Sweet Lanka

Nick Compton on playing cricket and exploring his photography on the Leica M Monochrom in Southern Asia

This is not an ordinary photographic article. And while I don’t profess to being a professional photographer, the visual and cultural opportunities offered by my professional cricketer career, has widened my lens in a way that I could never have anticipated.

In my 20 years at the crease, so to speak, I’ve travelled pretty far and wide; from Canada to Malta, New Zealand, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the list goes on. But my early stimulus came from my home country South Africa where I experienced a rich cultural childhood spending many holidays in the bush, in remote natural surrounds. My father, Richard was the first person who opened my eyes to photography. His refrain was always the same: you’ve got to have the eyes to be excited by a shot and then be enthusiastic enough to capture it best. He often photographed people and however mundane the subject, he moved them around and most importantly captured them naturally, unawares. He hated the stylised, the posed.

It’s people that interest me most. With my mother being an artist I’ve gravitated towards framing people in their everyday lives, often within their vibrant and rich textural backgrounds.

I made my international test debut for England in India in 2012, a series where England beat India for the first time in 28 years in their back yard. No mean feat when you consider the fanaticism surrounding the game there. There isn’t a street corner or patch of grass or beach where people aren’t playing the game.

A special occasion for me was hitting the winning runs in the second test in Mumbai. Nursing a winning hangover, the following day I headed out into the heart of Mumbai at 6am with Philip Brown, the Reuters tour photographer. I was immediately transfixed by the wall of humanity pouring in and out trains, setting up their stalls and markets. What might have seemed suffocating was lifted by the dizzying array of colours, be this in clothing, tapestry or spices, flowers, fruits and vegetables that characterised their livelihoods. It was then that I felt an urge to show people what life was like off the field.

The day before I was standing alongside iconic cricketers like Tendulkar and Dhoni and celebrating in a fancy hotel; now I was trying to illustrate the greater environment from which they emerged or surrounded them daily. This earthy experience appealed to me far more than the glitz. It helped that the Indian people are so accommodating and gentle. The subcontinent appeals to me. My lens is drawn towards the suffering and deprivation they experience, most often depicted in their granular, fissured faces. It’s so much more honest and undisguised than western populations.

My most recent trip has been to Sri Lanka, playing as an oversees professional for the Sri Lankan Ports Authority in Colombo. Aside from my England colleague Moen Ali, few from England have ventured here in this capacity. They have missed something, I can tell you! I have been entirely awakened, galvanised by everything around me. The country is hot and yet the people are energised, talkative, argumentative even, but always kind as befits their Buddhist religion.

My passion and dream has always been to play international cricket, no doubt sponsored from having a famous cricketing grandfather and wanting to emulate some of the things he achieved.

From the intensity and anxiety that accompanied my career, I nowadays want to return to simply enjoying the game. And I enjoy mentoring young players. Sri Lanka is filled with raw talent but I feel it’s being squandered somewhat through a lack of structure and discipline. I can only hope to help in a small way, in communicating the benefits of instilling this discipline and good administration.

I feel very fortunate for what I’ve achieved and experienced. Yet as the professional game wanes, I’m so glad I have developed such an interest in photography. In the past, as I’ve said, it took me off the field into different pastures. Now I can build on these exposures to human life.

My relationship with Leica has proven such a boost to my hobby. I’m in love with the Leica M Monochrom. Without being pretentious, taking the photo I have seen is similar to trying to execute the shot I want to play on the field. We spend so long practicing, improving and striving that when you play the right shot the contentment, no, thrill I get from executing it is very similar to seeing it materialise on my camera. The Leica Monochrom makes this process all the more stimulating when you get it right. Its manual focus has made the camera an entirely different feel and process than normal digital cameras. There is a real technique to it and while it’s not difficult, really getting the balance of light and setting up the shot makes it so appealing. It’s fair to say I’ve played some good innings with the camera as I have traveled on trains, beaches, in the team and really tried to give you a real taste of what life is truly like in Sri Lanka.

So yes, I’ve found there’s real therapy in photography. It locks me out of the stresses of everyday life. It has helped take me away from being dropped from the England team and all the tension surrounding ones quest for the next big score. And yet whatever my own demons, my camera burrows me into the homes and lives of people who have so little; who suffer so much to get by every day. Knowing this, they still smile willingly. They hold your hand. They are often so tactile, show such instinctive care and such a natural propensity to guide and help.

This Leica, the Monochrom 246, has proven a magical weapon. The gentle, subtle gradations of black and white have taken my love of photography to another level. It achieves portraiture like no other. I hope my photos share my wanting to embrace these people and the effort I’ve put in to capture that intimate, unaffected pose they might carry away from my lens. (If only a camera was invisible to others!)

I’ve focused on my team mates, too, especially in the changing rooms during matches. Do I convey their warmth (and even their keenness to be photographed)? I hope so. They are just so unselfconscious. Again, another happy contrast with the material world.

On another scale, I’ve taken my propensity to escape the stadium for the streets here in Sri Lanka. I got to escape down south and into the mainland and see the tropical lushness of this place. Probably my favourite experience was a train journey from Colombo to Kandy. Three hours of sitting in third class in an old wooden colonial train. Most of the journey was shared with a young Buddhist monk who was studying at the university in Kandy. Gentle, quiet and educated, I listened and mused by way through this slow experience. Every now and them, I hung out the side of the carriage as the train crested ravines, undulating tea plantations and dense tropical forests. The simple freedom of having the air wash over you and through your hair was exhilarating. (I’ve got to tell you that like my father, I’m no lover of society’s ever expanding, restrictive rules).

Photography is in some critical ways, very like cricket. The perfect shot is attainable. So long as you’re driven to search for it. The camera like the cricket bat can become an albatross. But is there anything like it when you get it right? No. Not in my experience.

If you’d like to see more of Nick’s photography, visit his website or his Instagram account.

To find out more about the Leica M Monochrom, click here.