Art

Life through a lens

In his 30 years covering Ajax, photographer Stanley Gontha has seen it all. Here he discusses the challenge of mixing business and the pleasure of snapping the team he supports

INTERVIEW Dan Poole | PHOTOGRAPHY Stanley Gontha

Have you always been an Ajax fan?

All my life. Though my brother, who I shared a room with as a kid, is a fanatic Feyenoord fan.

Ah. That must have led to some arguments.

Yes. Well, no, because back in the day, early 70s, Ajax and Feyenoord were the two teams in Holland. So each year it was either Ajax or Feyenoord who won the league. And if Ajax won the league, Feyenoord won the European Cup and vice versa. But yes, I’m an Ajax fan to this day. Which makes things difficult sometimes.

It must be hard to keep your emotions in check when it comes to the important games.

I’m talking Tottenham Hotspur v Ajax. I don’t need to explain any more.

Understood. And are we right in thinking that you had trials at Ajax as a boy?

I did but they squeezed me into an ‘overs’ group rather than an age-specific group, so at the age of 14 I was two heads smaller than everyone else. But that doesn’t mean that I would have made it otherwise, because if you are talented enough then you will make it sooner or later.

How did you go from that to photography?

By the age of 29, I was a sales rep. One day a friend said, “Come with me, I’m a photographer at Ajax.” I didn’t believe him until he showed me his press credentials. He said he’d get some for me too, just for one game. I said, “I don’t have any idea and I don’t have any equipment.” He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll just give you my second camera.” It was 5 May 1991, a league game against Roda JC. From that moment on I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

That’s a big step - did you have to work hard in order to realise that ambition?

I had to start from the beginning. It’s the same in any serious profession: you can’t just come in and say, “Hello, I’m a photographer!” Which, by the way, a lot of people do nowadays, much to my irritation.

How did you manage to get to the point of being accepted as a bona fide photographer?

I can tell you this now, 30 years on. I asked my friend, “How do I get a press card?” He said, “Get me a passport photo, I’ll make one for you.” It looked pretty good as well. He said, “One thing you have to remember…” and he described an elderly woman, the grumpy type. He said, “If you ever see a woman fitting that description, you have to walk away immediately. She’s the head of press accreditation.”

The Dutch national team played a friendly about a year later and I saw a grumpy-looking elderly woman walking around the pitch. I was ready to run away and never come back. But I was lucky in that the game was about to begin and I was standing between the players in the tunnel. So because of the stress of that moment she said, “OK, OK, go on the pitch but on Monday, you come to my office.”

I was there on Monday morning, 9am sharp. I said, “Hey, remember me?” She said – well, she shouted – “Of course I remember you! You’re the guy who wasn’t supposed to be there!” But I got my press pass. And I was like, “Wow, that was easy.” I think I’d been on the scene long enough that she had to accept me.

Gontha’s favourite game: Real Madrid v Ajax at the Bernabéu last year (above); Clarence Seedorf with the trophy in 1995 (top right); Dennis Bergkamp flying high in his Ajax days (right)

Now that you’re in charge of your own agency, do you still go pitchside to take photographs?

I’m like a player/manager, but probably more manager than player nowadays.

Do you ever get nervous before a game?

Always. Not always: most of the time. It’s exciting because I’m a fan, so it’s the same feeling that I would have if I was in the stands.

What are you looking for when you take a picture?

The crucial moments. So much happens in the course of a game. No offence, but it’s not the same if you’re watching tennis for five hours. I covered a tennis match once and thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”

Is it partly down to luck whether you end up getting all the shots that you want?

It’s 50 per cent luck and 50 per cent ability.

Have you ever missed what, in hindsight, would have been a fantastic picture?

The best moment – actually the worst but, from a personal point of view, the best – was when Patrick Kluivert scored against Milan in the 1995 final. I’m not sure if I should tell you this but I said to myself, “Take a deep breath and enjoy this, because it will probably be the only time your team will take the lead in a Champions League final.” So I completely missed shooting the goal-scoring moment – even though it was right in front of me – because I was sort of paralysed. I was still a bit more fan than professional.

In the 25 years since, cameras have gone digital.

We had these film rolls with 36 frames on a roll, and for an average Champions League game we’d probably shoot ten rolls – 360 images. That’s the number you shoot now for the warm-up. I end up with about 2,200 pictures for a normal game. But I have colleagues who shoot 6,000, which is crazy. It doesn’t make them better photographers either.

Apart from Ajax’s stadium, do you have a favourite ground around the world?

My number one is no longer there: the old Wembley. It was the most beautiful stadium in the world, ever. If only they had kept the towers.

And what about a favourite player over the years?

The one player who would always give me chills when I watched him was Arjen Robben.

You’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of Ajax players over the years. As a result, have you made friends with any of them?

I don’t have friends in the football world. Though if I was to come across them in town they would say hello because, one way or another, we are in the same business – them as players, me the guy following them around all the time. Zlatan Ibrahimović used to live just down the street.

“So much happens in the course of a game. it’s not the same if you’re watching tennis"

Having spent a fair amount of time with them, are you able to tell the De Boer twins apart?

Not in the early days – they were much more alike back then. We all confused them sometimes. They’re two of the nicest people in football though – different characters but both of them very nice.

You’ve known another Ajax legend, Clarence Seedorf, since he was just a teenager.

He was one of those players who you knew would be really big. He would always use the train station near me to get back to his parents’ house after training, and that was the first time I saw him as a young man. He’s an absolute gentleman. I went to a Champions League game in northern France in 2002, Lens against Milan. I was shooting the players lined up for the anthem and then I made a 180 towards the dugout. Seedorf was looking right at me and said, “What the hell are you doing here?” I said, “I’m here for you, to get some pictures of you in your new outfit.” We were making chit-chat and I remember the faces of the other Milan players – they were like, “Why are you talking to this guy?”

What about your favourite Champions League game that you’ve covered as a photographer?

We had a magnificent season last year and I did the whole campaign. But that away game against Madrid – because of the club, because of the stadium, because of the way Ajax played that night. Absolutely outstanding.

What’s the best Ajax side you’ve seen to date?

Last season’s team was more fun to watch, but the 1995 team was a slightly better side.  

Now, you said earlier that this subject was off-limits, but one of the shots we’ve featured shows the Ajax players after that loss to Tottenham Hotspur in 2019…

Deep breath. I had been imagining how it was going to be to watch Ajax in a final again after 24 years. But it was so crazy, this game. I saw it coming, I saw it happening and I was thinking, “How on earth is Erik ten Hag not seeing what’s happening?” The best player, Lucas Moura, who was scoring all the goals for Spurs, had no apparent resistance. I was so desperate. Sorry, none of this has anything to do with photography.

And what about the picture of former manager Henk ten Cate sitting in a prison cell?

It’s Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. It’s never opened to tourists unless there is a special group coming in – on this occasion it was opened for the Ajax team, who were in South Africa for a mid-season winter break. When all the players had seen it and left, Henk stayed there, looking around. It only lasted 30 seconds but to share that moment with the Ajax manager in an iconic place, that was very special.

Do you still get a thrill out of attending Champions League finals to this day?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve done most of them the past 15 years and it always amazes me how I enjoy each and every one as if it was my first. I never approach it as a routine thing.

And do you think that you’ll get to see Ajax in a final again before you retire?

No, not really. Maybe in 24 years.  

Have you always been an Ajax fan?

All my life. Though my brother, who I shared a room with as a kid, is a fanatic Feyenoord fan.

Ah. That must have led to some arguments.

Yes. Well, no, because back in the day, early 70s, Ajax and Feyenoord were the two teams in Holland. So each year it was either Ajax or Feyenoord who won the league. And if Ajax won the league, Feyenoord won the European Cup and vice versa. But yes, I’m an Ajax fan to this day. Which makes things difficult sometimes.

It must be hard to keep your emotions in check when it comes to the important games.

I’m talking Tottenham Hotspur v Ajax. I don’t need to explain any more.

Understood. And are we right in thinking that you had trials at Ajax as a boy?

I did but they squeezed me into an ‘overs’ group rather than an age-specific group, so at the age of 14 I was two heads smaller than everyone else. But that doesn’t mean that I would have made it otherwise, because if you are talented enough then you will make it sooner or later.

How did you go from that to photography?

By the age of 29, I was a sales rep. One day a friend said, “Come with me, I’m a photographer at Ajax.” I didn’t believe him until he showed me his press credentials. He said he’d get some for me too, just for one game. I said, “I don’t have any idea and I don’t have any equipment.” He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll just give you my second camera.” It was 5 May 1991, a league game against Roda JC. From that moment on I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

That’s a big step - did you have to work hard in order to realise that ambition?

I had to start from the beginning. It’s the same in any serious profession: you can’t just come in and say, “Hello, I’m a photographer!” Which, by the way, a lot of people do nowadays, much to my irritation.

How did you manage to get to the point of being accepted as a bona fide photographer?

I can tell you this now, 30 years on. I asked my friend, “How do I get a press card?” He said, “Get me a passport photo, I’ll make one for you.” It looked pretty good as well. He said, “One thing you have to remember…” and he described an elderly woman, the grumpy type. He said, “If you ever see a woman fitting that description, you have to walk away immediately. She’s the head of press accreditation.”

The Dutch national team played a friendly about a year later and I saw a grumpy-looking elderly woman walking around the pitch. I was ready to run away and never come back. But I was lucky in that the game was about to begin and I was standing between the players in the tunnel. So because of the stress of that moment she said, “OK, OK, go on the pitch but on Monday, you come to my office.”

I was there on Monday morning, 9am sharp. I said, “Hey, remember me?” She said – well, she shouted – “Of course I remember you! You’re the guy who wasn’t supposed to be there!” But I got my press pass. And I was like, “Wow, that was easy.” I think I’d been on the scene long enough that she had to accept me.

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Gontha’s favourite game: Real Madrid v Ajax at the Bernabéu last year (above); Clarence Seedorf with the trophy in 1995 (top right); Dennis Bergkamp flying high in his Ajax days (right)

Now that you’re in charge of your own agency, do you still go pitchside to take photographs?

I’m like a player/manager, but probably more manager than player nowadays.

Do you ever get nervous before a game?

Always. Not always: most of the time. It’s exciting because I’m a fan, so it’s the same feeling that I would have if I was in the stands.

What are you looking for when you take a picture?

The crucial moments. So much happens in the course of a game. No offence, but it’s not the same if you’re watching tennis for five hours. I covered a tennis match once and thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”

Is it partly down to luck whether you end up getting all the shots that you want?

It’s 50 per cent luck and 50 per cent ability.

Have you ever missed what, in hindsight, would have been a fantastic picture?

The best moment – actually the worst but, from a personal point of view, the best – was when Patrick Kluivert scored against Milan in the 1995 final. I’m not sure if I should tell you this but I said to myself, “Take a deep breath and enjoy this, because it will probably be the only time your team will take the lead in a Champions League final.” So I completely missed shooting the goal-scoring moment – even though it was right in front of me – because I was sort of paralysed. I was still a bit more fan than professional.

In the 25 years since, cameras have gone digital.

We had these film rolls with 36 frames on a roll, and for an average Champions League game we’d probably shoot ten rolls – 360 images. That’s the number you shoot now for the warm-up. I end up with about 2,200 pictures for a normal game. But I have colleagues who shoot 6,000, which is crazy. It doesn’t make them better photographers either.

Apart from Ajax’s stadium, do you have a favourite ground around the world?

My number one is no longer there: the old Wembley. It was the most beautiful stadium in the world, ever. If only they had kept the towers.

And what about a favourite player over the years?

The one player who would always give me chills when I watched him was Arjen Robben.

You’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of Ajax players over the years. As a result, have you made friends with any of them?

I don’t have friends in the football world. Though if I was to come across them in town they would say hello because, one way or another, we are in the same business – them as players, me the guy following them around all the time. Zlatan Ibrahimović used to live just down the street.

“So much happens in the course of a game. it’s not the same if you’re watching tennis"

Having spent a fair amount of time with them, are you able to tell the De Boer twins apart?

Not in the early days – they were much more alike back then. We all confused them sometimes. They’re two of the nicest people in football though – different characters but both of them very nice.

You’ve known another Ajax legend, Clarence Seedorf, since he was just a teenager.

He was one of those players who you knew would be really big. He would always use the train station near me to get back to his parents’ house after training, and that was the first time I saw him as a young man. He’s an absolute gentleman. I went to a Champions League game in northern France in 2002, Lens against Milan. I was shooting the players lined up for the anthem and then I made a 180 towards the dugout. Seedorf was looking right at me and said, “What the hell are you doing here?” I said, “I’m here for you, to get some pictures of you in your new outfit.” We were making chit-chat and I remember the faces of the other Milan players – they were like, “Why are you talking to this guy?”

What about your favourite Champions League game that you’ve covered as a photographer?

We had a magnificent season last year and I did the whole campaign. But that away game against Madrid – because of the club, because of the stadium, because of the way Ajax played that night. Absolutely outstanding.

What’s the best Ajax side you’ve seen to date?

Last season’s team was more fun to watch, but the 1995 team was a slightly better side.  

Now, you said earlier that this subject was off-limits, but one of the shots we’ve featured shows the Ajax players after that loss to Tottenham Hotspur in 2019…

Deep breath. I had been imagining how it was going to be to watch Ajax in a final again after 24 years. But it was so crazy, this game. I saw it coming, I saw it happening and I was thinking, “How on earth is Erik ten Hag not seeing what’s happening?” The best player, Lucas Moura, who was scoring all the goals for Spurs, had no apparent resistance. I was so desperate. Sorry, none of this has anything to do with photography.

And what about the picture of former manager Henk ten Cate sitting in a prison cell?

It’s Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. It’s never opened to tourists unless there is a special group coming in – on this occasion it was opened for the Ajax team, who were in South Africa for a mid-season winter break. When all the players had seen it and left, Henk stayed there, looking around. It only lasted 30 seconds but to share that moment with the Ajax manager in an iconic place, that was very special.

Do you still get a thrill out of attending Champions League finals to this day?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve done most of them the past 15 years and it always amazes me how I enjoy each and every one as if it was my first. I never approach it as a routine thing.

And do you think that you’ll get to see Ajax in a final again before you retire?

No, not really. Maybe in 24 years.  

Have you always been an Ajax fan?

All my life. Though my brother, who I shared a room with as a kid, is a fanatic Feyenoord fan.

Ah. That must have led to some arguments.

Yes. Well, no, because back in the day, early 70s, Ajax and Feyenoord were the two teams in Holland. So each year it was either Ajax or Feyenoord who won the league. And if Ajax won the league, Feyenoord won the European Cup and vice versa. But yes, I’m an Ajax fan to this day. Which makes things difficult sometimes.

It must be hard to keep your emotions in check when it comes to the important games.

I’m talking Tottenham Hotspur v Ajax. I don’t need to explain any more.

Understood. And are we right in thinking that you had trials at Ajax as a boy?

I did but they squeezed me into an ‘overs’ group rather than an age-specific group, so at the age of 14 I was two heads smaller than everyone else. But that doesn’t mean that I would have made it otherwise, because if you are talented enough then you will make it sooner or later.

How did you go from that to photography?

By the age of 29, I was a sales rep. One day a friend said, “Come with me, I’m a photographer at Ajax.” I didn’t believe him until he showed me his press credentials. He said he’d get some for me too, just for one game. I said, “I don’t have any idea and I don’t have any equipment.” He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll just give you my second camera.” It was 5 May 1991, a league game against Roda JC. From that moment on I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

That’s a big step - did you have to work hard in order to realise that ambition?

I had to start from the beginning. It’s the same in any serious profession: you can’t just come in and say, “Hello, I’m a photographer!” Which, by the way, a lot of people do nowadays, much to my irritation.

How did you manage to get to the point of being accepted as a bona fide photographer?

I can tell you this now, 30 years on. I asked my friend, “How do I get a press card?” He said, “Get me a passport photo, I’ll make one for you.” It looked pretty good as well. He said, “One thing you have to remember…” and he described an elderly woman, the grumpy type. He said, “If you ever see a woman fitting that description, you have to walk away immediately. She’s the head of press accreditation.”

The Dutch national team played a friendly about a year later and I saw a grumpy-looking elderly woman walking around the pitch. I was ready to run away and never come back. But I was lucky in that the game was about to begin and I was standing between the players in the tunnel. So because of the stress of that moment she said, “OK, OK, go on the pitch but on Monday, you come to my office.”

I was there on Monday morning, 9am sharp. I said, “Hey, remember me?” She said – well, she shouted – “Of course I remember you! You’re the guy who wasn’t supposed to be there!” But I got my press pass. And I was like, “Wow, that was easy.” I think I’d been on the scene long enough that she had to accept me.

Gontha’s favourite game: Real Madrid v Ajax at the Bernabéu last year (above); Clarence Seedorf with the trophy in 1995 (top right); Dennis Bergkamp flying high in his Ajax days (right)

Now that you’re in charge of your own agency, do you still go pitchside to take photographs?

I’m like a player/manager, but probably more manager than player nowadays.

Do you ever get nervous before a game?

Always. Not always: most of the time. It’s exciting because I’m a fan, so it’s the same feeling that I would have if I was in the stands.

What are you looking for when you take a picture?

The crucial moments. So much happens in the course of a game. No offence, but it’s not the same if you’re watching tennis for five hours. I covered a tennis match once and thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”

Is it partly down to luck whether you end up getting all the shots that you want?

It’s 50 per cent luck and 50 per cent ability.

Have you ever missed what, in hindsight, would have been a fantastic picture?

The best moment – actually the worst but, from a personal point of view, the best – was when Patrick Kluivert scored against Milan in the 1995 final. I’m not sure if I should tell you this but I said to myself, “Take a deep breath and enjoy this, because it will probably be the only time your team will take the lead in a Champions League final.” So I completely missed shooting the goal-scoring moment – even though it was right in front of me – because I was sort of paralysed. I was still a bit more fan than professional.

In the 25 years since, cameras have gone digital.

We had these film rolls with 36 frames on a roll, and for an average Champions League game we’d probably shoot ten rolls – 360 images. That’s the number you shoot now for the warm-up. I end up with about 2,200 pictures for a normal game. But I have colleagues who shoot 6,000, which is crazy. It doesn’t make them better photographers either.

Apart from Ajax’s stadium, do you have a favourite ground around the world?

My number one is no longer there: the old Wembley. It was the most beautiful stadium in the world, ever. If only they had kept the towers.

And what about a favourite player over the years?

The one player who would always give me chills when I watched him was Arjen Robben.

You’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of Ajax players over the years. As a result, have you made friends with any of them?

I don’t have friends in the football world. Though if I was to come across them in town they would say hello because, one way or another, we are in the same business – them as players, me the guy following them around all the time. Zlatan Ibrahimović used to live just down the street.

“So much happens in the course of a game. it’s not the same if you’re watching tennis"

Having spent a fair amount of time with them, are you able to tell the De Boer twins apart?

Not in the early days – they were much more alike back then. We all confused them sometimes. They’re two of the nicest people in football though – different characters but both of them very nice.

You’ve known another Ajax legend, Clarence Seedorf, since he was just a teenager.

He was one of those players who you knew would be really big. He would always use the train station near me to get back to his parents’ house after training, and that was the first time I saw him as a young man. He’s an absolute gentleman. I went to a Champions League game in northern France in 2002, Lens against Milan. I was shooting the players lined up for the anthem and then I made a 180 towards the dugout. Seedorf was looking right at me and said, “What the hell are you doing here?” I said, “I’m here for you, to get some pictures of you in your new outfit.” We were making chit-chat and I remember the faces of the other Milan players – they were like, “Why are you talking to this guy?”

What about your favourite Champions League game that you’ve covered as a photographer?

We had a magnificent season last year and I did the whole campaign. But that away game against Madrid – because of the club, because of the stadium, because of the way Ajax played that night. Absolutely outstanding.

What’s the best Ajax side you’ve seen to date?

Last season’s team was more fun to watch, but the 1995 team was a slightly better side.  

Now, you said earlier that this subject was off-limits, but one of the shots we’ve featured shows the Ajax players after that loss to Tottenham Hotspur in 2019…

Deep breath. I had been imagining how it was going to be to watch Ajax in a final again after 24 years. But it was so crazy, this game. I saw it coming, I saw it happening and I was thinking, “How on earth is Erik ten Hag not seeing what’s happening?” The best player, Lucas Moura, who was scoring all the goals for Spurs, had no apparent resistance. I was so desperate. Sorry, none of this has anything to do with photography.

And what about the picture of former manager Henk ten Cate sitting in a prison cell?

It’s Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. It’s never opened to tourists unless there is a special group coming in – on this occasion it was opened for the Ajax team, who were in South Africa for a mid-season winter break. When all the players had seen it and left, Henk stayed there, looking around. It only lasted 30 seconds but to share that moment with the Ajax manager in an iconic place, that was very special.

Do you still get a thrill out of attending Champions League finals to this day?

Oh, absolutely. I’ve done most of them the past 15 years and it always amazes me how I enjoy each and every one as if it was my first. I never approach it as a routine thing.

And do you think that you’ll get to see Ajax in a final again before you retire?

No, not really. Maybe in 24 years.  

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