useful in conversation during the shoot.
How did you find your way into the line of work you're in? You've shot so many incredible people, it can't be without it's slog to get you there?
I started my photography career as a press photographer. I moved to Paris where I set up my own agency shooting across Europe in features/news and sport. I learnt to work to tight deadlines and under pressure which helped a lot once I moved back to the UK and into sports portrait/advertising photography.
Over the past few years, I’ve got to know quite a few people at the clubs and the industry and this network has helped me get access to some great shoots. Of course, marketing is a constant but I do find I’m being approached a lot more directly by clients as result of my work being out there. I am a great believer in that if you create great work, then work will come to you as a result.
I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and I’m still not where I want to be, there are lots of people I still want to photograph, more magazines I would like to see my work with, more ad campaigns I’d like to get involved in, so the focus and hard work never ends for me!
The journey is often the most enjoyable element to remember, have you had to adapt over time to a change in trends?
Having been in the industry for many years I’ve seen the transition from Black and White film to Colour and then to Digital and Photoshop.
Alongside these changes, the quality of images, in my opinion, of the photography from professionals is much improved, you can do so much more with better lighting and tools like Photoshop now than I could do ever do with a roll of B/W and an enlarger in the past. Having said that, a great image is not dependent on the kit used, I believe that the idea is paramount, there are some great images on billboards shot with an iPhone!
I do think the trends are slower in the editorial world than in the advertising as they have very different intentions of usage. Advertising trends can change dramatically, there were periods where everything was comped, then a period where it was almost like it was badly shot with flare, strange compositions, slightly out of focus etc. At the moment there is a move towards more lifestyle type of imagery. I try not to follow the style trends too much, many photographers tend to do so to keep current but all you end up with is lots of guys shooting the same stuff and there is no real differentiation if everyone shoots the same. I try to maintain my own style where possible and hope I get hired for that.
What is it like for you once you're standing opposite those players? How do you make them feel at ease?
Of course they are famous, but I believe it’s important I approach the shoot as an equal, I’m a professional and so are they, so hopefully we will work together to get the best result for the campaign or magazine. I have to project confidence and professionalism at all times, I think athletes can smell fear!
Often the the public think players are a bit aloof, but that’s not been my experience. I see it that they are normal people doing their job exceptionally well and being well compensated as a result, which I think anyone would want if possible. To be honest, most of the players I have met are quite down to earth. I’ve often met their families on shoots and had conversations with them about hobbies, food, holidays and even the school run!
I’m lucky in the fact that I’ve photographed a lot of high profile players on several occasions and they sort of ‘know’ me, having chatted with quite a few outside of shoots helps enormously and they know from working with me previously that I’ll get the shoot done in a fast, professional manner. I think they respect that and they generally help me get what I need.
Once the shoot starts,I try to direct them in a friendly, professional manner as I need to get them to do what I want so I can get the shots I need. If you can make the shoot a bit more fun for them, they will be much more up for it.
I did a promotional shoot for the Deadpool movie with Rooney, Mata, and about six other Manchester United players. We had them sword fighting with Deadpool, mock fighting etc, so that was pretty easy as they loved it and it was bit different for them.
I’ll often have conversations with them during the shoot, and throw in at the odd joke which seems to help with getting them smiling, although that might be to do with their generous sympathy towards me for my awful jokes rather than my sense of humour! With the French players like Pogba and Martial, I chat and direct them in French which helps so a knowledge of a few more languages would definitely come in handy.
The most difficult shoots are when they have done six other PR/Press shoots in one session and then it’s your turn. If it’s someone I’ve not photographed before I’ll show them some of my work and tell them the kind of look I’m after, I like to think that they realise we might get something special out of this and then get into it in a positive way.
A few players have asked for photos after a shoot,including one who wanted a massive print for his home back in South America, so that’s really great and very flattering when that happens and obviously makes working with them much more productive the next time round.
What players and experiences have really stood out for you? Are there some that will live long in the memory?
The Paul Pogba shoot which I did for his Manchester United unveiling was pretty cool. There was a real buzz as we waited for Pogba to arrive, it was all quite secret and I did not even find out who I was shooting until the night before! He was also filming a short film to be released at the same time of the stills, so there were quite a few people around from camera operators, stylists, make-up artists, directors, editors, sound engineers, Manchester United staff, plus his agent and family members. A pretty busy set. When he arrived he had the usual styling and kit changes and we then had about three minutes to do the first set-up which was the urgent first profile image, which we nailed in about six frames! This image was to be released at midnight with the announcement of his signing. We then did the home/training kit shots, he was really good to work with, great presence in front of the camera and he could switch between moods easily, which was handy as we only had ten minutes to shoot everything! I spoke and joked to him in French which I think helped with the rapport, and a highlight of the shoot was afterwards when he spent about 15 minutes playing an impromptu game of keepy up with the crew, which was nice.
I always enjoy working with Rooney, he is the consummate professional and I have been fortunate to shoot him many times. He is always gracious and helpful and professional. I did a recent shoot at St Georges Park with him as part of an editorial piece for the NSPCC, which ran front cover and spread and again he was great to work with. People don’t get to see what a decent bloke he is and the many charitable things he does, so it was nice to be involved with him on that one.
Finally meeting my childhood hero, Kenny Dalglish, was pretty special. Great sense of humour, I could not help getting a bit gushy and telling him when I was a kid playing football in the park I used to imagine myself as him, to which he replied “you better be kind with the photoshop then!”
How much do you get a fire in the belly in being able to combine two passions of football and photography?
Working with top professional footballers is great as they are at the peak of their profession, in great shape and look good in front of the camera. Getting to meet these guys on shoots you get a small insight into their personality away from the pitch. I am inspired by the possibility that within that shoot there is an element of the unknown about what you may come away with. There are many variables, mood of the player, time constraints etc but there is still every chance the shoot could run over several pages in a magazine or across a global billboard campaign. For me that is very fulfilling and inspires me on each shoot. The buzz of knowing I have a great shot is what photography is all about for me. I still get that feeling after many years in the business and the desire to create even better photos on the next shoot is stronger than ever and combining this with a love of football is the best job I could hope for.
Looking forward, who or what in football would you like to shoot more than anything? What is it about that, that stands out?
I’m loving what I do now, the combination of the advertising and editorial is a nice balance and keeps me sharp in both areas. Both have different demands and pressures, it’s really interesting to be involved in a big ad production with a top player but I equally enjoy a portrait session with a non league manager!
Constantly striving to improve and create dynamic images is my driving force. Going forward I’d quite like to do more portraiture and I love getting something dynamic from a shoot with a top-class player, as like everyone else, some players are quite introvert and some extrovert, so I enjoy the challenge of showing that in my portraits and maybe surprising the viewer with a photo of their idol that they may not have expected.
Having shot quite a few of the world’s best, it would be nice to get to do Messi and Ronaldo next!
Thanks go to Paul for his time, you can see more of his work here.