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Photographing Arsenal's supporters in Uganda

I've known Ashwin Bhardwaj since we were born. Amazingly, despite being best mates for over 32 years he's somehow remained impervious to my unrelenting love of football. Seriously, he knows naff all about the sport. Perhaps he just saw how bloody miserable Arsenal made me at the weekends and decided, "Nah, not for me." 

It was therefore with great surprise that on Ash's return from a recent assignment in Uganda, where he'd joined up with explorer Levison Wood for a three week stint of a nine month quest to walk the River Nile, he wouldn't stop banging on about Arsenal and their presence in the country. 

He even had the photos to prove it. And quite frankly, they're amazing. From real kits to exuberant knock offs and even a makeshift pub named 'Highbury', he's manage to capture some stunning shots of Ugandans displaying their love for Arsenal. 

You can check out a gallery of his pictures here. 

With 'Walking the Nile' now a fully-fledged documentary - airing in the primetime 9pm Sunday slot on Channel 4 - it felt like the perfect moment to ask Ash a bit more about his experience. 


So Ash, what were you doing in Uganda?

I was with Levison Wood, a good friend of mine who was walking the entire 4,250 mile length of the River Nile. I walked with him for 350 miles over three weeks, through the most remote parts of the country. I then joined him for a second stint in Sudan. 

What was Lev's approach to seeing the country? What was he trying to do on the journey?

He chose to walk because it's the only way to see the countries on the route at a natural pace, rather than dashing from one place to the next. He wanted to meet people and tell the real story of contemporary Africa; not just news pieces, or produced set-pieces...but real human encounters. We saw places that no European has been since the 19th century.

What was your role on Walking The Nile?

First and foremost, I was there to enjoy a proper adventure with a good mate. It’s not the kind of thing you can pay a tour operator to set up. I also wrote several articles as a freelance journalist, which required photography, and filmed for the Channel 4 documentary when it was too remote for the film crew. I filmed most of Episode 3 in the Sudanese desert.

Ash filming in Sudan

How did you start doing what you do?

I’ve always loved travel and adventures. I started writing about my travels in blogs and eventually for magazines and newspapers. I originally got a DSLR camera to make short films and develop my cinematography, but I started taking more and more photos. Walking The Nile was by far the biggest and most challenging trip I’ve ever undertaken.

What made you start snapping pictures of the guys in football shirts?

I was there to document contemporary Africa and to meet people. I wanted to get an insight into their lives. In every town we visited, there were young lads wearing these (often immaculate) football shirts. Initially it seemed strange that something so English was here in the heart of Africa. Their obsession and knowledge of their teams was as thorough as any British fan, and that was reassuring and life-affirming.

Why so?

Northern Uganda is poor, under-developed, ignored by central government and has been ravaged by civil war. But the football shirts were an obvious sign that these guys have ambitions and (like all football fans) hope. It makes them accessible to someone in England - you feel an affinity with someone in the heart of Africa, because they are just like you.

How did you go about asking them for a photo? 

As you well know, I’m football illiterate, but I've absorbed enough to know that when you start talking about it people are happy to get involved. Everyone wanted to talk about football, especially to someone from England.

I’d start with calling out the name on the back of the shirt, “Hey, Van Persie! Awesome!” and then talk to them about everything from football, to their education, then onto other subjects like poaching. After a while I just asked if I could take a photo. They were rather proud of their shirts, so that was never a problem

Why did you focus on Arsenal shirts? Not just for my benefit I hope...

I didn’t - they were just the most dominant team in Uganda! Probably 70% to 80% of the shirts I saw there were Arsenal.

Did you speak to the fans about why they supported Arsenal? 

They seem to be the biggest team there for a few reasons. Firstly, Arsenal were a dominant team when football started to be broadcast internationally in Africa. They were the team that were winning, so they supported them. And Arsenal have always had a lot of black, and African players, which the Ugandan fans identify with - particularly in the “Invincibles" era. Kanu, Henry, Vieira, Toure, Campbell. Then Adebayor and others in more recent times came along. They also like Wenger’s fast, attacking approach to the game and development of young players. A lot of them just like the shirt, too! Ugandans like bright, bold colours, especially red. 'Steez' definitely plays a part here.


Another Arsenal fan happy to talk shop

Where do they get their shirts from?

Local markets in the bigger towns mostly. And some entrepreneurial characters also deliver them to the smaller villages.  One guy told me about the four day walk he made to get the 2013/2014 season shirt! That’s a big step-up from heading town to your local Sports Direct. There also seem to be a lot of Arsenal shirts in charity bags that are sent to Africa as donations. So Gooners are either very fickle or exceptionally generous.

Did you find out how much they are paying for the shirts?

One guy quoted me $20 for his. That’s a ridiculous amount of money in rural Uganda. Obviously quite a few were knock-offs. 

Did you watch any games while you were out there? 

I did. Every Premier League and Champions League game was shown somewhere. In the middle of nowhere, without a consistent electricity supply, the entire town would gather in a big hall to watch the game using generators for power. It’s just an amazing spectacle. I saw Arsenal put three past Sunderland whilst I was sat in a bar with several hundred people in 45 degree heat. This was on the edge of the biggest South Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda. They went crazy with every goal!

What's their knowledge of the game like?

Astounding. They could even tell you the track record of referees and linesmen, particularly relating to their team.

So are you an Arsenal fan now?

No, but I do know more about them than any other team.

Ash joined Lev [right] and his guide Boston [left] in Uganda

Where can we see more of your work?

You can see the articles in the Telegraph and BA Highlife.  Follow me on Twitter - @ashbhardwaj and my Flickr page has all my photos.  I’ve got a blog which has links to my work, and also my production company, Digital Dandy for videos. And watch Walking The Nile on Channel 4!  If you've missed the first couple of episodes you can catch up on 4od.

So what are you up to next? 

I’ll probably join Lev on his next adventure, wherever that takes him. I’m also off to Lagos in two weeks - so there will probably be more opportunities to take Arsenal photos there. In the meantime, I should probably learn how the offside rule works and who Dennis Bergkamp is...


This article was posted by editor Andrew Allen.

Addendum - Last weekend, I finally took Ash to an Arsenal game. He actually looked like he was enjoying himself. But I guess Alexis Sanchez will do that to a man...

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