Matthias Hangst is one of the most successful sports photographers in Germany. He has covered some of the biggest sporting events across the globe, including the past seven Olympic Games, Wimbledon and several Football World and European Cups. Matthias has been a staff photographer at Getty Images since May 2014 and was part of the team that went to Brazil to cover the FIFA World Cup.
In this interview, first published in Close-Up Magazine (Germany), he discusses his career and his experience in Brazil.
Close-Up: How did you get into sports photography?
MH: When I was 15 years old, I started to shoot photos for a local newspaper and after high school I decided to become a professional photographer. I grew up in a very athletic family and I was into competitive sport until I was 19. So for me combining sports with journalism was a natural transition.
MH: Due to the constant dynamic, rapid and often surprising movements, everything is reduced to one single moment – to capture that moment is a big challenge, because you can’t just repeat it like you do at other photo shoots. That challenge creates pressure but it also makes this profession so interesting – it never gets boring. And I always know immediately if I got the shot. It’s a great feeling and reminds me why I love doing what I do.
How do you prepare for a big sporting event like the World Cup?
MH: It is absolutely mandatory to be well prepared. The long distances we have to cover in Brazil to get to the various venues requires time and excellent planning. We also carry an extensive and very valuable amount of equipment with us, so well organized logistics is key. That’s why the Sports team at Getty Images starts to prepare for the World Cup so long in advance. Nothing is left to chance – except during the games of course, where you hope for the surprising, exceptional moments.
During the game every photographer has a fixed place, which means I can’t run around looking for interesting angles and perspectives like I can do during other events. It requires a different kind of creativity and that’s where my experience comes into play.
As a sports photographer you learn how to look with one eye through the lens and keep the other open to watch out what happens around you. The brain gets trained after a while so you can quickly react when your left eye notices an interesting movement next to you.
With time you also get to know the movements of the famous players, allowing you to anticipate extraordinary moments and take that unique shot. And sometimes a new talent pops up and surprises everybody – that’s the beauty of events like the FIFA World Cup.
You worked as a freelancer for a long time before joining Getty Images as a staff photographer. What is different about working as part of a team?
MH: As a freelancer I had to take care of everything myself – from accreditation to all the logistics to securing the right place at the venue. Being part of the Getty Images team is a huge relief as everything has been taken care of in advance. So I can focus on the main thing – taking great pictures.
I wanted to be back in a team where everybody works towards the same goal. That is a totally different dynamic where it is not about your own ego anymore but about the common approach to achieve great results and where it is not important who gets “the” shot, as long as somebody in our team gets it.
The team spirit in our group was great and we helped each other every day. That is very important because you spend a couple of weeks together travelling from one place to the next, carrying a lot of equipment and responsibility. And although everything is professionally organized and planned at Getty Images there was a very personal atmosphere in the teams and everybody was able to throw in their own ideas.
Are there any players or teams you prefer to shoot?
MH: I am not really a fan of a specific team but there are a couple of players I admire for their style, like Lionel Messi. It’s just fun to watch him play and he often offers opportunities for great shots, like the one I took during the game Argentina versus Switzerland.
I consciously decided to take a position on the tribune that day, with a picture in mind which to me is one of the best Sport images ever taken – the photo of Maradona confronted by a posse of Belgium defenders during the match in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. I wanted to shoot Messi in a similar situation because I see an analogy between both players. But there is always a bit of luck at stake that all players form up in the way you have imagined.
Was there a special moment for you at this World Cup?
MH: The great atmosphere at the venues in Brazil were inspiring, especially the emotion that you could feel during the games involving the teams from South America. The spirit of the fans was amazing and infectious.
One occasion that I remember well, happened after the Argentina versus Belgium match. A group of about 500 Argentinean fans started to sing after their team won the game. More and more fans from other parts of the stadium joined until about 5,000 of them were standing together, singing a traditional Argentinean football song. That was a very emotional moment for me and many of the other photographers around.
You spend most of your time covering the big sporting events. Are there any more personal projects you like to pursue?
MH: At one point I noticed that I need something to balance out the world of sport and competition that surrounds me most of the time. That’s why I started to shoot reportage photography that allows me to see and capture everyday situations that are both down to earth and extraordinary – no matter if I am in a soup kitchen or on a local playing field with kids.
I also shoot reportage photography about chefs for a food magazine. They needed somebody who is able to capture the dynamic, hectic environment of a restaurant kitchen so I had the perfect experience for the job. Last year I had the opportunity to spend a day in the kitchen of Noma, the famous Michelin restaurant in Copenhagen. It was an amazing experience and I became really passionate about food reportage photography. For me there are analogies between sport photography and gastronomy – both are jobs that are very demanding and highly dynamic, and you need a lot of passion for them.See more images from Matthias Hangst