In an interview with The Game magazine, Bagu Blanco, the 2022 Premios Panenka award winner, discusses his career path from the early 80s with film photography to digitization, as well as his worries about the future changes of the industry.
Bagu Blanco’s story began in an era when photography was very distinct from what it is today. Back when he was a teenager, the bathroom was his special darkroom, where he could conjure up photos and watch their magical transformation. Bagu’s father gave him a camera in the early ’80s to encourage him to get started on the road, become a professional photographer and begin his education in the field. Bagu put in a lot of hard work to fulfill his childhood dream of being a football photographer. He worked as a driver, delivery worker, graphic designer, and advertising salesman, all while maintaining a part-time photography job in order to develop his skills.
Bagu worked for a photo agency as a professional football photographer in 1994. While he was making progress toward his goals, the world was changing. The transformation to digital was happening very quickly, and it wasn’t just limited to cameras; it also included computers, the internet, new approaches in all facets of the industry, social media, and many other things. As Bagu says, he and his friends were continually required to “recycle themselves” and their capabilities by obtaining new skills.
Bagu Blanco now collaborates with several notable media outlets and photo agencies. He has been honored with prizes, including the #PremiosPanenka awards for Best Photography of the Year 2022 from IMAGO and Panenka magazine. In this interview, he talks about the challenges he overcame and his view toward the industry’s future.
“I always say that if you don’t have a passion for sports photography, don’t pursue it.”
Can you tell us how you got started in photography and what has been your evolution from that moment until now?
I am a purely vocational photographer. I started taking photos as a child because I was fascinated by the magic I associated with photography. I always dreamed of being a football photographer because it combined several passions: football, photography, and travel.
After finishing my photography studies, I worked from Monday to Friday while I did weddings on weekends. I worked in factories as a driver, delivery man, graphic designer, and advertising salesman. I worked in a photo lab, where I developed in the mornings and did the delivery by motorbike in the afternoons. Then I was a wedding photographer until I got my first access to football stadiums. The rest of my evolution results from perseverance in my obsession for improvement, learning and the ability to work tirelessly.
Today I run my agency, but I will never forget that 13-year-old boy who photographed football on the television screen with many dreams that have been fulfilled. That memory helps me feel immensely fortunate to have the opportunity to be present at the most significant football events, which is what I have always wanted.
“Technology evolves at a dizzying pace, and we must constantly be recycling ourselves and adapting to new photographic equipment, which is becoming more and more technically advanced.”
We know that your father gave you a 35mm semi-Canon AV-1 SLR camera in 1979 when you started studying photography. Given this and today’s technological options, how would you describe your transition from analog to digital photography? Which of these two interests you more?
I used to buy film cans and hand-mount my frames because it saved money. I would also darken the bathroom to develop my film. Then I would order contact sheets from the lab and make prints to send to potential customers.
With the advent of digital cameras and the internet, 20th-century photographers had to adapt to a new way of working that had nothing to do with what we had studied or were developing. First, the use of the computer was imposed, and then it became necessary to learn a working method that allowed you to send photos almost instantaneously. Other colleagues and I had to learn new ways of working in a self-taught way.
Technology evolves at a dizzying pace, and we must constantly be recycling ourselves and adapting to new photographic equipment, which is becoming more and more technically advanced. I wouldn’t say that I’m more interested in the photography of the past than that of the present or vice versa. I think of analog photography as the romantic part of photography. The current era is more grateful because it is fantastic to see the photos immediately.
Why did you go into sports photography after working in other industry sectors?
I have always wanted to become a professional because I am passionate about football and photography. At 18, I was selling photos to my football teammates. That began a long journey of growth and integration in the market, combining my first photographic jobs with other jobs that had nothing to do with photography for several years. When I started to move my photos to potential clients, I had immense luck that they were liked, and this allowed me to focus my efforts exclusively on photography.
You are the winner of the #PremiosPanenka in the category Best Photography of the Year 2022. What do you think was the differentiating factor in winning this award?
A footballer like Luka Modric is the protagonist of this photo. For me, he is elegance, the ‘glamour’ of football in its purest essence, quality, the values of respect and sportsmanship, the example of daily self-improvement… I see a union between what this footballer represents and what this cup means; both complement each other perfectly. This photo would not offer the same message with another player. Technically, the photograph’s composition and point of view are unconventional, and perhaps that appeals. Above all, the environment, what surrounds Modric, and his expression of maximum happiness, embellish the shot to enhance the informative message of the scene.
Can you describe the situation and atmosphere when the photo was taken?
After the trophy was awarded, euphoria broke out, and some Real Madrid players went behind the goal to celebrate in the background where their fans were. A cloud of dozens of photographers surrounded Modric, who was having trouble making his way. I made my way as best I could so I was barely a meter away from the player. Between pushing and shoving, I started shooting and was lucky that, at that moment, Luka began throwing the cup in the air.
What does it mean to you to be the winner of this award?
I take it as a recognition of a 30-year career, and my constant will improve, never to give up to get a better photo. It is also compensation for thousands of hours spent, for so many trips, cold and rainy days, and so many hours at the computer.
After several years of career, we would like to know, what is the meaning of photography for you? What role do you think it plays in society?
I always say that a camera is a machine capable of stopping time. It is not true that what happens never comes back. Thanks to photographers, moments can be frozen. Wherever there is a photographer, a scene will be stopped forever. Applied to sport, we photographers are hunters of moments, and sportspeople are our prey because sport is action, and they want to run away from our lenses constantly. We are exceptional witnesses with the ability to certify current events universally. A thousand years from now, there will be pictures of Messi lifting the World Cup, and that will have been possible only because there were photographers in the right place able to shoot at the right moment. I honestly believe we photographers don’t get the recognition we deserve.
What recommendation would you give to a person interested in sports photography and thinking of starting a career in it?
First, I always say that if you don’t have a passion for sports photography, don’t pursue it. It’s a tremendously demanding job but equally rewarding. Being a sports photographer is a long process, and it’s not just about pressing the button on the camera. You have to know the sport and the athletes well, establish a plan for each report, master the composition and the editing and transmission methods, and even act as a salesman because your photos are useless if there is no one to pay for them. It is not easy because there are many factors that we must combine to try to achieve excellence. In short, you must approach your work to be the best. If you stay stuck in mediocrity, you will never achieve success.
What challenges will you face?
We must find out where photography and especially the related markets may evolve. Nowadays, we live in a visual world, and the constant social evolution means that this generation of the image is changing at a dizzying pace. The media, trends, and clients change, and everything changes overnight. We must constantly recycle ourselves to keep up with the technological changes that affect photography. I’m particularly concerned about the progress of artificial intelligence: will we photographers be needed when there are cameras – and there already are – with this technology working at total capacity?
Do you have any new projects you are working on that you would like to share with our community of readers?
My biggest obsession is always trying to capture a better photo than the previous one, which is a project in itself. But I plan to put together all my work in a big book or several volumes, perhaps even some monographic ones. The first will be dedicated to the unrepeatable Qatar 2022 Football World Cup, where I was lucky to cover 37 matches out of 64. I am also considering starting up businesses adapted to the new trends in audiovisual content consumption.
Find more about the Revista Panenka.
Interview by Camila Diaz.