Glory on tour: Malawi
Glory is all about experiencing football culture across the globe, places we don’t even consider, but are intrigued to know more about. Designer and photographer, Paul Vincent, had one of those unique experiences when he visited Malawi to see how a charity he worked closely with had positively impacted the community. He shared his story and the incredible images from the trip.
Tell us a little bit about yourself; where you're from, what you do as a profession and who you support?
My name is Paul Vincent, I’m a 41 year old married father of two. Professionally I’m Director of a small graphic design agency based in London called Stone Creative Design. We work on the kind of stuff you expect of a design agency, like brochures, websites, logos, corporate identity - that kind of thing.
As it happens I actually studied photography originally a good 20 years or so ago before slowly gravitating towards design.
In terms of football it’s always been Watford FC. I must have been five or six years old when my father first took me to Vicarage Road. To this day, it bothers me that I don’t know which fixture it was.
I certainly must have been younger than seven because, by the time the FA Cup Final came round in 1984, my bedroom wallpaper was bright yellow and everything else in the room was Watford FC: the duvet, the clock, the posters on the walls, the autographed balls — and everything in between. It must have been winter because I remember the floodlights illuminating the pitch from my spot on the Family Terrace. Every time I closed my eyes that night, I could see the bright green of the pitch, the black of the sky and the vivid yellow shirts gracing it. To me, this was pure magic. It still is today.
I spent last season going behind the scenes to create a photo-documentary on a supporters group who really make a difference to the atmosphere at Vicarage Road. I then put it together as an ebook which went towards raising funds for their displays etc.
Tell us about your trip to Malawi; how did it come about, how would you describe Malawi?
Four years ago I created an anonymous twitter account (It’s @stanleygrouse if you ever want to take a peek!) with a purpose to make artworks from tweets I read from fellow supporters of Watford FC. They didn’t have to be factual, far from it. They just had to make me smile, laugh out loud or be of interest to me.
After every game, I added a new design to this timeline. It was essentially a social media experiment to see if I could gain 1,000 followers without writing a single word (other than crediting the tweeter and a couple of relevant hashtags). I did this for three seasons and amassed over 120 individual artworks.
One particular tweet I worked up was written by Adam Leventhal, TV presenter, book publisher (Tales From) and crucially, a fellow Watford fan. Intrigued by the account he got in touch and wanted to know more about me and my background. After an initial meeting, my agency began working with him on a few of his upcoming titles.
One project in particular, a book called Rocket Men (which followed the journey of the only four players to play in all four divisions with then Watford manager Graham Taylor in the late 70s, early 80s) was particularly in-depth. Not only did we create the design for the book cover, but at this point, having fallen back in love with photography again I was lucky enough to shoot the first meeting of these four men in some 20 years or more, the subsequent book launch evening and accompanying press tour.
The money from Rocket Men was to be used to purchase text books for a school in Malawi via another charity called Friends of Mulanje Orphans (FOMO). Adam was invited along with Kit Aid to visit the area to see for themselves the difference both projects were making.
By this point my interest in photography, and particularly documentary was burning fiercely so I decided to look into the possibility of joining them. It was a big decision to make as this wasn’t going to be paid work and the money for the flights, accommodation, jabs and extra bits of equipment would have to be considered. On a personal level it was also something that required thought too. I’d never travelled to this part of the world so I was naturally a little apprehensive, but stepping into the unknown, especially with my camera was the biggest part of the intrigue.
The country itself was incredible. Mulanje’s landscape was overlooked by the incredibly imposing Mulanje Mountain which dominated everywhere we went. At ground level there were tea plantations and punctuated by the busy hustle and bustle of street markets and people selling items at the roadside. Although only there for a few days I found it a remarkable, beautiful yet vulnerable countrythe
We see you attended a football game whilst there. Tell us more. Who did you watch? Where was it played? What was the atmosphere like?
We were spoilt for choice when it came to football out there!
First of all the charity FOMO organises a football tournament every year. Fourteen teams from the local area competed in the event which is set in front of the incredibly beautiful Mulanje Mountain. Here we could see first hand the difference Kit Aid had made to this part of Africa. Every team were able to play in football shirts, from Premier League big guns like Liverpool and Manchester United, right down the football pyramid to teams few would have heard of, such as Harpenden Colts, Chesham United or Luton Town (One for Watford fans there). It was notable that, though they looked smart in their football shirts, many played with tied plastic bags in place of boots or nothing on their feet at all. During the final a player had broken their leg in two places, and whilst traumatic, around 50 children immediately ran on to the pitch, strapped his leg up with branch and vine, and carried him all the way to the nearest hospital. Incredible.
Just a few minutes drive away, at Mulanje Park football ground, Nyasa Big Bullets – A team considered to be the biggest in Malawi in terms of support, titles and finances were playing an important semi final. Myself and a couple of the others jumped at the chance to get a taste of what an important match in Malawi would be like. It was a great decision as, like most of the trip it was a completely unique and unforgettable experience.
First though we had to navigate our way past streams of people outside the ground, from those selling souvenirs and food to more awkwardly, supporters who for whatever reason had been denied entry to the stadium, and were still trying everything they could to get through.
Inside the stadium, the mountain once again dominated the landscape, but this time it was accompanied by a cocophony of noise, colour and intensity from one side of the ground where the vast majority of supporters congregated. We were given full access to walk the entire perimeter. This was on a different level to anything I’d witnessed inside a UK football stadium. It was incredibly intense, colourful and very, very loud. Many supporters pushed their way to take centre stage whenever I pulled the camera to my eye whilst others were even more insistent. It was raw and even slightly edgy and intimidating in places but the adrenaline was pumping and I loved it.
What was your favourite image captured?
I’m very fond of the shot of the two FOMO teams that made the final walking from their changing rooms to the pitch. They are accompanied by mascots holding balloons and in the background you can see the mountain. I like it aesthetically as an image, but more importantly it also encapsulates the difference that these wonderful charities (Kit Aid and FOMO) have made to these peoples lives. Without them this image wouldn’t even exist and it’s a triumph for the kindness, hard work and generosity of some incredible people that it does. What an escape sport and in particular football must provide these young people.
Where would you like to go next and experience?
I don’t know where to go next, though wherever it is, I like the idea of using my skills to do some good.
I was pretty exhausted and mentally drained from the trip when I returned, but most importantly somewhere behind all the unprocessed emotion, I was buoyed by what I’d gone to Malawi to do in the first place, documenting what I saw through my camera. As I've learned in the last year or two, I shot with my heart and I’ve been using the images to promote awareness of FOMO. It’s ultimately what transformed thoughts of helplessness into positivity.
I said on a photography podcast at the beginning of this year that my cameras were leading me on a pretty unexpected and amazing journey in my life. At that point I had no idea it would take me to Africa so I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me next.