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Olympus Visionary, Peter Dench, talks to us about shooting and surviving the 5,772 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway, in the thick of the 2018 FIFA World Cup action.

We last caught up with you about your A1 project, can you tell us what you’ve been up to since then?

Wow, has it really been that long? I’ve been out and about on assignment with my Olympus camera having a right royal knees up photographing Royal Ascot, the Henley Royal Regatta, the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle and even got myself a cheeky invite to Prince Charles’s 70th birthday garden party at Buckingham Palace.

That’s pretty amazing! Over the summer, you shot a World Cup Fans Russia project, which is worlds away from photographing royal events – what gave you the inspiration?

The FIFA World Cup is the world’s greatest football tournament, covering 32 nations, 62 football matches and millions of fans. Russia is the world’s largest country and one of the most powerful: 11 time zones across two continents and home of the Trans-Siberian Railway network, said to be one of the world’s longest and most iconic single train journeys as it takes in 5,772 miles across eight time zones in eight days. It was an unmissable opportunity for the most epic of away days, documenting the global passion for football and riding the Trans-Siberian Railway network, a lifeline that connects a nation.

Image by Peter Dench

How long did you spend in Russia and how did you decide where and when to shoot?

I spent 18 days in total in Russia during the tournament, nine in Moscow, two in Vladivostok (on the Pacific coast) and seven on the train. I think that’s right – in a country with so many time zones it can get a bit confusing! Moscow was the obvious choice to shoot in as most football fans would either be based there or transiting through, there were also two host stadiums and the tournament’s biggest Fan Fest. A key part of the reportage was to get across the scale of Russia and the best way I thought to do that would be to take the Trans-Siberian Railway network to Vladivostok. I was going to do a return journey on the train, but wisely decided to fly back, which still took nearly nine hours. When England kicked off their World Cup match against Columbia, fans in London were actually three times closer to the match than I was and I was in Russia – it’s that big!

How did this project vary in terms of shooting a different type of culture to what you normally shoot? Did you learn anything new?

I learned you can’t always succeed in making pictures of people with good intentions, a smile and pointing at the camera. Russians are diverse, proud and stoic, and around two-thirds of the country is in northern Asia. Travelling across it, I came across many challenges.

The experience of photographing fans in Moscow, where there was a carnival atmosphere, was wildly different to photographing on the Trans-Siberian Railway network. Passengers on the train were often bored, tired, irritable or drunk and not happy about having a camera probing around their cramped, temporary living space. Three of the seven nights on the train were terrifying.

Do you consider yourself a football fan and did you get to join in any of the celebrations?

I am a huge football fan and lifelong supporter of the mighty AFC Bournemouth. Ten years ago they were bottom of the football league and on the brink of bankruptcy. Now, they are flying high in their fourth season in the Premier League. It’s been a miraculous turnaround and I’m enjoying the ride. In Russia, I certainly did join in some of the celebrations and not just with the England fans. I bounced around with the Belgians, slugged whisky with the Serbs and downed celebratory shots of vodka with the Swiss. Mixing with the Danish fans before their match with France was a highlight; they arrived in their thousands, literally turning Moscow’s Red Square red.

Image by Peter Dench

Why do you think it’s important to document such events? What are the key factors that help you decide what projects to focus on?

This sounds rather grand, but I want to create an anthropological legacy with my projects; a set of pictures that will contribute visually to an historical event. Another influencing factor in deciding to go is that Russia’s political relationship with the West is at its lowest since the Cold War. The tournament gave me greater freedom as a foreigner to photograph across the whole of Russia.

You get right in the thick of the action, but how did this way of working affect your choice of equipment used?

Arriving in Moscow I was apprehensive about how I would get in the thick of the action. Russian football hooligans had pledged a ‘death sentence’ against English fans. The threat of confrontation with Ultras, the gangs of Russian football yobs, was extremely high. England fans were a target and ‘could be killed’, a notorious former football hooligan had warned. I was so concerned I even practiced my Irish accent! Fortunately, none of this materialised and it was relatively easy to get stuck in. The kit I used was essential for the project to be a success. I walked more than 100 miles across Moscow so mobility was key. I used the compact and lightweight Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II with M.ZUIKO PRO 12-40mm f/2.8 lens and a hotshoe flash to create bright, clean images of the fans. For the Trans-Siberian Railway, I was photographing in cramped conditions, often in low light, so I discarded the flash and tried a different approach with a M.ZUIKO PRO 17mm f/1.2 lens, which gave me a more subtle and intimate set of pictures.

Image by Peter Dench

We love the image of the Mexican fans shielding themselves from the sun, but do you have a favourite photo from the series?

Thanks. It’s one of my favourite lighting situations when dark clouds are rolling in from one direction and the sun is blasting in from the opposite. It doesn’t last long and I shoot frantically. When I’m photographing a project such as this, I know certain images will be necessary and crucial: a potential shot for the poster; a cover and opener for the book and, of course, enough in-between for an exhibition and to tell the story. To choose one image as a favourite is tricky. For example, I have an affection for certain breakthrough images when shooting was not going well. With that in mind, I’d choose the image of young soldiers playing cards in a third-class carriage on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I’d walked through third class a number of times and met with resistance so not shot a frame. This scene looked relaxed, so I started taking pictures. This gave me the confidence I needed to carry on.

What do you look for when waiting to capture a moment?

The first few days shooting in Moscow were a disaster. I got caught up photographing clichés; fans waving scarves above their heads and posing in front of monuments. However, it was a necessary process to get these more naive shots out of my system. After that, I relaxed a bit and started to take more time picking out interesting characters for portraits. I took myself away from the centre of Moscow and explored the bars and suburbs where I could capture some situations that seemed more authentic.

Image by Peter Dench

How do you decide whether to capture a candid shot or a posed one?

The situation usually dictates this, though I’ll aim to achieve both. Sometimes, I capture the action first then pull out a few individuals for a portrait when it’s calmed down. On other occasions, I’ll take a portrait first and hang around that person until some action happens.

What reception did you receive from the football fans when taking their images? Do you have specific techniques for being discreet or approaching people for posed shots?

The compact Olympus camera helps with discretion and it’s so aesthetically pleasing! I want to point it at people and people don’t seem to mind having it pointed at them, unlike some of the more cumbersome, threatening-looking cameras I’ve used in my ill-judged past. I’m not ashamed to be a photographer and am always open and honest with those I’m photographing.

Image by Peter Dench

We hear there will be an exhibition soon, can you tell us more about this?

Yes, there’s a fabulous opportunity to be the first to see my work at the new Olympus-sponsored After Nyne Gallery in Holland Park, London on 7 February 2019. There’s also a delicious rumour that a limited-edition hardback book will be available to those who attend. Keep an eye on the Olympus Image Space website for developments.

In addition to your documentary projects, you’ve worked in the field of portrait, advertising and commercial. Would you say documentary is your favourite? If so, why?

Each discipline has unique challenges and pressures, from satisfying a commercial client’s tight brief to trying to coax something different from a celebrity portrait session. At my most recent advertising commission, I counted 26 people behind my Olympus before I even pressed the shutter. In that respect, self-initiated documentary projects are by far my favourite where I only have to answer to me, although that can be difficult, too!

What advice would you give to readers who are considering documenting an event or doing a project?

Do it. Trust your instincts. If you have an idea for a project that won’t go away, the chances are there will be an audience excited about seeing it. Try and understand what you want to say and who your audience is, and how best to present the visuals to them.

Image by Peter Dench

Have you got anything else coming up that we should know about?

Always! I have a retrospective from my English archive from December to April next year at the Foundation House of History of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn. That has inspired me to start the project, DENCH DOES DEUTSCHLAND, a look at our friend and former foe. I also have an exhibition on The English Summer Season in May 2019 at the Wex Photo Video store in London.

Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 60 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.