It’s 5:30pm on a sunny afternoon in West London in May 2014, and my beloved Northampton Saints are trying win the first piece of major English silverware in their history. They are playing Saracens in the final of the Aviva Premiership. All they need is 3 points to level scores. They will win the match because they have scored more tries in the game than their opposition.
But no, this team wants to win this match outright.
Suddenly after wave, after wave of attacks, the Saints players start to celebrate, pointing at the pile of prone players on the try line. The referee, JP Doyle stops play and goes to the video referee, Geoff Hughes. History is hanging on the word of a man in a truck in a car park, looking at TV replays. Minutes pass and suddenly, all hell breaks loose as JP raises his arm to award the try. And what did I get of that winning moment – the photo below says it all. It’s a sports tog’s life sometimes.
But I really couldn’t complain too much because I had already won my moments several times over that season. Two weeks earlier at Saints’ home ground, Franklin’s Gardens, what is regarded by many as the greatest club match in history had happened. The biggest rivalry in the English game had produced a classic. And I managed to be in just the right spot to capture Tom Wood, scoring the winning try in the dying seconds of the game. And then a week later, Saints won a European trophy when they beat Bath Rugby in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Before I get too far into my story I want to say thank you to Scott. I have read Scott’s work for years, and, last year, I had a chance to meet him. I had a great time and learned so much in Paris on one of his courses (with the fabulous Mimo Meidany). Scott also came up to my neck of the woods to shoot the Ship of the Fens (our local name for Ely Cathedral) which was just a blast. Thanks Scott – I’m still learning!
Rugby union is not a big sport in comparison to soccer. It doesn’t pull the crowds of an NFL game or even a college football game (although over 80,000 people witnessed Saints lift the Premiership trophy that lovely day in May 2014). Franklin’s Gardens has been the home of the Saints almost since the club was founded in 1880 – it holds just over 15,000 people. But when full, the 15,000 can make a fantastic noise.
It’s a collision sport where plays can last a few seconds or a few minutes. Sometimes it’s chaotic and sometimes it’s structured. Players can be showing deft skill one moment and smashing each other the next. It’s is a challenging sport for a photographer because it really is the case that something can happen out of nothing.
I have been working at Northampton Saints for 13 seasons. How I became Saints’ leading photographer is a lesson in taking your opportunity in adversity.
It’s 2007. Saints have had a terrible season and been relegated from the Aviva Premiership despite getting to the semi-final of the European Heineken Cup and I am bored with my photography. I dreamt of working pitch side with the Saints whilst sat in the stands watching the horror show of a season unfold. But it gave me an idea.
I reasoned (quite rightly as it turned out) that the national togs wouldn’t be interested in Saints playing in National Division 1. One cheeky email to Saints later and I was in in for one game – London Welsh. I treated that game as THE opportunity of a lifetime. And as Erik Kuna says, you don’t need the best kit to succeed. With my Canon 20D and my 70-300mm Sigma lens, I took the photos that I believed rugby supporters want to see. I know rugby inside out, I’ve been watching it for decades. I didn’t want to just take the photos an agency photographer would take.
And after that one game, I was invited back. The following season I became Saints photographer.
And as they say, the rest is history – 400 games worth of history. My last game before the lockdown in the UK was my 400th – and I’ve stuck to my mantra of taking the photos that supporters want to see for all 13 years I’ve been working with the Saints.
I am part of a great team at the Gardens – the Saints Media team – Liz Tyler, Tom Kwah and Jack Miller are a great bunch to work with. They make sure I have the access I need and trust me to get the content they want for their work during the game and after. My fellow togs, James Fitchew and Andy Taylor are very different togs to me, so we complement each other.
The Operations team ensure I get the places pitch side I need and help me get through the crowds – unlike NFL stadiums, the crowd are at ground level and very close to the pitch. And of course, without the support and trust of Chris Boyd, the Director of rugby and his coaches and players, my work would be impossible.
I like to have fun when I’m working – and my brand helps with that. To many I am “Mrs RedHat” of RedHatPhoto.com. The red hat came from my husband Tim, making fun of me at a game in the earshot of some supporters, in that very first season. From that moment onwards, Saints supporters have asked after my hat.
I am known across the sport as Mrs RedHat – players from other clubs, referees, journalists, TV companies and fellow togs know me because of the silly red hat. Some only recognise me when I am wearing it. Once a poor French photographer was told off by a supporter for wearing a red hat – he came to find me to ask if he had done something wrong. I had to reassure him all was well!
But being known has its bonuses – thanks to the daft red hat I have a network of referees and TV production staff who get the information to me that I need to know where I need to go to shoot Saints’ attack. Some togs think I have magical powers and I like to leave them thinking that.
I should say at this point I do not work to earn a living. I do work to make as much money as I can, but I am in the fortunate position of not needing it for the mortgage. The money I make from my photography I give to charity – I’ve raised tens of thousands over the years and it gives me a real buzz.
At the moment, my chosen charity is the Northampton Saints Wheelchair Rugby team – I am one of their sponsors and I confess, I love that my brand is on their shirts. And I love taking photos of wheelchair rugby – the collisions in this sport are huge. I became hooked after seeing Team GB in the 2012 London Olympics.
I am always acutely aware that there are many demands on players and coaches and it’s my job to make it easy for them and to know when to leave them alone. Some players are extroverts and play to the camera, some would rather curl up in a corner than face the lens.
One thing I do know, is many rugby union players hate studio photography and so much as I would like to whip out my Westcott 28” softbox and 9’ roll of grey paper, it isn’t going to happen for a while. I’ll leave it to Dave Rogers of Getty Images to do the annual studio photos. It means I usually work with natural light.
But it doesn’t mean, I don’t get to do the funky stuff! For many years, I’ve supported player’s testimonial years where their years of service at the club are recognised. This year it is Tom Wood’s Testimonial year. Tom is an outstanding flanker (remember that try earlier in this blog post?). A former Saints captain, he has played over 200 times for Saints and won 50 caps for England. One of the most popular fundraisers is the players’ calendar – I love it because the players come up with the ideas and direct me how they want the photos done.
The variety of potential photos I can take during a game is one of the things I love. From the power of a scrum; to the almost balletic elegance of a line out; to the joy of a try celebration and the after-match fun – all give different opportunities and some have changed over the years.
Being welcome in the changing room post game is great fun. One thing to note is there are no goggles or plastic sheeting in the changing room for celebrations as you see in baseball – and I think it makes the whole thing much more real. And I do occasionally, take the photos that the press would do but usually with a twist. For example, I like to show the crowd’s reaction to the player diving into score.
And finally, there is one photo which I have to include. Lewis Ludlam fending off Faf de Klerk of Sale Sharks – Faf went on win the Rugby World Cup with South Africa a few months after the photo was taken. Dave Black in a KelbyOne blind critique on The Grid, gave it the marvellous caption of “A new set of dentures for that athlete please”. Aaron Ludlam, Lewis’ Dad says it’s one of his favourite photos of his son.
I’ve written this in the week my Dad, John Foot passed away – he gave me my first camera and taught me a love of photography. I took him to his first Northampton Saints match and introduced him to the rollercoaster ride that is being a Saints supporter. Rest in peace Dad.
You can see more of Claire’s work at RedHatPhoto.com, and keep up with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.