"It can be difficult to contain emotions at matches." How FC Tambov’s photographer does what he loves in his hometown

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We continue the “League of Pros" series - stories of people who work in our football and make it better.

Mikhail Kapitonov was interested in football since childhood and wanted to become a professional photographer. But the path to his dream was more difficult than that of his peers – he was born deaf and dumb. We tell the story of Mikhail, who, thanks to the support of his parents, friends and colleagues, has mastered photography and has been shooting football in Tambov for more than 20 years.

On 23 January, Kapitonov turned 50, and on his birthday we share his life story, which was published for the first time on 22 July 2020.

"As a child, I filmed friends, school life, and even horror stories”

"I studied at a school for deaf children for 12 years, then spent another three years in night school," the photographer writes about his childhood. “In those days I was already interested in sports; I played football and hockey. But because I have poor eyesight, I just had to watch and take pictures. I attended a football match for the first time in 1984 at the Dynamo stadium in Moscow to see CSKA lose 1-0 against Dinamo Tbilisi in the Soviet Championship. In general, I was a fan of Chernomorets Odessa, and later of Spartak Moscow. I liked how professionally these teams played.

“The first camera my father gave me was a Zenit-E with a Helios 44-2 lens. Then I bought another lens myself, a Jupiter 37. I enjoyed working with such a camera in the darkroom. Colour photos worked well: from 38 frames, you could choose 15-20 good ones. There was a lot of work with the film apparatus, but this process was creative. The digital camera that came later is just a case of selecting the best frames. It's convenient to work with.

“I keep a large collection of photographic equipment at home. After school I started working in a photo studio, and at home I printed pictures myself, but now this technique is out of date. First I made black-and-white shots, then I learned to shoot colour ones. I remember at school the chemistry teacher even tried to hide from me! I also had a video camera and shot videos. For example, I shot friends, school life, and even horror stories - I was both a director and a cameraman.”

When it came to photography, Mikhail was helped not only by his father, but also by one of the school teachers. "He took me to his studio after graduation," Kapitonov recalls. “There I took passport photos, wedding pictures, shots of nature and at tourist retreats. Customers used my photos - whether scenes of nature or relaxing - on billboards that were put up in Tambov."

“Zhirkov helped Tambov locals get to Moscow for the Derby”

The photographer is connected with football not only by his childhood passion and work at the club, but also by a small coaching experience. "In 1999, I worked in Tambov as a coach of a team of deaf children," Kapitonov says. “Then at the Russian Championship I met Yakov Frenkel, the founder of the Russian Football Union of the deaf. He offered me to go to Rome for the 2001 summer Deaflympics as a videographer and photographer. Both our athletes and I were happy – in the Kremlin, we were recognised by Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko [the Russian national team took third place in the medal standings with 13 golds - Premierliga.ru].

By that time, Mikhail was already shooting sports. Back in 1997, he offered his services to Spartak Tambov. "I have always been interested in shooting surprises in the game, the poses of athletes, the faces of the audience, their emotions," he said as he explained his preference for football. Spartak represented the city in the second division until 2013, when it lost its professional status. In the same year, FC Tambov was founded, which went from the PFL to the RPL in six years. However, it was at Spartak that the adult careers of two future Russian champions and national team players began; Dmitry Sychev (2000-2001) and Yuri Zhirkov (2001-2004).

"They stood out among all the players because they were always ready to score," recalls Mikhail of the still-young players. “Sychev played with us for two seasons: he was not sociable, did not make friends or meet girls, but tried to prove himself a good player. Zhirkov has always called and still calls Tambov as hometown, where his mother, sister and brother live. I remember how he helped Tambov locals go to Moscow for the derby between CSKA and Spartak, allocating money for bus tickets, so this love is mutual.

“Yuri came to our city to show us the UEFA Cup, which he won with CSKA in 2005. When I was in Barnaul with the Tambov hockey players, Zhirkov, by now playing for Zenit, was also in the city. He came to the dressing room and supported the hockey players, who won as it turned out. We always follow his performances at different clubs and hope that he will return to us again."

“It's easier to take photos on a football pitch than on a hockey rink”

FC Tambov's debut RPL season has taken place on the road; in 2019 the team hosted opponents in Saransk, while in 2020 they have played ‘home’ games in Nizhny Novgorod. Kapitonov is interested in the constant change. "I am always happy to go to other cities and change my environment. Even as a child, my parents developed an interest in traveling. My mother and father tried to show as much as possible on holiday each year such as different cities, the sea, and nature.

“Now, when I'm with football or hockey players in different cities, I always find time to shoot streets, houses, people, hotels, planes and more. Then I put music and text on the computer; it seems to me that it turns out quite well. Relatives, friends and athletes watch with pleasure."

Despite the fact that hockey takes place indoors, Mikhail likes working at football more. "It's easier for me to take photos on the football pitch, especially when the weather is good. You also need to learn how to shoot hockey players through glass. I am with the players from start to finish: I not only go to all the matches, but also to all the training sessions. When the guys play, I try to contain my emotions, although sometimes it is difficult.

“The players warn me if they celebrate a goal in any particular way. Sometimes they ask to send photos,but most often the team leaders ask for them. I send my work photos for free, but occasionally some players invite me to shoot weddings and pay for them.”

“The most memorable pictures are from two derbies at the Luzhniki”

Mikhail admits that on game days he has his own superstitions, and does not disclose them, but there are no secrets in the working process. “I have a regular photographer's bag with a camera and three lenses; such a set costs about 150 thousand rubles,” Kapitonov says. “Before each match, I check the working readiness of each lens. There was a case in 1998 when a ball hit the camera during a game. The lens then had to be taken for repair, but fortunately, the damage was minor. Nevertheless, I always try to be careful.

“To avoid other problems, such as running out of charge or memory on the device, I take four batteries and a 64 GB flash drive for each match, and an umbrella and a protective bag for the camera to protect against the weather. After the match, I immediately sit down at the computer and send all the images to the site. It usually takes from four to seven hours to complete the photo report.”

Despite his extensive experience, Kapitonov studies the work of colleagues: “Most of all, I like the way photographers from Voronezh and Rostov-on-Don work at football. I also watch some photography videos on YouTube. I used to buy books and go to the library. I myself learned to shoot through trial and error, but I had friends who always helped.

“Personally, the most memorable images for me are from the Luzhniki stadium in May 2007. First I went to the CSKA vs Spartak derby, then I went to the Russian Cup final, where Lokomotiv beat FC Moscow. I would give novice photographers three main tips: be patient, observant and don’t regret your time on what you do.”

Photos from Mikhail Kapitonov personal archive


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