Faces of Football: In conversation with Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer
Written by Ili Hyseni
Zürich based Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer are a critically acclaimed photography duo that has seen their work take them around the world; documenting the lives of people in rural China to the Sahel region and remote Tuktoyaktuk in the far north of Canada. While their art form is photography, the duo are also storytellers; learning about and the sharing the experiences of the people they come across.
In a career that has spanned over 20 years, they have worked with organisations such as the UN and seen their images published in major global titles. Mathias and Monika have had the pleasure of photographing some of the most eminent global figures such as Roger Federer and Don Cheadle.
Both are avid football fans. Their love and passion for the game is undeniable and led them to working on perhaps their most influential project. In the run up to the 2006 World Cup, Mathias and Monika embarked on a project entitled ‘Faces of Football’. The photos consisted of a series of black and white portraits of footballers taken in the immediate aftermath of football matches, capturing the essence and raw emotion associated with the beautiful game.
Enthralled by the images and desperate to know more about their story, I had the pleasure of visiting Mathias and Monika at their home just outside Zürich. What followed was a conversation detailing their early days, how they realised the FoF project and what their creative process is like.
We have decided to publish the interview in its purest form, leaving the story to be told by those who know it best.
Monika and Mathias
Q: You’ve been working together since 2003, with your first project entitled ‘About Americans’. Tell me about your individual paths and how they led you both to each other.
[Monika] We met 30 years ago in 1992, at Zürich University. Mathias was studying Geography as his major and that was one of my minors.
[Mathias] I just did two years, which now would count as a BA but back then you could only do a Master’s or nothing. And after two years I just said I gotta go out and work as a photographer now and pretty quickly I was living off photography. I could really make a living working for newspapers and magazines in Switzerland, having been completely self taught. I never assisted, I never went to school; I just learned by doing it basically. In 1998 I moved to New York for a project and realised after coming back that Switzerland is nice but it wasn’t the right place so I moved back to New York.
[Monika] I carried on studying Literature and Geography when he left and my idea was to work for international organisations. After a while I thought I could do more good in culture so I went into theatre, studied half a year in Madrid and worked as an assistant at the opera and had this idea to make a career in the theatre. But we were already together and I saw his projects, he had a lot of ideas and concepts and I was jealous of his independence that he could just go out and do it and it’s easier to do that in photography than theatre so we started working together. At the beginning I just came along for some projects like the one in Manaus focussing on the opera house and that was a mix of both our backgrounds. Then in 2003 we road tripped across the U.S for our project ‘About Americans’, after 6 years of long distance we were together 24/7
[Mathias] We just found that we work pretty well together creatively when we did that project.
Q: While you work with digital now, you used to work predominantly with film back in the day. What were your cameras of choice?
[Mathias] The Leica M6. When I started working in 1994, I had some money from a scholarship that I used to buy that camera. But I changed pretty quickly to Hasselblad. It was a Hasselblad 500 so it was a real classic film camera. It’s actually in a museum in Hamburg right now.
[Monika] Our latest project is being exhibited in Hamburg and they wanted to have some of our equipment to go alongside it to show how we shot things before.
[Mathias] We actually only changed to digital photography quite late. We worked with classic film until 2011. No we do mostly digital, we have the Hasselblad H6D- a really high end camera. It’s the beauty of working together, Monika sees the shots as they come in and we can process things much faster.
Q: What do you think of the resurgence in film photography?
[Mathias] I think it’s great because you really learn how to take photos. You learn photography with film. The room for error is much smaller. For younger generations who have never worked with film before, it's great you really learn how to be a photographer.
[Monika] You shoot less and concentrate more on the picture
Q: In regards to the ‘About Americans’ project, what were your preconceptions about the country and how did they match up to the reality?
[Monika] You get a lot of preconceptions from movies and you think that the movies are exaggerated. But in reality it’s much more extreme, it’s much more surreal. I think the reality topped our expectations.
[Mathias] Then when it came to our second American project ‘Divided (2019)’, we had a very very good idea of the U.S Not only coz we lived there but also because we had already visited 40 states. We had a good idea about middle America. What we were really interested in was why a clown like Trump was supported and voted in by the system they had in place.
Whereas for the China project, we had a totally different concept. We didn’t know a lot, of course we did our research but we didn’t want to know too much. We didn’t want it to affect our preconceptions. We wanted to go out there and be surprised. In China it was 2007/8, we couldn’t travel so easy around the country then, so we wanted to go in without prejudices.
About Americans, 2003
Q: Mathias, you started out as a reportage photographer. What are the differences between that and portrait photography and why do you prefer taking portraits?
[Mathias] Reportage is just chasing, you’re just chasing the images. Portraiture is much more of a dialogue between you and the person. In photography you have to find where you’re strong. Our strengths are with people. Our gallerist here in Switzerland told us that while our landscape shots are beautiful, where we really stand out above everybody else is portraiture. We’re really interested in people and it works well for us.
Q: The creative process, what’s that like?
[Mathias] These ideas they just crawl up to us. We also have a whole list in the back of our heads, of things we could do. It takes time, for us it's never the case that we finish a project and then move onto the next one. It’s a process, when we do a project it’s frantic and crazy, we work really really hard. Then there’s time when not much is happening and we have to find out what we want to do, how to develop it.
[Monika] We look for the next big project and once we decide on it, then we spend a lot of time on it. You have to be sure it’s interesting and be sure of the purpose of it. Often we start with a small idea and then it gets bigger. For Faces of Football we did a test with marathon runners in NYC and then with boxing, but the universal sport, the most important sport is football. When we have a concept that can be talked about in one sentence then its great.
[Mathias] I mean that’s a long process, the concept. I get impatient sometimes, every time I think this is crazy, it’s too slow. But it really takes time. I go out there and cycle 3 or 4 hours and it helps me to focus and find ideas. Stuff comes to me and then it's about refining it. If you have a project that costs a lot of money you have to have a very, strong and short concept, something that really inspires people.
Q: How do you reconcile being impatient with creativity. You have to be careful not to sacrifice quality, but at the same time you want to get your work out there. Do you ever feel the pressure that other photographers might have the same concept as you do and get their work published first?
[Mathias] You get more patient over the years. It used to be that we were faster and stuff went out earlier. Now we’re a little slower, but the quality is higher. We have a certain way of how we do projects and how we look through the camera and personally we aren’t scared. Our projects are large and expansive so there aren’t too many players out there who can do these type of projects. So in a way, if somebody thinks they can do it, be my guest! It’s hard!
[Monika] I mean now everybody has a camera, everybody has an iPhone. You have to know why you’re doing a project even if somebody is doing something similar.
Q: Tell me about the Faces of Football origin story
[Mathias] It was our idea. I had this initial idea to photo athletes right after they’ve finished competing. We did this test at the NYC marathon, I got access through Time Magazine. It was just a test but we knew it could work. It was Monika’s initiative to say hey let’s do football because it’s the biggest sport. I said it was insane and it would never work. Stern and The Guardian also said, “yeah try but this is never gonna work”
First it was kinda like, we really wanna do this but we need an example. Our strategy was if we want to do it realistically we needed FIFA on board. And we knew we’d need a lot of weight behind our concept so people wouldn’t ignore our enquires.
So I had this friend in Hamburg who had a contact at Schalke. I called him [the contact] and told him of the idea and he said “that’s crazy, nobody is gonna do it”. That would’ve been the end of it, but then I said “what about Gerald Asamoah?” He said: “He might do it”. So the whole project really hung on him saying yes. Gerald Asamoah was having a good season and we went to a friendly game in January 2005, it was Schalke against Galatasaray and we photographed him after the game.
Gerald Asamoah, Faces of Football
Through our agent here in Zurich, who was friends with a personal secretary to Sepp Blatter, we sent a big print to Blatter and we made It clear we didn’t want money just logistical support. He loved it and agreed to support us through an official letter from FIFA. The head of communication at the time told us if there were problems to tell FIFA and they would call the clubs and tell them to meet us and let us explain our project.
If you do a project like this you have to be super strategic. You really have to study the teams, the leagues, which games they have. You have to look at the media. We knew England wouldn’t be the first country to go, the tabloid media would be really aggressive, they would be way more protective than other places. We thought Spain would be the best first country to enter. The first team we called was Barcelona and we made a point to go to teams personally and present the project. Barcelona were great, they’re just a cool club. Back then they were super cool, so successful, they were really flying. We were able to shoot Ronaldinho and Puyol. The next big one was AC Milan and Inter, we went down there, explained the project and they both agreed.
Of course we had a list but Figo and Ronaldinho were our poster boys. It became a self fulfilling prophecy, of course then players like Ballack would want to be a part of it. The hardest was the beginning because who do you call first? Back then we were living in Zurich in a small apartment and our living room was full of stickers with games and who’s playing where and when.
Luis Figo, Faces of Football
Q: Is it fair to say you did this project during one of the best periods in football?
[Mathias] Yes I think that too! I totally agree, absolutely. I think we could re-do it now but it's just these names. Maybe I’m nostalgic and this was my prime in football and in a way I feel it's not so interesting anymore, they have way less character. It’s just these Instagram profiles now, they are not so interesting. Look, Puyol, incredible player, he came in spitting grass. He was just dripping full of sweat and didn’t give a fuck how he looked like. He was real.
[Monika] Shevchenko was swearing and apologising all the time saying “it’s not you, it’s not you” he didn’t get given a penalty!
Q: Were you hoping for a certain result depending on who you were shooting in the hope the image would come out in a certain way? Were you also nervous in dealing with these players in the case of them having just lost a game?
[Mathias] We were nervous every time.
[Monika] You need the players to remember to come. Especially when they were substituted.
[Mathias] R9 was substituted early in the game and fans were booing him, he was super angry. And we were thinking, is he still gonna come? In a way it was good, it was emotion- something was happening. I don’t think we ever hoped for a certain result. Like Shevchenko, he was fouled in the 80th minute and didn’t get a penalty, so in a way you just hope there’s emotion. But that could happen win or lose. There’s so many unknowns.
Q: Are there any moments from shooting that stick out in your minds?
[Mathias] The Shevchenko moment, the game was 1-1 but they should’ve won. He wasn’t given a penalty and he was really angry because of it. He kinda looks unfriendly in the image because of that. With Nedved, it was a crazy game, it was a very tense Italian cup game in a snow storm and you could see this madness reflected in how he looked.
[Monika] Nedved is also a story. We had to set up the camera before the game and be ready incase the players got substituted. We had to set up in an empty changing room. We went to see the game because we thought the best players would play the whole game. At the end, we ran back to the studio to set up but the door to the changing room wouldn’t open, it was locked. Everybody was getting nervous, screaming, trying to help. One of the janitors ran to the other side of the stadium, got a crow bar and broke the door, just as Nedved came.
Pavel Nedved, Faces of Football
[Mathias] Manchester United was also quite memorable.
[Monika] Before the game we had to set up the equipment to the exact height of the players. Mathias asked somebody in a hoodie to help us as they were the same height as Van Nistelrooy. And it turned out to be Cristiano Ronaldo as we adjusted the set up.
[Mathias] He was on the original list but that year he had a rape allegation against him. So together with our media partner we decided not to shoot him. But a year later Nike basically called us and said for the 2008 Euros, they wanted to have a shot of Ronaldo. We photographed him a year later, so he’s not in the book.
Q: Which portrait is your favourite?
[Monika] Zidane. When he came in, he filled the room. He has so much charisma. A huge presence.
[Mathias] He doesn’t say much but he has so much charisma.
Q: You documented football in South Africa for The Guardian in 2010 before the World Cup, can you expand on this project?
[Mathias] We just love football. South Africa for us was really interesting because it really has a culture of football and there’s this racial divide around the sport. Traditionally rugby is played by white people and football by black people. So this multi billion dollar game comes to South Africa and we wanted to know how the ordinary people were reacting to this.
Q: People often feel resentful when big events like the World Cup and Olympics are hosted in their hometowns because the lasting effects tend to be negative. Could you feel a tangible excitement for the World Cup as you went around and spoke to people? Were people proud to host it?
[Mathias] It was the first World Cup in Africa and they were really excited.
[Monika] Football is so big in South Africa, especially in the townships and they felt it was their game coming to them.
[Mathias] We went to places where people told us not to. But we were respected because we were doing something about their culture, about football. We didn’t have any problems. We went to the Cape Flats, which is considered to be dangerous but somehow in a way we were protected by football because people wanted to show the best of themselves.
South Africa 2010, courtesy of Braschler Fischer
Q: You’ve worked on so many projects, some of them about major issues such as on climate change with the UN. When you look back, is Faces of Football the project that kickstarted your careers?
[Mathias] It was a real door opener. The photos were in the press worldwide, we were the only ones who had these images. We had a book, an exhibition. Theres a lot of creative people out there, you need this moment where people start seeing you. Making this break through is not easy, but once you make it it’s great.
[Monika] After that they believed us. It was much easier when presenting concepts.
[Mathias] Honestly it’s a different pressure, before it was pressure of having no money. We did ‘About Americans’ with no money whatsoever. Even FoF was totally self funded, we just had to deliver to make a living. After FoF we had a name and people really expect something. They give a lot of money and you go to China for 7 months and now you have to really deliver. We can’t go out somewhere for half a year and come back and it’s all shit. It has to be really good, so we put ourselves under a lot of pressure. We normally have a miserable time at the start of a project, all your ideas and concepts are great but you need images and stories.
A heartfelt thank you to Mathias and Monika for sharing their story. You can see more of their work including the portraits from Faces of Football on their site: braschlerfischer.com