“With a burst frame of 10 frames per second the rest is history.” Domenic Aquilina, an Interview.

“With a burst frame of 10 frames per second the rest is history.” Domenic Aquilina, an Interview.

Domenic Aquilina, the only Maltese pro sport photographer to have covered 14 UEFA Champions League Finals to date has been adorned with accolades throughout his established and exciting career. Speaking to IMAGO, he tells us his inspiration, story and view on the role of sports in today’s ever changing world.

Capturing some of the finest images from the sporting world since starting out in the industry in his early 20’s, IMAGO partner Domenic Aquilina let us in behind the camera to focus on his story as an esteemed pro sports photographer. From Messi to Ronaldo, football to water polo, he has distilled some of the most memorable moments of sport in artful and captivating images, constantly challenging himself, the equipment and the audience eye. 

From playing street football as a child in his neighborhood, adapting from film to digital to working with UEFA with prestige, read his full interview with us.

What is your first real memory of photography and holding a camera?

My first photography activities arrived in the early 80’s. I was in my early 20’s.  I still remember my late mother buying me a second hand one from a work colleague. 

It was a Vivitar Tele-Motor 110 Film Pocket Compact Camera with embedded flash, and she bought it for me for 10 Maltese Liri at that time (around 24 Euros).

With the game of football very much always on my mind, I still remember me sneaking from a back door at the old Empire Stadium in Gzira with the help of a relative of mine.  Soon enough my first accreditation arrived, and I used to spend hours attending top football matches at this stadium, which was the main football stadium around at that time, taking captures of all the top European football sides which used to visit Malta to play local teams in UEFA European clubs’ competitions, the likes of FC Barcelona, Manchester United FC and many more.

DOMENIC AQUILINA, MALTA
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina

Involved in the industry since your early 20’s, how would you describe the evolution of photography throughout your career? 

A very interesting question indeed!  Thank You!

Well so much to say.  I have experienced the journey from analogue to digital – from the days of film photography, changing endless 36 exposures films during a match or event and rushing to the lab to get your captures developed via your negatives and prints if needed – without knowing if you did well or not!  It was an exciting time but yet more challenging.  

Being a self-taught photographer, I must admit I did learn my trade during this period.  One must take into consideration the limitations that DSLR’s provided a photographer with at that time.  So yes, those were challenging times.

I was one of the first photographers on the island who immediately switched to digital at the turn of 2000.  I never shied out of buying the latest in photographic equipment (which I still do!) and I am one of those photographers who despite believing in my own abilities I also believe that having the right equipment is crucial for anyone to break into professional photography.

Digital photography brought along with it an evolution of new horizons – and its’ pros and cons.  Still, it was and still is, a lovely journey.  As I joke along when doing a tutorial or am invited to speak as a sports photography speaker – “if you miss out with such equipment nowadays well you might just need to pack it up”.

Still, you need the experience, the eye and the correct professional know how to succeed in topflight photography – plus a lot of patience!

Photo: Archives Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Archives Domenic Aquilina

What came first for you, sport or photography? How did you merge the two?

Another good question!  I must bow my head and admit that sport came first for me.  Still as a young naughty boy I used to practice sport – to be more concise it was “street football”. My love for sports thus started at a very early stage.  I still vividly remember our “street football team” which we named “Ta’ Fuq Is-Sur” (Bastion Street Team).   We used to paint a football pitch with white lines in outdoor paint in a small square opposite our house.   We used to meet other teams from the same locality in a sort of competitions.  

That was where it all started (photo above I am the first right standing).  

Then once I began handling photo gear, I knew that I had to merge the two of them together.  The reason for this is because I am also a sportswriter, so you have to be crafty and merge your writing with the captures and vice-versa. To this day nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing a sports contribution/article associated with my captures.

In your mind, what role does sport actually serve in society?  How are you seeing that play out in the work during COVID?

I do believe that sport plays a very important role in society, in particular during these challenging times we are going through.  Humanity need sport to keep healthy, distract themselves, society in general need sport as an overall entertainment value.

Let me give you a quick example – I, as a photographer have experienced sport being contested during these challenging times – behind closed doors.  The first thing that pops to my mind when I go into an empty stadium is a thought for all those football fans locally and all over the world who for them coming to the stadium to watch their favourite team or just for the sake of watching a football match, used to be the pressure release valve for a hectic week of work, problems etc.

It is surreal working in an empty stadium, and it took me quite a handful of matches to get used to it.

This pandemic has hit sport in a big way indeed and still we do not seem to have a way out.  Honestly, I do not really see a bright future for organized sport – at least for the time being.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina

What one lesson have you learned that you would tell your younger self or an aspiring sports photographer today? 

I just wished you would come up with this question because it is very important.

Well just one word “Patience”.  Things do not fall on you easily.  It took me years to be noticed by probably my biggest client to date – UEFA.  

You have got to be patient to be noticed and always believe in what you can do and achieve.  If you do not you are lost.  You have to truck on and keep on working despite setbacks.

Unfortunately, new aspiring photographers just want to get up there in a couple of weeks or months.  It does not work like that.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina
DOMENIC AQUILINA
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina

You’ve covered a vast number of UEFA Champions League matches and finals with so many photographic contributions. What elements make for a great match photograph? How do you best capture moments as beautiful photographs in such a fast-paced environment?

Yes, and I am proud to say that until the pandemic struck, I was and still am the only Maltese to have covered 14 UEFA Champions League Finals to date.

The elements for a great match photograph defer sometimes from the clients’ requisites – what the client needs when you are commissioned to do the job.  But in general, I go for an exciting “capture” – something unusual which when you just look at it you just say “wow – awesome capture” 

I am always challenging myself to the limit in each and every event I cover.  I just go into it saying to myself “I want something better this time round”. 

Getting to know the event participants, choosing the best position in order to cover the best athletes/teams involved in the event, etc, are all fundamental factors in our trade. 

Of course, you have got to learn the art of “anticipation”.  You have got to anticipate what is coming next in fast action sports disciplines.  So, getting to know both the sport discipline and the athletes involved is a must.  Just to give you an example, you have to guess what athletes like Ronaldo or Messi will be up to in a fraction of a second. 

I then go into concentration mode and give it my all, vowing to myself that I want to get home with a couple of capture winners. If not, I will not be feeling well! 

That is my way of doing it.  I always challenge both myself and my equipment. 

Was it always an aspiration of yours to photograph these events and football in general?

Yes, it was, though to be honest I never dreamt I could go this far.  Football remains my “forte” in sport disciplines and I do guess this is why I get the best captures from the lovely game.

But of course, I have covered most exciting disciplines like boxing. In boxing I used to search for that elusive punch-to-face capture which is such a rarity – I only got it once but what a capture that was! Swimming and water polo are Malta’s number one sport in summer and in particular water polo is very much a fast paced action sport, sometimes very difficult to follow and capture.  I had my fair share of other sport events like the “Shotgun World Cup” series staged in Malta a couple of years ago.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina

You have been awarded many accolades in your time as a sports photographer, how have you fine-tuned your craft? 

I did gather quite a good number of accolades, including the “Sports Photographer of the Year” 2011 in London at the SWPP Convention during that year but the most that stand out in my portfolio are the five “Malta Sports Photographer of The Year” awards in 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Very simple – You have got to work hard to fine-tuning my craft.  You have got to fine-tune it yourself as time goes by.  I would say that in my case it just comes naturally – but you have also got to work hard to get rewards back.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina
DOMENIC AQUILINA
Photo: DOMENIC AQUILINA

Your image of Lionel Messi’s scorpion kick during a UEFA Champions League match in 2019 was awarded the “Remarkable Artwork” award in the Siena International Photo Awards last year. How did this happen and what changed for you?

How have I managed this to happen?  Well at one point of the match I decided to follow Messi for 5 minutes – including off the ball, just following him with my 400mm lens.  I was already getting nervous as Messi only received the ball a couple of quick times but then the ultimate happened.  I saw Messi moving in at a fast pace and I knew immediately he was going to connect with the ball.  With a burst frame of 10 frames per second the rest is history.  

The capture landed me quite a good number of accolades including a global eight placing and a European fifth placing in the coveted A.I.P.S. Awards 2019 in the “Sport Action” category.

It also landed me the “Malta Sports Photographer of The Year 2020”

 

Interesting that the award was named “Remarkable Artwork” within the parameter of sport. In your own words, do you believe that sports photography is an art form and how? Or do you see it more as a documentative tool?

To be honest I also was surprised that this image of Lionel Messi (attached) was awarded such accolade.  But if you look well into that capture you realise that a capture like this can be regarded as artwork – you have to look at all the other players gazing at Messi performing his scorpion kick to agree to this.

Well, the judges decided it was and I cannot complain about it, but I do see it more as a documentative capture rather than art.  

In my view as a pro sports photographer, a capture in sports is mostly used as a documentative tool especially when on most occasions it is used for editorial usage.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina

Was there one photograph or game that changed things for you? Either professionally or evoked something new for you?

I am totally lost about this – there were many in actual fact but the ones which still pop to my mind were the Steven Gerrard lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy in Istanbul 2005 – a photo used in many ways and means by UEFA, the Lionel Messi scorpion kick and many more (attached).  But believe it or not I did capture quite a good number of interesting captures during the COVID-19 pandemic – captures which changed the face of sport.

 

What sporting events are you hoping to photograph in the upcoming future ´- hopefully when we are pandemic free or able.

Without any shadow of a doubt, I would say that I still “dream” of covering one of the most intriguing and coveted boat races around – the Americas Cup which at the moment is taking place in Auckland, New Zealand.  Water sports drives me nuts to be honest.  Of course, when we are pandemic free!

DOMENIC AQUILINA
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina

Browse Domenic‘s photography on IMAGO or visit his Website.

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