Theo Mcinnes delves into the dying days of pigeon racing in The Fanciers

The photographer’s new series shines a light on the UK’s shrinking community of pigeon fanciers who are flying the flag for the historic sport

While most of us have been glued to our sofas in the wake of the pandemic, 2020 proved to be an altogether different experience for Theo Mcinnes. The London-based photographer spent a large chunk of the last 12 months scrabbling around in pigeon lofts and getting up at 4am to shoot sunrise races.

Primarily a documentary and portrait photographer, the common thread that runs through much of Mcinnes’ work is his ability to get under the skin of British sub-cultures. “It’s a strange little country we live in, and if you peek for long enough beneath the surface of it all there’s a lot of enchanting people doing weird or captivating stuff,” he tells CR.

Shooting a series on the age-old sport of fancying – otherwise known as breeding and racing pigeons – had been on the cards for the photographer for a while. “There’s something quite beautiful about the term ‘pigeon fancier’, which always stuck with me,” he says. “It seemed so unusual – you just want to know more about what fancying actually is.”

Humans around the world have practised pigeon fancying in one form or another for roughly 10,000 years. In the UK, the sport first took off during the Industrial Revolution and reached its peak in the 1980s, when the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA) boasted 60,000 members. But those numbers have been on the decline ever since.

The catalyst for Mcinnes’ new project, The Fanciers, arrived as the pandemic restrictions were beginning to lift last summer, and he discovered that pigeon fancying was set to be the first sport to return to normality.

The photographer’s first day of shooting the series was a particularly memorable one. After speaking to the RPRA to try and find a suitable sized pigeon liberation that he could use as a shoot location, he finally managed to get in touch with the local race controller at Folkestone in Kent.

“He let me know that 16,000 pigeons were going to be getting released in Folkestone at 6am the following morning, so that evening we left London and drove down to a hotel in Folkestone. At 4am when our alarms went off we headed over to the liberation site to find four or five giant lorries full of pigeon crates. It was the ideal morning to shoot, the conditions were perfect,” says Mcinnes.

“Shortly after 6am, a whistle blew and in one go all of the birds were released. I remember my adrenaline going crazy, not knowing where to look with the sheer chaos of pigeons flying everywhere around you – it was a pretty amazing spectacle. Then about 30 seconds later, it was all over and all the pigeons had gone. It was nothing short of a miracle that we didn’t get covered in bird shit, which did happen at later shoots!”

In the following months, Mcinnes continued to document an array of pigeon liberations and the lofts where the birds normally reside, along with the dedicated community of hobbyists who are keeping the sport alive today.

Among this group of enthusiasts is one of the photographer’s subjects, Mickey, who has enjoyed huge success racing his birds from the South of France over the channel, leading to him being titled ‘The King of Bergerac’.

Alongside his evocative images of the fanciers, Mcinnes has also shot a short film with friend and filmmaker Harry Zundel, which they are planning to release in the coming months.

While life in general is pretty boring at the moment, Mcinnes hopes that the series will provide a brief moment of positivity in people’s days. “I understand that one of the main topics of the work is the fading away of this hobbyist side to fancying, which in itself is an inherently sad thing, but at the same time it is still a celebration of something that is so magical,” he says.

“Maybe the pictures can help track down the next, and currently undiscovered, generation of fanciers? Who knows.”