Pigeon racing is a typically British sport (the same people who also invented cheese rolling where a large lump of cheese is rolled from the top of a hill and the competitors chase it down with some pretty spectacular sights, falls and broken limbs. Honestly, watch a video and thank me later). The sport thrived amongst Britain’s workers — miners, iron and steelworkers, shipbuilders — and it reached its peak by the early 1970s with over 130,000 members. As Thatcher came to power, however, and the industries collapsed and communities were torn apart, the number of Birdmen more than halved.
Zak Waters’ Birdmen attempts to record the slow death of a culture that has changed beyond recognition since its inception. The photographs are extraordinarily rich and full of detail — the birds bind them together, they are the common denominator, but there is so much more in the images than just the pigeons. In one we see a wrinkled hairy hand with gigantic rings on each finger and a shiny metal watches holding a pigeon. In another, there are dozens of pigeons flying around a man, reminiscent of Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens and also Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Sometimes the birds are ever so slightly hinted at instead of being the explicit character; one photograph shows us the inside of a house with two men in a seemingly desperate state — it takes a moment or two to notice the pigeon lurking from the outside behind the glass window. In other images we see people looking up or holding binoculars, presumably observing the birds. The competitive nature of the sport is implied by the old man looking at his watch, perhaps timing his pigeon’s flight, or the two men pointing fingers at one another, presumably arguing about whose pigeon was the winner. We also see a man proudly clutching a bunch of trophies.
Waters’ photographs are full of character and grit, revealing an obscure hobby or sport that many around the world, and even many in England, including myself, would never have known it existed were it not for his body of work. It reveals the quirks and passions that people develop when they become obsessed with a niche sport in a rather endearing, nostalgic way.
— foreword by Zak R. Dimitrov