INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
David Bauckham has been photographing non-league football for several years now and there is no doubt that his images truly bring these local grounds to life. His work – a mixture of portrait and reportage shots – captures the action on the pitch, the people behind the scenes and the loyal fans
Image: © David Bauckham / Centre Circle Publishing
What is the draw of non-league football for you and why did you begin to photograph it?
When I was growing up in South London in the early 1970s I supported Chelsea and my parents wouldn’t allow me there, or to my closest club Millwall on my own. Instead I started watching my local non-League club Dulwich Hamlet, who at that time played at their massive decaying Champion Hill stadium. Therefore I was aware of non-League football from quite a young age. However, it wasn’t until moving to Eastbourne in 1987 and discovering Kerry Miller’s ‘The History Of Non League Football Grounds’ in a branch of John Menzies that I really got interested in visiting the grounds featured in the book. I was watching Langney Sports (now Eastbourne Borough) in the Sussex County League and started going to away games. The photography began when I decided to set up an online Directory of all the non-League clubs in Sussex and realised I needed pictures of the grounds. Everything just followed on from there really. Photographer and publisher Mike Floate was a massive influence in those early days.
What do you look for when you arrive at a non-league ground?
I always arrive at least a couple of hours before kick-off, before any spectators arrive and the players haven’t started messing up the dressing rooms as I like to get a pic of the home team shirts hanging up. I also like to have time to wander around, looking for interesting features and think about potential photographic opportunities and vantage points during the match itself. I am quite selective where I visit, but the main criterion is that the ground must have that special ingredient called ‘character’. Ideally this will be an interesting backdrop for the photographs, whether a stand or landscape beyond the ground. Equally, it may be the actual club that interests me, because of its history. Bland new, out-of-town developments with prefabricated stands are of very little interest I’m afraid. I can appreciate why clubs move to them but they do not really appeal to me.
Do you look to do something special for non-league day? Where are you headed this year and why?
Ideally I’ll aim to feature an interesting ground or iconic non-League club: the first two years I visited Hitchin Town and Wealdstone. This season and last however, it also coincides with the FA Vase which is a competition I love. Last year I featured a local Sussex club, Steyning Town in the Vase, because of the amazing community work they have undertaken in rescuing the club from the brink of extinction. This year I am planning to visit Hoddesdon Town who were the first winners of the Vase: it just seems appropriate to go there.
In your experience, is there a certain type of person who chooses to attend non-league football?
I think non-League enthusiasts are generally reactionary types like me, and/or those who have become completely disillusioned and disenfranchised by the excessive commodification of elite football, and the Premier League in particular. I think with non-League is a desire to engage properly with the game, the club, and the players; and not just be a number on a seat. I’ve watched Brighton & Hove Albion a few times at the Amex Stadium: it’s lovely, with a friendly atmosphere and great sightlines but I just don’t feel as connected as I do when watching non-League where I can wander around and not be confined to a seat.
It’s fair to say that some of its charm is in what goes on off the pitch. The snack bars, the kids kicking a ball against the toilet wall and the rusting turnstiles. That is manna from heaven for a photographer, isn’t it?
Absolutely! I get very bored if I sit on the touchline for too long with a long lens. It is the whole non-league culture that fascinates me as a photographer and the context in which the action takes place. So much of my work does not feature a football. I try to bring a ‘street photography’ feel to my images and am also hugely influenced by the work of William Eggleston: a pioneer of colour photography who made his reputation from seeing the beauty in the mundane. At some grounds it is a real challenge to take ‘interesting’ photographs.
So many people volunteer their time to keep their local clubs running. How much respect do you have for those guys and do you try to capture their commitment to the cause in your photography?
Immense respect, particularly as a volunteer myself at my own local club in the past. It is the volunteers who contribute to the ‘character’ I mentioned earlier. Because I arrive so early I invariably start chatting to whoever may already be there, getting the dressing room ready, marking the pitch or whatever. They always have an interesting story to tell about their involvement and the love for ‘their’ club is evident. In 2013 I published a book ‘Love Not Money’ devoted to photographic portraits of some of these volunteers.
To put you on the spot, what is your favourite non-league ground to photograph and what has been your best non-league experience?
The first question is an impossible one to answer, particularly as there are so many grounds I have yet to visit: it is an ongoing quest. One that immediately springs to mind however is Top Field, the home of Hitchin Town. If the wooden terracing wasn’t enough, there is also a lovely old stand stretching almost the length of one touchline. It’s a real gem of a ground and sadly under threat. My best non-League experiences have all been as a supporter with Eastbourne Borough and the club’s rise up the non-League pyramid. At the top of all of these would be when as Langney Sports we clinched the Sussex County League championship, and promotion to the Southern League by beating arch-rivals and champions Burgess Hill Town at their own ground in 2000. It was only a non-League Step Five match, but it might as well have been at Wembley: that’s how special it felt that night.