“The toughest human beings I have encountered”: Photographer Jason Andrew and the Black Diamonds project (part two)
In the second part of our interview with photographer Jason Andrew on his “Black Diamonds” project, he reveals some of the personal struggles the players went through and the complex nature of the international movement of young players – especially from regions of the world experiencing economic challenges.
The “Black Diamonds” project began in 2010 when Andrew travelled to Istanbul in Turkey and met aspiring footballers from Nigeria who has been promised trials with some of Turkey’s top teams. Andrew’s work has been published in Time, the Financial Times, the New Yorker, and the British Journal of Photography, among others.
“Black Diamonds” revealed the reality of life for African players who travelled to Turkey believing they would attend trials with famous teams like Galatasaray, Besiktas, or Fenerbahce. The truth was very different.
In part two of this interview, Jason Andrew talks about the resilience of players from Africa and how many look to the future to forget about the past.
It’s easy to think all the players have the same story. Can you tell us some more about them as individuals?
They all came over from Nigeria with different stories but they don’t tell anybody much about their life before. For Hakim, his passport said he was 19 years old. He has two brothers and his mother in Lagos. One of the guys said he was 16 when he came in and was put in an orphanage because he was underage. Another’s passport said he was 26 when he was actually 42. He had played professionally for 10 years in Nigeria. He had better ball skills than anyone but was a drunk. He was constantly drinking and it was the same thing when he went back to Nigeria. They really don’t want to remember where they were seven years ago, they just want to focus on where they are now.
So, where are they now and what do you think their future looks like?
In some respect, they are now economic migrants who have come to provide for their families. They are now stuck in Turkey and there is really nowhere for them to go. They aren’t going to go to Europe [as footballers]. The reality is unless they marry a European woman; or go to South East Asia; or the Middle East, they are where they are. They are going to end up in Nigeria after ten years probably.
What did you personally learn from the project?
Resilience. I called the project “Black Diamonds” because a black diamond is the toughest from of a diamond. These guys appeared to me as the toughest human beings I have ever encountered. They were the epitome of the work ethic my grandfather tried to instil in me as a man; the honesty and resilience where one keeps hitting the pavement over and over.
As an observer, what was a challenge for you to see?
I watched them get scammed by every one of their friends. Each one of them turned on each other the moment they could. It was depressing to see that, to see that the people they lived with and trusted did the same things that people they didn’t know did to them. It was always to get a little bit of money.
Did you find the subject inspiring or depressing?
It’s complicated. It isn’t black and white and the issue has many layers to it. Trying to dissect each of those layers is very difficult. If I talk to friends in Nigeria, they would tell me that these guys are a success and they would spend the same amount of money to go if they had the chance. If you look at the guys’ social media pages, they look very successful. But if you talk to them, they are not. Their living situations haven’t changed much from seven years ago. The apartment may be bigger and they may have a little bit of money but in essence, they are still the same guys.
As a photographer, what do you find interesting about projects like Black Diamonds?
The boys reminded me of my friends from when I was growing up and playing sports. It was about family and team and there was just a grind about these guys. There was innocence early on, humility, desperation, desire, and this look in their eyes that they were just going to do anything to make it happen. I watched that desperation turn to greed and envy and desire then I saw it go back again to humility. I think it was to do with age. I was so impressed by them and how much they dealt with that I enjoyed spending time with them and understand what they went through. All of these sacrifices they had to make resonated with me because of how much they had to deal with.
I’ve always been impressed by the African resilience and, with these boys, nothing was ever impossible; there was always a way around it. I spent two years travelling to Nigeria for work and kept up with these guys and it was nice to understand who they were and better understand their families and what drove them. It gave me more respect for them and their struggle.
What other projects are you working on?
I did some with a Somali-based football team that was playing in the CONIFA football tournament in Abkhazia. I then had a daughter and she took up most of my time. Since then, I have been working on a story following young women struggling with addiction in the USA. It’s been really interesting because their resilience to keep themselves and their children clean and do better for their lives has a lot of similarities with the guys in Turkey. While the women deal with addiction, the guys in Turkey were dealing with racism and bigotry. These young women are trying to get rid of the ‘addict’ stereotype and live a different life. I’ve been really interested in the resilience of human beings.
I’m going to start looking into a group of West Africans in Poland. There’s a group of a little over 100 who fell for the same scam. They are in the same predicament, trying to make it in football playing in the lowest leagues. In Nigeria, they could play professionally if they bribed somebody to get on those teams. Europe is always going to be the chance for many footballers.
To see what life is like for Nigerian players abandoned in Turkey and for more images from Jason Andrew’s Black Diamonds project click here.
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