When Saturday Comes is the UK’s leading independent football magazine. Since 1986 it has given voice to intelligent discussion and informed comment on the game and its wider culture. On the day that its 350th issue is published (alongside the launch of its fully searchable digital archive), we’re posting our interview with WSC art editor Doug Cheeseman which appeared in our ‘sport’ issue last December.
In 2005, WSC began commissioning photography and it now has an archive of work that reflects the changing nature of the modern game but also its stability and traditions. Here, Cheeseman discusses what the WSC collection represents and looks back on a decade of documenting football on and off the pitch.
Creative Review: How did the WSC photography collection come about in 2005?
Doug Cheeseman: WSC has commissioned photography on an ad-hoc basis since the early 1990s, but in 2005 we started two regular features in the magazine that required bespoke photography and that slowly built up as a unified body of work in itself. The collection covers football, obviously, but specifically football culture. So that means anything to do with the game, the people it draws in and the places they go to watch and play. We have four photographers who have contributed over the last ten years: Colin McPherson, Simon Gill, Paul Thompson and Tony Davis. Their styles differ but their approach is the same and it all gels together well.
The problem was that, as art editor of the magazine, all the photography was on my Mac and the only person who could really use it was me. So last year we started putting it all online. It seemed a shame not to share the archive with a wider audience and, if nothing else, this has made archive pictures easier to find for everyone. Only once we’d started did we really appreciate that it is such a big body of work all with the same collective tone of voice. So it’s an accidental project really, but then the best ones often are, in my view.
CR: What do the images tell you about how the game itself is changing?
DC: Well, clearly the game has changed immeasurably in the last 25 years but that manifests itself most clearly with the clubs in the Premier League. There’s only 20 of those. We cover football at every level and as you go down the leagues you see a state of flux, with clubs juggling ambition with tradition with varying degrees of success and failure. Supporters, though, still follow the same matchday rituals and maintain a social connection to their clubs. Their loyalty is often tested but for many fans actually going to football has changed very little. It’s something that they do with friends and family. Always have, always will.
CR: Who uses the library and what kinds of things are the images used for?
DC: All the images are available for editorial use and some for private prints and creative use. Since we live in an image-rights conscious world, photos within League grounds are taken subject to the Premier League and Football League licensing agreement. I won’t bore you with the details of that now but you can’t get in to a League ground to take photos without signing up to it.
CR: As regards the latest images, do the photographers choose the games they want to cover, or do you provide some direction? Does the collection take submissions?
DC: Almost all the photography we have taken since 2005 has been directly commissioned for the magazine. About half of the photography was taken for a feature we run called ‘Match of the Month’. WSC editor Andy Lyons suggests a game and a writer and photographer wander round to their heart’s content. The other half is taken specifically for our photo feature called ‘Shot!’ They are usually chosen by me but with suggestions from the photographers. Often we just have a chat and take a punt on somewhere that looks interesting. The ‘Shot!’ feature tends to visit lower levels of the game, beneath the Conference, where you can get good access. We mix up the locations and the leagues we cover as much as possible.
Only a small amount of photos actually make it in to the mag – eight to ten images per shoot usually – so the photo site acts as a good way of publishing a much broader selection of images. We don’t really take submissions, but from time to time our photographers shoot something for another client, or for personal interest, and we add that if it fits with the broader scheme of things.
We do have two appended collections: Paul Thompson’s photographic record of Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough in the early 1990s and Tony Davis’ ground photos from the same period. They are important studies since, in many cases, including Ayresome Park of course, they are now long gone.
CR: Much of the photography is very different from the more traditional imagery found in the sports back pages. Can you tell us about the kinds of things that ‘images of football culture’ includes?
DC: Well, WSC is a not a mainstream football magazine so we avoid mainstream images. We don’t use much conventional action photography and avoid cliched images of fans. (I impose a personal ban on any fan gurning for the camera and wacky painted-face shots are also a no-no.) We’re looking for the other side of football: fans drifting to the game; preparations by ground staff and players; the state of grounds and the landscape around them. We’re looking for warm things, such as lovingly maintained tea-huts, and sometimes the absurd, like an over-sized foam mascot heading for the lavatory.
CR: WSC documents much of the visual side of football (from badges and shirts, to signage and stadiums) but has that interest in the look of the game always been there, or do you think it has become more prevalent over the years?
DC: I wouldn’t say there’s ever been a conscious interest in the look of football to be honest. It’s always been the magazine’s approach to consider the wider cultural side of the game in its pages. Football’s rather variable visual aesthetic, which our photographers record, is all part of that.
CR: How much do you think the collection functions – intentionally or not – as an archive of how certain aspects of the game, particularly at its local level, are disappearing?
DC: We do try and cover grounds that we know are due for closure, so over a period of time it’s become a social record of football’s changing landscape, but again I would say that’s been an accidental process rather than a strategic plan. We just follow our noses looking for interesting stories and wider themes just evolve within that.
CR: Most fans will have a camera and access to thousands of images of a match via Facebook, Twitter etc. What are the photographers you work with able to communicate from a fixture, big or small, that still sets their work apart?
DC: People can and do take snaps and some Flickr groups are great, but I think our photographers bring a certain observational touch to their work. I think it helps that their brief is so loose. As a result they are not preoccupied with watching the match and they can wander around as much as stadium stewards will allow. We’re modest people of course, but I’d like to think we have a significant body work that has a unique, authentic and understated tone running throughout it.
CR: The photography collection is ten years old, the magazine is 30 this year. What’s coming up for both?
DC: Good question and one we do sometimes ponder. WSC started as a fanzine in 1986 produced by supporters unhappy with how the game was run and how fans were portrayed. Essentially the reasons the magazine started are the reasons it still exists now. The specifics may have changed – in 1986 key issues were poor stadium conditions and hostile policing, in 2016 it’s over-pricing, erosion of traditional fan values and the increasing corporate influence over the game – but WSC is still a platform for those views.
I think it’s safe to say that there will always be dissatisfaction with how the game is run from some quarters. WSC will hopefully continue to provide a outlet for this either through the magazine or its digital channels. Likewise the photography we commission, will hopefully also be there, supporting the ethos of the magazine in its own distinctive way.
Doug Cheeseman is art editor of When Saturday Comes and a freelance graphic designer. This article originally appeared in CR Dec 2015 – our ‘sport’ issue. The WSC photography archive is at photos.wsc.co.uk and selected prints are also available to buy. WSC magazine is published monthly, while the team also produce a newsletter, the Weekly Howl. Photographer Colin McPherson has an exhibition of his WSC work on show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh until April 24, 2016. More details at nationalgalleries.org