For this new in-depth series, we speak to the photographers that have covered the annual Homeless World Cup. We look at some of their work, their highlights from the events, and find out more about what inspires and drives them.
Here we speak to Welsh photographer Paul John Roberts. After spending four months with the Street Football Wales squad, Paul followed the team to the Cardiff 2019 Homeless World Cup to capture their experience.
You mentioned some photographs should be on view in Paris at the moment, can you tell us more about that; how it came about, what you wanted to achieve with it?
After studying ‘Creative Documentary and Photojournalism’ wth Magnum Photo Agency Paris from 17/18, I returned to South Wales to look after my unwell mother. During this period I carried on with my interest in documentary photography, capturing her journey from hospital, through convalescing and onto a stable existence in her own broken way, along with other projects such as working with Sepsis UK, Radio Cardiff, behind the scene’s photography with movies shorts etc., along with commercial work at financial sector conferences and events.
Whilst working commercially for the Temple of Peace in Cardiff I met a lady from the University of Wales in Cardiff helping with a project to house the teams arriving to play in the Homeless World Cup during the event in the summer of 2019. I had not come across the HWC event in my past and thought the whole idea sounded amazing and I wanted to know more.
My research lead me to Street Football Wales who I immediately called, and asked for permission to go along to one of their training days. I was warmly welcomed by the management and happily accepted by the players, and through that first experience of socially excluded or homeless people ‘belonging’ I felt compelled to find out how football can play a part in helping people transform their lives and to share in the experience these individuals were having, through their regular training and social media.
I spent 4 months in the run up to the HWC event in Cardiff 2019 getting to know the players. Photographing them, chatting to them, videoing them, laughing and eating with them. We became friends on social media (and still are), I shared photographs and heard some of their stories.
And then the HWC Wales team selection process was over, training was complete and the first day of the tournament was about to kick off.
I had amassed a good amount of photographs ranging through many emotions in my 4 months of being with Street Football Wales. With this I approached an organisation in Walles called Ffotogallery. They have been one of the main hubs for photographic endeavours in Wales since the 1970’s. The work was received well by them and they felt it an important piece of work and wished to exhibit the collection. I was encouraged to seek funding from Arts Council of Wales in order to exhibit the work which I did and was granted funds to pay for the printing, framing and showing of the work.
The exhibition ran in parallel during the period the HWC tournament was on, in Ffotogallery’s exhibition space opposite the entrance to Cardiff Castle. It was manned by Ffotogallery which enabled me to attend and photograph the Welsh teams during the tournament. I decided that this was the best approach for me instead of trying to photograph the global picture at the HWC; I wanted to stay with the people that I had grown to know intimately (I’ll be photographing Mark, the Welsh men’s goalkeeper’s wedding in October – Covid depending).
I also worked closely with Working Word, the PR company that handled a lot of the HWC press and promotions. My photos were used in the Sunday Times along with supplying the Big Issue with images – including the front cover image of Michael Sheen and Flame the Mascot with children from the school that won the naming of Flame contest on the July/August issue. I even provided a time lapse video of the arena being built to the HWC Foundation.
The images I took during the HWC 2019 tournament couldn’t be shown in the exhibition running parallel for obvious reasons, so this year I started looking for venues in 2020 to run the combined exhibition of the run up to the HWC and the experience of the event itself. I had found interest, and one gallery in Paris – connected to my time there with Magnum – had agreed to house the exhibition this summer, and Cardiff City Football Club also agreed to show the exhibition within the club conference facilities. Then as we all know, the world stopped. Well, for exhibitions it did anyway.
I had also started working with the office of Michael Sheen this year, documenting the legacy projects for the Welsh players. Again, unfortunately that’s come to a grinding halt for now. We will pick it up soon hopefully.
What were you looking to capture at our event? What were you looking to convey?
I wanted to show some small parts of the journeys that the people involved would go through in this potentially life-changing experience along with the emotions that go with this level of intense change and scrutiny.
Was your first Homeless World Cup what you thought it would be? What were your highlights?
No it wasn’t what I thought it would be but it was as good as could have been expected. It was hot, hard work, fast and furious and full of the intensity of human emotion – good and bad. I’m an observationalist and I had front row tickets to the Welsh national homeless football teams of 2019 – what could have been better? Having three of my 20-second infomercials on the giant screens was cool and being part of a hugely extended family all with one interest at heart gave a feeling of a deeper purpose.
How did you first get into photography?
I went to a local kids art centre a few nights a week as a teenager in the late 70’s in Cardiff. They had darkrooms and some very cool photography teachers. Steve Benbow and Terry Dimick. I still see Terry sometimes. He helps run the South Riverside Community Development centre in Cardiff.
What, or who were your inspirations?
Henri Cartier Bresson for turning everyday life into art and being a founding member of Magnum Photo Agency in a bid to stop manipulation of photographs and content by maintaining control of the usage of their material. Also Don McCullin for living right on the edge (as a kid I thought that was so cool) and for breaking stories that politicians were too scared to address like Biafra.
What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking of taking up photography?
It’s an amazing way to discover yourself.
For more of Paul’s work, head to pauljohnroberts.com