The referees of the legendary Hackney Marshes are the subject of a new portrait series by photographer Tom Harrison, which aims to present them in an appreciative light and challenge the abuse they encounter every week.
Since being established in 1946, with rubble from the Blitz being used as part of its sub-surface, London’s Hackney Marshes have achieved international fame as the spiritual home of Sunday League football. Made up of 73 pitches, the grounds have hosted thousands of amateur footballers and tournaments, all held in place by the unsung payers: the referees.
To correct this oversight, photographer Tom Harrison, who has previously worked for the likes of Sony, Ford and McDonald’s, has turned his lens towards the referees of Hackney Marshes. Captured in a cinematic light, these portraits present the characters in a new, respectful way as they embark on another match to maintain order.
For Tom, the minimal attention referees seem to receive is a mystery. As he tells Creative Boom, they are integral to grassroots football matches. “With the passion, energy and competitiveness, it would be complete chaos without the referees,” he says.
“They wake up early on weekend mornings, and whatever the weather, head out to face the inevitable criticism from players and supporters on the touchlines.”
Unfortunately, this criticism seems to be an inherent part of being a referee. “Football is inevitably competitive, and tensions will always boil over,” says Tom. “The referee is always the obvious target of any frustrations of the outcome.” And even worse than that, hostility only appears to be getting worse.
According to a recent Radio 5 Live questionnaire, which drew on feedback provided by more than 900 referees, 293 reported that they had been physically abused by spectators, players, coaches or managers. “Some people suggest that there is a link between how professional players behave towards referees and the behaviour seen at the grassroots level,” Tom adds.
To combat this abuse, Tom’s portraits present the Hackney Marshes referees in a positive and respectful light. Far from being just stern arbiters of justice, they’re real people with various emotions, eagerly doing their best to prevent matches from spiralling into chaos.
“Having played Sunday league football from the age of 9, I have always appreciated the role refs play in the game I love,” Tom reveals. “I’ve always wondered what makes people interested in football become referees and why they put themselves in the firing line every weekend.
“I photographed over 20 referees for the project, and one thing that struck me about all of them was a real sense of calm authority, which I think comes through in the images.”
When taking these photos, Tom had a few specifications in mind, including ensuring that the refs were photographed just before they went on the pitch. “I also wanted to light each portrait to create a cinematic feel to the images,” he says. “Therefore, each image required a degree of planning and preparation.
“I contacted the Football Association and connected with Michael Cole, the Football Development Officer for Hackney. Michael lives and breathes football and is fundamental to all of the organisation of grassroots football in Hackney. He was kind enough to connect me with various referees who wanted to participate in the project.”
The result is a refreshing series of portraits which will hopefully play their part in reducing player abuse at a grassroots level. And if you want to see the full series of photographs, they’re currently on display at the Homerton Library, next to the Hackney Marshes.