Richard Callis: A Lifetime of Football – Every Day, Every Moment

Richard Callis: A Lifetime of Football – Every Day, Every Moment

Read the story of Richard Callis and his deep interest in football and sports imagery in The Game Magazine. Delve into the transformative path that led to the founding of Sports Press Photo Agency.

Conceiving a new passion in women’s football, Sports Press Photo Agency founder, Richard Callis tells us about his creative evolution. Leaving behind a career in criminal law to move to Sao Paulo and follow his passion for sports photography, read his story here.

I love Sao Paulo. I have lived here for 10 years but it should have been 20. I first arrived here in April 1997. I had just finished university and was on a round the world adventure that would take me across South America, the United States, New Zealand, Australia and China. It was love at first sight, it’s difficult to identify what is to love about Sao Paulo, rather like my home town of Birmingham, which I love profoundly, on the surface one might consider them ugly, polluted with substantial social issues and deprivation but under the skin you will find the character, the beating heart of the metropolis, football is a ventricle in that organ, in Brum half of the city can most likely still recite verbatim Barry Moore’s commentary of Peter Withes goal for Villain the 1982 European Cup Final.

I saw my first Palmeiras match at Morumbi stadium, Palmeiras winning 1-0, Viola scored. Rogerio Ceni, Sao Paulo’s goalkeeper scored an equalizer but it was disallowed, Ceni would score more than 100 goals for Sao Paulo, free kicks and penalties. I love to say in English that I am a Pig, it sounds like I am reluctant to bathe daily (something Brazilians indeed suspect English people do not like) but in fact it means as any Paulistano will tell you that I am Palmeirense, a Porco, my blood is green, I am a Pig.

We all make bad decisions in life, some people end up in jail, in bad relationships, sick, dead or simply making fools of themselves because of them, taking up photography after my eyesight had deteriorated to +2.5 rates high on my list but higher still was not being in Sao Paulo on June 16th 1999 or more specifically not being in Palestra Italia, the now deceased home of Palmeiras on that day. On my return from traveling in 1998 I should have moved to Sao Paulo, had I done so I would have been at the game instead I embarked on a decade long career of criminal law practice in London. I was not able to watch or even listen to the game, I did not see the penalties that delivered Palmeiras their first Libertadores, I had to wait another 22 years for that privilege. In 1999, our goalkeeper was a saint, “Sao Marcos” even the Prawns of Corinthians liked this Pig, he did not make a save but his divine power clearly directed two players from Deportivo Cali to miss the target. As I read the news of Palmeiras triumph I felt very far away from home, despite being at home.

“I do not remember a single day in all of my life where I did not think about football.” – Richard Callis, Sports Press Photo.
Photo: IMAGO / Sports Press Photo

I do not remember a single day in all of my life where I did not think about football. My love of the sport and now working with it means I have been in more than 100 stadiums around the world. I have been at Celtic Park, Nou Camp, Old Trafford, both Wembley Stadiums, Hampden Park, San Siro, Maracana but one place knocks them all out… Palestra Italia, or it did. Located in the west end of Sao Paulo it was a temple of football, open at one end if you stood with Mancha you would have an uninterrupted view of the city and palm trees as your backdrop to the game. As the fans jumped up in down to the chants of “GO PIGS” it felt like the stadium could stretch no more and would simply disintegrate but it was essentially a giant concrete trampoline.

The last competitive game at the ground was against Gremio, I went, Palmeiras won 4-2, Palmeiras spent 2 years in the municipal stadium, Pacaembu. When the new stadium opened I hated it, no trees, no decaying concrete instead giant screens and seats.. Allianz bought the naming rights, an insurance company could not compete with the greatest football stadium in the history of the world ever, we all called for the stadium to be Allianz Palestra but the men with the money said no and we settled for Allianz Parque.

I moved to Sao Paulo in 2010. A car crash in 2008 lead to a re-evaluation of priorities. 2009 was dominated by a murder trial I was working on, innocent guy, facing 30 years, I could not leave, I promised I wouldn’t, I resigned on the day “our chap” was found not guilty. I was on a plane to Sao Paulo the next week. On Day 1, my friend Pedro accompanied by his new girlfriend met me to see Palmeiras play Athletico Paranaense in Copa do Brasil. We won, 1-0 I think, no idea who scored but we celebrated with “Sub Zero” beers and pizza… the smell of the street in front of Palestra is unforgettable, stale beer mixed with barbecue smoke as a roaring trade of meat barbecued on skewers goes on.

Palmeiras were poor in 2010 steadily deteriorating until finally in 2012 the club was relegated much to the delight of the Prawns… We went to more games in 2013 than in 2012, part of being a fan is to be stoic in the face of disaster, I adopt the arms crossed, serious face pose when facing humiliation, when Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany I was outraged by the crying fans, these were not real fans, true actually, most were just part timers who only turn up for the big games. Crying is for winning, like when in relegation year 2012 Palmeiras won Copa do Brasil. Luis Felipe Scolari led Brazil to their World Cup victory in Japan 2002, I followed Brazil at that tournament. I met “Felipao” in the foyer of a Tokyo hotel and he was very rude, as such I know he would not answer my question but if he were less rude and did answer he would reply “Palmeiras 2012 Copa do Brasil” when I asked of his greatest football achievement. The team was simply the worst team ever to win anything in the history of football. Betinho our number 9 looked more like an accountant than a centre forward, I doubt he played 20 games and his winner against Coritiba in the final was the only goal I saw him score, but we love to remember that goal!
Photo: IMAGO / Sports Press Photo

In 2011 I was introduced to the owner of a stock photo agency, a Prawn as it happens, we were planning a 10 minute chat to see if I would be able to fill a vacant role as an international rep for the agency 2 hours later we agreed I should represent the firm in a conference in Turkey, what did I know about photos? Other than mugshots of criminals Nada. In 2015 I moved to a different agency, photojournalism was the heart of the business. Photographers would visit the agency frequently and it was apparent that they were not superhuman and I thus decided I should give photography a go. My first job was to cover a show at Sao Paulo Fashion Week at Pinocateca Gallery in downtown Sao Paulo. Plentiful natural light is every photographer’s best friend and this venue was wonderfully lit, I managed to scoop a nice spot and boom, Richard Callis transformed into Richard Avedon, photos were great. Filled with confidence I agreed to cover a later event at Niemeyers Bienal Pavilion, no natural light, I was perplexed as to why my pictures appeared to all be blue… My friend Aloisio also present stopped laughing just long enough to introduce me to the concept of white balance.

On May 19th 2018 I shot my football match, Oeste v Vila Nova. Oeste play at the Barueri Arena, notorious for its almost absence of light after sundown, ISO is 6400 and above…. Many of my pictures looked more like mosaics the grain was so profound, but having spent hours practicing work flow pictures went up live and I later learned one photo sold… Two days later I woke to discover my mother had died. I love my mosaics from Barueri because I know somewhere far far far in the distance she was still there.

The following months were all about third and fourth division football. The only photographers at the game were those paid by the club and me… no one else was sufficiently inspired Bragantino’s football not even by the delicious sausage sandwiches on sale in the club’s restaurant which to this date is still my favourite place in the world to edit and send my pictures after a game.
Photo: IMAGO / Sports Press Photo
Photo: IMAGO / Sports Press Photo

At the beginning of the 2019 season my agency needed someone to cover Santos. I volunteered my services and the deal was done. Santos are Fish, Pigs do not like Fish and Fish really do not like Pigs. However I quickly became fond of these aquatic beasts. Derlis Gonazales, Carlos Sanchez, Jean Mota and Vanderlei lead by the “professor” Cuca. Cuca got the best out of this team and Santos despite hovering over the precipice of bankruptcy (where they remain) finished 2nd only behind Flamengo.

In 2019 I began to spread my wings photographing my first Champions League game between Ajax and Real Madrid in Amsterdam and then covering the Women’s World Cup 2019 in France which was a life changing experience conceiving a new passion, women’s football. Shortly afterwards I opened my own women’s football agency Sports Press Photo. SPP began with just two photographers me and a great women’s photographer I met in France, Daniela Porcelli, SPP now boasts more than 100 photographers and we cover most English Women’s Super League matches in addition to other women’s games in Germany, France, Switzerland and Brazil. Our goal is to become the go to for women’s football photography.

Shooting football in Sao Paulo is magic, or it was, pre-covid, we would squeeze into the corners behind the goal all shooting almost the same picture. The photographers are a community and in fact unlike France for instance where I found photographers to be pretty obnoxious at the football, certainly to outsiders like me, Paulistano football photographers are a good bunch. The club photographer for the Fish is a famously miserable exception, constantly moaning that people get in his way, he is king of the castle and don’t you forget it…!

Santos have outperformed their wildest expectations in 2019 and 2020. Having the new Gringo photographer on the block clearly inspired them. Last year I began to take pictures not just for news through my agency but also for the players themselves through their PR companies. I wanted to shoot Derlis and Soteldo, but someone else already worked for them. I was delighted to get Para, he’s a player any fan would love, heart on his sleeve type, great to photograph because he works hard, you can see the energy in the pictures, other players are tougher to cover because a) they never actually play, just warm up or b) they are very ungainly in their movement.

I got to photograph my love, my Porcos when my friend Ricardo met his love. He covered the 2019 Libertadores final in Lima, Peru. We’ve all read the holiday romance script, this one ends with Ricardo moving to Lima and me moving from shooting fish to shooting pigs. I now got paid to take pictures of Palmeiras. It’s funny how working at a game does detach you (even just a little) emotionally from it, the chefs at a Michelin Star restaurant create exquisite cuisine but famously lose interest in eating it.

Richard Callis: A Lifetime of Football - Every Day, Every Moment
Photo: IMAGO / Sports Press Photo

This brings me to Rio, the Copa Libertadores Final of 2020, held in 2021. The final itself was truly bizarre. We have had empty stadium football since our first lockdown in March 2020. Yet for this game it was decided to invite hundreds of “invited guests”. Media all had to produce our Covid 19 PCR tests to demonstrate up to 5 days before the game that we were Covid Free. The accreditation process was a mystery to all involved, I was told we would get answers for Saturdays game on the Monday but in fact my answer arrived on Thursday. To be fair this was still somewhat early for such notices, frequently they only arrive the night before. In this Covidworld we live in Sao Paulo’s finest photographers pass hours fofocando (gossiping) via whatsapp about the criteria used for accreditations, is it a lottery, or by agency size. One agency fortunately sold a big package of images to the Brazilian FA, it is almost never refused entry to football matches, clearly I am not suggesting a connection!

From where you shoot is key in any sports photography. The “big” agencies for that reason are typically allowed to book the best positions. On Saturday it became apparent there would be only one place left for me to choose at pitchside. I thus had a choice be on the wrong side of the goal in a pretty horrible position at pitchside or be king of the castle up in the stands. Given my mission to cover the game for an agency AND send pictures of up to 8 players I chose to be King Pig.  I already mentioned a couple of historic bad calls of mine, but Saturday’s call not to take the last pitchside spot ranks highly in that list, but to be honest only with the benefit of hindsight. I saw all the big agency shooters already in the field, all behind the goals. I bet in the stand I would be almost alone and thus with a unique angle…. Wrong! There were 2 pool photographers there too… We live and learn,  I tried to be smart, it didn’t work out but then It has worked in the past.

With my decades long obsession of football I confidently that the fish would beat the Pigs, Santos would win and they would win because their coach, Cuca was superior to Abel Ferreira of Palmeiras. Wrong! The reality was the opposite. Palmeiras winning with a goal in the 97th minute. The goal occurred while Santos were distracted. Cuca, their coach got involved in an unseemly but not serious wrestle for the ball with Marcos Rocha of Palmeiras after said ball had been kicked out of play. Cuca was sent off but instead of retiring to the dressing room as required he decided to jump into the middle of the invited Santos fans… 30 seconds later Rony launched a long ball towards Breno Lopes our new Betinho and he became an automatic “idolo” as he scored the winning goal. I got some nice mosaics of the celebration and screamed inside (a little out too) we were champions of Libertadores.

The event was itself was bizarre, in our Covid World of separation masks and isolation this was truly a quite shocking thing to observe, masks were discarded, separation forgotten… However after 6 months of recorded noise at football matches listening to the natural noise of fans was like listening to music, really good music. Palmeiras won, I was elated but it was hard to watch Para at the touchline. Para does not know this Gringo Pig many of his pictures on social networks were taken by me and I felt an almost paternal need to give him a hug as he stood at pitchside after being outjumped for that winning goal, but then we all like Shakespeare it’s the tragedies and romance that keeps us coming back for more, winning all the time is boring.

For all the images from Sports Press Photo, visit our website.

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