THE BEAUTIFUL GAME: BLOOD, SWEAT & TEAR GAS
Published 06th Mar 2019
Leon Neal, Nikon Ambassador
When Leon Neal was assigned the job of following England fans at the Euro 2016 football tournament in France, he was asked to photograph the "colour, vibrancy and passion" of the supporters. Little did he know what this would encompass...
When I was assigned the job of following England fans at the Euro 2016 football tournament in France by my employer AFP, I was asked to photograph the "colour, vibrancy and passion" of the supporters. Sadly, due to the return of the shadow of hooliganism, my week of coverage ended up being more Gaza, than Gazza.
Opting to travel light, I chose to take a Nikon D750 and the new Nikon D5. My initial reason was the excitement of capturing all of the vivid colours and happiness with the brand new camera, but the D5's bulletproof build-quality and water-sealing proved to be just as important.
Starting out in southern city of Marseille for the England vs Russia match, the chanting and bravado of the England fans in the port area very quickly crossed a line. By the morning of day two of my visit, tear gas had already been used by the local police. French riot squads were out in force while groups of young local kids were attempting to instigate violence by mixing with the Russian fans, then throwing bottles into the crowds of English fans. Mixing huge quantities of alcohol, hot sun and provocation could only ever have one result.
Working in these environments is always a tremendously hard balance to reach as you need to have your cameras at the ready but must also be aware that not everyone is happy to be photographed.
The high ISO capability of the D5 had its chance to shine on many occasions where clashes between English groups, Russian groups, local gangs and the police took place under very low light conditions. Using flash isn't an option as you really do not want to be drawing any more attention to yourself than necessary, so ambient light becomes the answer. Thankfully, being able to work at 20,000 ISO, I could get as close to the action as I needed (and dared!) without becoming a target for incoming glass bottles.
I hadn't experienced tear gas since my coverage of the Israeli elections in 2009 so it was a bit of a learning curve to work out how much exposure I could take, before it impacted on my vision and breathing. Luckily, my pessimistic side had prepared for violence during the tournament so I'd packed protective eyewear and a hard hat. It's not the easiest thing to focus and compose through safety goggles but the focus system on the D5 allowed me to trust that it would lock on to my chosen subject, no matter how thick the clouds of gas were which obscured the view.
On the day of the match itself, the Russian hooligans, who had remained quiet until this point, launched organised attacks on England fans in the backstreets around the port, leaving one man critically injured and needing chest compression CPR as he lay in the middle of the public square. As the confrontations were coming in waves, I decided to take a much-needed break, joining colleagues in finding a cafe that offered some respite from the action.
Within a few minutes of taking a seat to edit my pictures, the staff leapt into action, dropping the steel shutters on the kiosk window and doors as trouble flared in the streets once again. It was quite surreal to be stuck in a cafe, eating pizza with the sounds of fighting coming from the alleys outside. When the shutters were finally raised, the tension on the street spread into the restaurant as knives were drawn during an argument between a local and a member of staff. "L'addition, s'il vous plait…"
Back outside, the constant bombardment of half-filled beer bottles resulted in a somewhat dangerous but also messy environment to work in. At the end of each clash, there was a lull, allowing me to wipe the beer from my cameras and lenses. It really is a very unique working environment to test new equipment!
As kick-off drew closer, I headed out to the stadium with another photographer and managed to finally see some genuine football fans, complete with face paints and silly hats. Sadly, even this was soon marred as a young man came sprinting through the crowds, dropping a switchblade at my feet. I don't know if he was trying to start a fight or fleeing one. Within half an hour, men were starting to snatch at our equipment and we were forced to leave.
Moving down to the official fan zone on the beach, it was a huge relief to finally be at a location where fans were simply watching the match. The setting sun and enormous screen allowed for some lovely shots in the evening light. With the match ending 1-1, the fans began the long trek into town but word came through of the violence inside the stadium. A total lack of police resulted in the stewards failing to contain incredibly violent attacks by Russian gangs against England fans in the stands.
At this point, I knew it was getting too dangerous to operate anymore as whenever a photographer raised a camera, elements from all sides were threatening physical violence, or theft and destruction of equipment.
By the time I left Marseille, it was no longer safe to carry cameras openly unless you were travelling in groups. Pickpockets and thieves were operating unchecked, Russian hooligans were targeting England fans, England fans were targeting members of the media and the police were firing tear gas into any groups they didn't like the look of.
The next morning as I boarded a train to Paris, it was a massive relief to be leaving Marseilles. Fans passed the four hour journey with stories of attacks, violence and threats while vowing never to return. Remembering how incredible the city had first looked when I arrived a few days before, it's hard to equate the actions of some people with "The Beautiful Game".