We caught up with groundbreaking photographer Sharon Latham
If you had asked Sharon Latham in the early 2000s if she thought she would be where she is today she would have laughed at you.
She’d probably laugh at you regardless as she’s that sort of person. Contagiously positive and outgoing. Even on the phone. Even as she parks her car ahead of shooting a Keane gig at Hampton Court. Even after the hurdles she’s faced throughout her career.
All those crappy weird jobs that I’d done before that. It was like there you go, you’ve done your time.
I’m speaking to Sharon whilst she parks her car because over recent years she’s been touring the world with a bloke called Noel Gallagher. You might have heard of him.
The photos Sharon has been taking of Noel Gallagher (and his High Flying Birds), on and off stage, around the world, have resulted in an exhibition called A New World Blazing. The first exhibition to document the former Oasis member's solo music project.
Originally launched at The Redhouse Gallery in Harrogate and also available to view online, the exhibition is muted for a visit to Manchester in the near future too. As you can see, her pictures are very good.
Never without a camera
Originally from Bolton, Sharon’s early associations with photography are bittersweet.
“When I was eight years old my dad died. He was into photography and I got his camera. Since then, there’s never been a day when I’ve not taken a photograph. Seriously.” She says.
“It’s something I turn to when I’m stressed or when I’m happy. It’s just there. It’s like breathing.”
For a long time, she saw photography as a hobby. Something you do for free. Volunteering for sports teams. Snapping away at the front of gigs. A first paid commission came in the form of a picture for a Bolton Evening News piece about - of all things - the weather. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Sharon began to make more than scraps from photography. She didn't class herself as a professional photographer until she was 40.
Side jobs were a regular feature throughout.
"I’ve worked for the Yellow Pages. I’ve worked for a builder's merchants as a receptionist. I worked for wholesale wines and spirits merchants. Literally all sorts. I’d do that in the day and then take photos on evenings and weekends or take days off to do stuff.” She says.
After taking the leap and moving to Liverpool to concentrate solely on music, “I thought I’ll go there, go to every acoustic night and I’ll get my name out there”, Sharon took a part-time job at a non-league football club called AFC Liverpool.
Despite heading to Merseyside for music, Sharon ended up documenting the football club’s entire first season and a taste for sports photography soon resulted in freelance gigs at Bolton and Blackburn.
Hurdles along the way
But then just as things were taking off, disaster struck.
“Two years into doing that I was involved in a rather nasty car accident. I was in hospital for 12 months and I broke my back in two places.” Sharon says.
“It was the longest period of time that I haven’t used my camera. I was quite poorly and depressed, so when I came out I didn’t want to pick my camera up.”
As an alternative to the physicality of sports photography, Sharon was convinced by a friend to volunteer at Manchester International Festival (MIF) and the experience eased her back into using her camera again. Then, as Sharon likes to put it, the stars began to align.
“I got an email from an old friend who had been working freelance in football. He said he’d got this great job at Man City and there was a rumour money was coming into the club.” Sharon says.
“He got me some freelance work and it was a pre-season friendly in 2008. I very quickly made friends with the website content manager and got put on the list for part-time freelancers.”
The first female Premier League club photographer
Slowly but surely the drip, drip of freelance work increased. Home games, training sessions, away games. Then the new signings started coming in. A buzz was building around the club and in 2010 the job advert went out for a permanent club photographer. Sixty-five people applied but Sharon Latham got the job making her the English Premier League’s first female club photographer. I ask her if she was nervous.
“Mate, you have no idea. Especially because in the early days I had crappy kit as well. I was hiring lenses to allow me to shoot. I’m sat there with some mega sports photographers, but they’d been doing it for like 20 years, and then this woman comes along and starts sitting next to them and causing trouble.” She says.
"All those crappy weird jobs that I’d done before that. It was like there you go, you’ve done your time."
The job was not without risk.
“Yaya Toure smacked a free-kick into one of my lenses once and the whole thing smashed into my face and I got a black eye.” She says. “I had Balotelli taking my lens cap off in the tunnel. Balotelli being Balotelli, he just walked off with it.”
Sharon Latham’s time working at Manchester City coincided with one of the most iconic periods in British football. She was the person tasked with documenting the club’s first league title in over 40 years as well as multiple cups and long-awaited Champions League qualification. Everything. From training sessions to kit launches, games to title parades. She still looks back on the time with a sense of awe.
“I was blessed because it was a class team, wasn’t it? Kompany, Zabaleta, Silva, Yaya, Tevez - you could go on and on. It was a case of taking history-making pictures, and again I have to pinch myself because they’re going to be there forever and they’re mine. It’s an incredible honour.” She says.
In a male-dominated sport, Sharon’s work at Manchester City was significant. Although she sees change in the industry, with more female photographers in the sport and the rising profile of women’s football helping, like most industries, however, imbalance is still an issue. She’s proud that after leaving the club in 2016 her intern Victoria Hayden was chosen as her successor.
“There are some amazing female freelancers in sport but I think it’s really bad that it’s only 11 years ago that I was the first female PL club photographer. That’s not long ago.”
Friendships beyond football
It wasn’t just footballers at Manchester City that she became mates with. Two famous brothers were impossible to ignore whilst working there and Sharon became especially good friends with one of them.
“At key events like league titles and cup titles, I would capture Noel doing stuff or celebrating on the pitch and I’d send him the images. He’d be like ‘Shaz, this is going up in my kitchen.’ Stuff like the Aguero hug shot on the pitch and him wearing the captain’s armband.” She says.
When Sharon announced she was leaving her role at Manchester City, Noel Gallagher could not believe it. She acts out to me over the phone how the conversation went.
“Shaz, I’ve heard you’re leaving. What's going on? This is the best job in the world.” Noel Gallagher says, with the disbelief of a man who’s just watched someone win the Euromillions but decided against keeping the money.
“I agree Noel but if I stay here I’ll likely die here. It’s too easy to stay. I need to move on and do other stuff.” Sharon says.
“But what’re you going to do?” Noel says.
“It’s fine, I’ll come on tour with you.” Sharon says, jokingly.
“Okay then.” Noel says.
So that's what Sharon did.
On tour with Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
To date, Sharon Latham has toured with Noel Gallagher across the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand taking pictures of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. If it wasn’t for the pandemic she’d likely have covered the rest of the world with him too.
The subsequent pictures that form her exhibition A New World Blazing are a mixture of dramatic live shots and candid fly-on-the-wall tour photography. The same level of intimacy but also grandeur that characterised her work at City.
“There’s nothing negative about going on tour with Noel Gallagher. I think he’s built an amazing band around him and now it’s grown into an eleven piece because they’ve got a brass section. You’ve got the scissors...”
I briefly stop her on the scissors, made famous by Noel’s bandmate Charlotte Marionneau on the song She Taught Me How To Fly. I’m curious.
“Yeah. They’re amazing as well because they’re the weirdest scissors you’ve ever seen. There’s like 6 blades so when you’re shutting them it makes that funny noise. They’ve got their own box. There’s even backup scissors.” Sharon says.
The longer route to success
In a world where we’re obsessed with youthful success, from the Mensa wunderkinds regularly trotted out on Channel 4 to the Premier League’s ever-younger youngest scorers. And don’t get me started on Mozart. Sharon’s story of graft, toil and achieving success a bit later on is a welcome one. An antidote to a world that yearns for instant gratification.
As a freelance photographer, she now travels around the world covering everything from the Oscars red carpet to this month’s Soccer Aid. When asked about what she’d pass on to those in her previous shoes looking upwards dreaming of doing her job, her response is genuine.
“It’s hard work and it ain’t glamorous. It’s not always fancy hotels. I’ve slept in cars and all sorts, even on tour with Noel. There’s never enough room for someone like me, I’m not seen as an essential tour part. But it’s so much fun and I absolutely wouldn’t do anything else.” She says.
“My advice is, knock on as many doors as you can and just keep taking photos every day. Hard work and graft. At the end of the day, unless you’re showing people and telling people what you do, you can't expect your work to be seen. You can't be a wallflower. You’ve got to thrust it in people’s faces.”
A New World Blazing is free to view 19 - 28 November, 10:30 - 18:30 daily at RedHouse Gallery Pop Up, 11 Police Street, Manchester, M2 7LQ.