Michael Willson: the master photographer capturing AFL history from behind the lens

A Michael Willson photo is instantly recognisable. He captures the aching pathos of sporting loss, and the simplicity and stillness in an inherently chaotic game. Many of his shots rank among the most iconic football photographs taken this century. He captured Tayla Harris at full extension, and in doing so triggered some of the more reptilian online brains. He was on hand for Lance Franklin’s 1,000th goal coronation – a shot he calls the perfect mix of due diligence and blind luck.

Whether it’s a long-sleeved Jack Silvagni celebrating in teeming rain, Trent Cotchin being hoisted off or Gary Ablett Jr bowing out – they all have Willson’s indelible stamp, and they all feature in his exhibition, Beyond the Boundary, which wraps up at the Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery on Sunday.

The key, he tells Guardian Australia, is the ability “to see a picture within a picture.” “You can teach someone the technical aspects of what we do, but the creativity is something you’re born with I think.”

Willson was a mad Collingwood supporter growing up in Swan Hill, and vividly recalls the 1990 grand final, recording it on the VCR and later taking photographs off the TV screen. “Even when I was 12 or so, I was fascinated with still images,” he says. He worked as a graphic designer for seven years, but photography was always his passion and dream. He backed his talent and honed his skills, shooting amateur games for free on weekends, and seized his opportunity at the highest level.

Being a sports photographer is physically demanding and requires technical prowess, unsocial hours, an innate news sense and soft eyes. The very nature of Australian rules football, he says, adds another layer to the challenge. “Footy is played on a massive field, it’s played at such a great speed, it’s so unpredictable and the players are so fit and fast now. Besides, there’s always a lot of obstacles in your way – umpires, water carriers, even pigeons.”

A grounding in amateur and country football has held Willson in good stead. He played in a premiership with Lake Boga exactly 20 years ago. He was a classic opportunist, the sort of player who could craft goals out of nothing. “The intrinsic nature of the game, the reading of the play, the bounce of the ball – it all helps to have played the game. I played it from the age of six until I was 30 and the feel of the game comes naturally to me. Most of all, it gave me a sense of what footy means to communities.”

The emotion of grand final day is clear to see on the face of this Eagles fan in 2006.
The emotion of grand final day is clear to see on the face of this Eagles fan in 2006. Photograph: Michael Willson/Getty Images

Every fan has their favourite Willson photo. One of mine is of Nick Daicos being pursued by a trio of helpless Bulldogs. It’s all there – the proprioception, the effortless superiority, the futility of the chase. One of those Bulldogs is Marcus Bontempelli, arguably the best footballer in the country. But in that moment, the football world belongs to the young Magpie. “You definitely have a heightened awareness of the superstars,” Willson says. “But they can he harder to shoot. They do things that split second quicker than other players – a quick give, a change of direction. They can be more unpredictable, and you have to be particularly hyper-vigilant around the high-flyers.”

The architecture of Adelaide Oval and the SCG, he says, offers photographers all sorts of artistic possibilities. But many of his best and cherished photos have come on grand final day at the MCG. “A bright sunny afternoon at the MCG is just about my perfect shooting scenario, particularly later in the afternoon, just before the sun goes down, when you get these long shadows.”

His favourite spot is in the forward pocket, under the Shane Warne Stand, at the Punt Road end. That’s where Dom Sheed lined up in the dying minutes of the 2018 grand final. Willson was in his back pocket, and produced a series of iconic shots. “On grand final day there’s so much stuff and a lot of crap on the sidelines. Luckily, this shot was so clean. As a Collingwood supporter, it was a hard one to swallow. But I pride myself on not getting emotionally involved. I’ve got a job to do. If you’re riding every bump, you’ll miss something important and it’ll be gone for ever. At that moment, I had a front row seat to one of the most clutch shots in the history of football. And when the luck falls your way, you’ve got to take it. It’s so rewarding when it all falls into place.”

On grand final day, my eye is often drawn to the losers, to the desolation. In 2018, as the Collingwood players slumped to the turf, the photographers huddled around them like they were at a crime scene. But Willson’s shots never feel intrusive. A couple of years earlier, he captured a crestfallen Kieren Jack being consoled by his besuited bother, Brandon. The latter wrote a book about a career lived on the fringe, and devotes a passage to that moment. “I really wanted that one,” Kieren sobs. “It’s just football,” his brother tells him. He’s right. But at that moment, his words are hollow. And no one in football captures those moments better than Michael Willson.