CAPTURING MOTION & EMOTIONS: The Life & Craft of Sports Photographer Frank Darkwah
Frank Darkwah, a graduate of the Ghana Institute of Journalism (GIJ), was at his wit’s end.
He was doing what he had always done best — writing about Ghanaian football — only to encounter a challenge he’d faced quite a few times in the past: not enough pictures to spice up his write-up.
Previously, he’d work his way around the obstacle, but this time Darkwah decided to tackle it head-on, taking matters into his own hands.
For matters, read cameras.
“I pondered, and then explored, the possibility of getting some images myself,” he tells Ink & Kicks, “just so I could have personal archives and not run into such a dead-end ever again.”
For Darkwah, this was an entirely new venture, but he surprised himself, soon realising that he was actually a natural.
“I had never tried my hands at photography, but after covering my first game sometime in 2015, I just couldn’t stop clicking,” he says.
That first game was in Tema, where Inter Allies hosted Asante Kotoko, and many more have followed. A door had swung wide open, and Darkwah eagerly walked through it, never looking back.
It’s no more a personal mission for him, these days.
“Today,” he says, “I’m better known as a photographer than as a writer; in fact, I’ve earned far more plaudits for the former than I ever have for the latter.”
It was, as almost always with big breaks of such a nature, the case of necessity birthing invention. And while Darkwah certainly can’t claim to have invented the art of sports photography, suffice it to say that he’s mastering it — “all on my own,” he is quick to point out.
“My matchday preparations start at least a day prior,” Darkwah says — and that’s only when the game is in Accra, where he is based, or somewhere else he wouldn’t have to travel very far to get to.
“There’s nothing worse than arriving at a match venue, only to find that you’ve forgotten to bring along some equipment required for successful delivery, so it’s usually helpful to give myself a day’s head-start.”
Darkwah’s equipment for a given matchday isn’t cast in stone; the components, depending on the venue, could vary.
“Some pitches are bigger than others, so I could take up to three lenses along, and if they include some heavy ones, I make sure to pick a monopod to support the weight.
“I’m a Canon guy, and that preference is reflected in the choice of cameras I use. Also part of the kit is my laptop, and a foldable seat could also come in handy, as one can only squat or kneel for so long.”
Once at the venue, Darkwah picks his pitch-side spot, which is generally behind the goal. His ideal location, though, happens to be a favourite of many a photographer: any of the four corners of the pitch.
“From that vantage position, a photographer is able to access a wider view of the field, and there’s the extra perk of catching the best goal celebrations up-close,” he says, with a chuckle.
Darkwah’s work, though, begins even before he gets to his main station, wherever that may be.
“At any venue, ahead of kick-off, the entrance itself is usually a hive of activity, buzzing with excitement and colour, and there are always opportunities for a good shot. To ensure I don’t miss those, I have my equipment fixed and primed en route to the stadium.”
Eventually, though, Darkwah works his way to where the action itself would take place, and there he unpacks fully in readiness for the game before simply clicking away.
“Not quite,” Darkwah interjects.
There’s a reason, he explains, why sports photography is actually more challenging than some other genres of photography.
“Taking pictures of models or studio sessions, for instance, aren’t as stressful or complicated to do, as you often get to control the pace of the shoot and direct the poses of your subject(s).
“Here, where the primary subjects — the ball and the players — are in nearly constant, almost breathless motion, capturing moments is a wholly different and infinitely more difficult task.”
It requires, then, a precise combination of skill, timing, speed and concentration to pull it off. Even so, not every picture-worthy moment can be captured, such is the pace of the sport.
“I’ve definitely missed a couple of potentially great shots over the years,” Darkwah admits, smiling ruefully.
It’s okay, though; everyone misses a shot every now and then — even NBA great Kobe Bryant.
For every shot that the late Bryant missed (a grand, record total of 14,481), there is one that he slammed home at some point in his long, illustrious career that is recalled with fondness.
Darkwah maintains his own small catalogue of epic images that many football fans would easily recognise. For his personal favourite, he chooses one taken at the Accra Sports Stadium in early 2020, during the truncated 2019/20 league season.
Darkwah’s lenses picked up a greying, physically-challenged man who was being wheeled into the arena for the season’s first ‘Super Clash’ between Accra Hearts of Oak and archrivals Asante Kotoko, all the while energetically waving a flag stitched together in the beautiful colours of the former.
Little did Darkwah know the effect that single click would yield in the life of the man — a devout Hearts fan for five of his six decades on earth — later identified as one Mr. Joseph Abbey.
Abbey would soon become a national sensation and, in a matter of days, get to meet the entire Hearts squad and also receive the gift of a brand new wheelchair.
“Looking back at that image always gets me emotional,” Darkwah reminisces, “seeing how much of an impact it had on his life.
“His regular presence at Hearts games over the years, despite visible physical limitations, had long gone unnoticed, and it was quite incredible to see how a single picture changed all that. That, I believe, is the true essence of photography: to touch lives.”
The game of football might always be about its titular, globular character, but it’s quite a hollow and soulless enterprise when shorn of the human element; if it wasn’t obvious enough in the past, that realisation surely hit home during those 18 months when the COVID-19 pandemic kept fans out of even the most spacious arenas in the world.
The sport is as much about a ball in motion as it is about the emotions on full display on the pitch, on the touchline, and on the terraces.
If he couldn’t capture all of that — as he, obviously, can’t — and was pushed to choose between a really great passage of play and a truly moving emotional reaction, the choice, for Darkwah, is a no-brainer.
“Emotions really do tell more fascinating stories, even when they are misinterpreted,” he says, illustrating that point with an example.
“I remember taking an image at the Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi, during the 2019 President’s Cup match contested by Kotoko and Hearts, of a Phobian looking all gloomy and almost crestfallen.
“The outcome of the game, after the picture was shared online post-match, created the impression that said Hearts supporter’s seemingly sombre mood was an obvious reaction to the defeat suffered by his club on that occasion.
“That wasn’t quite accurate, of course, but I let it slide; the [mis]interpretation still made sense and, besides, the beauty of art often lies in what each individual perceives it to be.”
Really, why spoil the fun?
Don’t think for a moment, though, that Darkwah’s work is all fun and games. There have been tough times, and some not-so-pleasant incidents.
Asked about those, dark Darkwah strokes his beard a little and lets out an audible sigh, seemingly gathering memories he’d rather forget, before answering.
“More often than I’d like to, I’ve had to contend with intimidation from home fans, especially, and abuse rained down from the stands, for the simple ‘offence’ of staying too long along the half of one team or the other.
“There was even a time,” he recalls, “when I was triggered so much that I nearly came to blows with some aggressive spectators at an FA Cup game in Akosombo.”
Another challenge has to do with traveling long distances, traversing the length and breadth of the country, to cover games and all the risks that come with it.
Recently, though, Darkwah has adopted a strategy to make all those trips worth a little more, and that doubles as a means of standing out and staying ahead of the curve. It’s been in the works for some time, but only this year has the concept materialised.
“Ghana is dotted with lots of tourist attractions, many of which are found in the various towns and cities to which I travel for assignments, so I conceived the idea to factor some of these interesting sites and sights into my matchday coverage, starting with last month’s FA Cup semi-finals in Cape Coast,” Darkwah tells us.
Sounds like a plan, no?
But, of course, Darkwah is more likely to be found at one of the many match venues around Ghana than at some ancient castle or museum.
“Three stand out for me,” he tells me.
“Liberty Professionals’ Carl Reindorf Park, for its green environs that more than compensates for the sub-standard turf; I don’t ever remember taking a picture there that didn’t turn out well. Dreams FC’s Dawu home, up in the Akuapem hills, also guarantees the sort of weather that is every photographer’s dream. Then there is the WAFA Park in Sogakope, for its picture-perfect playing surface.”
Among players plying their trade in the top-flight, Darkwah names one with a special relationship with the camera.
“That would be Paul Abanga, of relegated Inter Allies. The guy is just so photogenic, and features in some of my best pictures. He knows it, apparently, never passing up the chance to pose for a quick snap.”
Darkwah isn’t content with being a ‘local champion’ of sorts, however. He might love his domestic football to bits, but Darkwah’s appetite for the international game remains strong.
He covered the 2017 WAFU Cup competition — the first international tournament on his résumé — hosted and won by Ghana, the 2018 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (also hosted, but not won, by Ghana), as well as home matches of Ghanaian sides in inter-club competitions.
Next stop: beyond these borders, and on to the biggest stages.
“I missed out, in 2019, on what could have been my first Africa Cup of Nations, for a reason or two, but I do look forward to making up for that absence with a presence at future editions of the tournament,” Darkwah intimates.
“Then there is the FIFA World Cup and, in my wildest dreams, the UEFA Champions League final.”
That wish might sound wild alright, but any who have monitored Darkwah’s commitment to his craft wouldn’t put it beyond him; it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination, really, to see Darkwah gracing these events he ultimately aspires to.
For now, he takes it all in his stride, one picture and one game at a time, inspired by his own passion and the positive feedback his fine work continues to receive.
“My motivation is both intrinsic and extrinsic,” says Darkwah.
“It does help, yes, that the monetisation of my work brings in some revenue, but more encouraging is the feeling I get whenever I see my work out there — on TV and on many websites — and being celebrated.”
You’d think that Darkwah, accustomed to having what is essentially a front-row seat at matches, would enjoy the action better than all of us.
Or does he?
“I don’t actually recall when last I really savoured a football game in its fullness, except perhaps for that one time — Kotoko playing Elmina Sharks in Accra, I think — when illness confined me to the stands and a colleague had to step in for matchday duties.”
That reality is the life Darkwah, an editor with 442, and his fellow camera-toting sports journalists have signed up for: that their own view of the game is restricted to what their lenses — those narrow portals through which our dearest memories are frozen and preserved — permit them to see.
And that, in a 2,000-word snapshot, is what it means to be a sports photographer — to be Frank Darkwah.