Footballers have had a long, unfair history of being lambasted for daring to have interests outside of the game. For ex-MLS player Ethan White, being pigeonholed was never an option. As adept with a ball at his feet as he is with a camera, the recently retired pro is a champion of pursuing all of your passions.
The ongoing symbiosis between football and photography has been guiding Ethan since he was a teenager. From using photography as a way to decompress from the career stresses of a professional athlete early in his life, to now using his football experience to inform his creative decisions behind the lens.
PENALTY caught up with White to talk about his unique career path and how it’s important for the modern footballer to have interests outside of the game.
Growing up in America, what was your attitude to football?
My attitude towards football was probably the same as any other kids. My mother is German. Born and raised just outside of Munich so she had a natural urge to put us into football when we were younger. I started playing as soon as I could run and it quickly became the main activity for the entire family. Balls in the house, long drives to training, flights to regional and national camps/tournaments; it was our life. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I started traveling internationally and went on trial overseas in France and Brazil. That was when I knew it could become a career. My experience was pretty similar to a lot of my peers growing up. First-generation American kids whose parent's countries had a passion for football who were fortunate enough to see the world playing.
Do you have a favourite live football moment from your childhood?
Mexico v Ghana at the1996 Olympic Games is probably my favourite moment from my childhood. Not because of the result but because It was my first time seeing a live international football match. The energy, pride and colours at RFK Stadium was moving.
When did your passion for photography start?
I started taking photographs as a teenager. My crew of football friends had a side passion for sneakers growing up and it was the beginning of eBay buy and selling and sneaker forums. You had to have a camera to buy, sell and brag about the newest kicks you had. So collectively, we bought a camera. What started off as a business tool quickly became a way for us to document our lives traveling around the country/world for football tournaments. It was always just a hobby. It became a career 10+ years later.
What was the moment you knew you wanted to stop playing the game?
There was never a specific moment when I knew I wanted to stop playing. Years before moving on from the game, after I got traded from DC United, my mindset on life and playing changed. I didn't want to become subject to getting shifted around the MLS on the league's terms at any moment. I was going to continue playing but only if the experience provided me with opportunities that aligned with my long-term life goals. After playing in Philadelphia, I played for NYCFC under an Arsenal legend in a city that provided me with everything I wanted in life after football. I passed on other opportunities in the MLS and Scandinavia to pursue life as a creative and enjoy my youth freely. On my terms.
As a boyhood Arsenal fan, how was it to play under Patrick Viera?
It was incredible. PV was the MAN at Arsenal and the captain. Playing under PV was a dream come true. An unbelievable manager but also a great person who is passionate about developing good footballers but also good men. I'm happy to see him back in the BPL.
What insight can you provide in the frame, as a former professional, that others maybe can’t?
Being a former player myself, I can put myself in an athlete's shoes in moments of jubilation, despair, anxiety and more. I think capturing the quiet moments away from the highlights are what makes sports and athletes special. The moments and emotions that people don't see are what make the highlights possible. I've been in those moments myself. I can see and feel them.
Do you approach your photography with the same mentality as you would in professional football?
Absolutely, I'm a competitor. It's impossible to take it out of me. When it comes to photography though, I'm competing with myself. I want to get better every day and I'm pursuing this passion with the same drive that I did as a kid training to become a footballer.
Often sports photography can be quite cold, how do you avoid this in how you approach taking photos?
I think sports photography is often cold because of the way the business is built. The photographers often don't have any emotional investment in the athletes or sporting event they're capturing. Large agencies will send a team of photographers with $40K worth of equipment to capture a match and then return to the photo room to edit and ask "who is #10 on Argentina?". As a creative, I document the things I live, lived or am passionate about. When the artist has a connection to the subject you're capturing, the work will show it. I want to see artists capturing football, not just company employees.
How did it feel to make it to the Champions League final as a photographer?
It was amazing. A year after I decided to retire from football, I was shooting the Champions League Final pitch side. I felt like I belonged there, and it verified that I was a good enough photographer to be at the top stage. Hopefully, I'll be shooting the next World Cup.
If you could give one message to every professional footballer, what would it be?
There are millions of people that want to be in your shoes. Don't take the experience for granted but also don't let it define you. 10-20 years is a small fraction of your life.
How important for you has it been to have two great passions throughout your life?
I am often surprised by this question but I get it very often. Having multiple passions is extremely important and normal for everyone but athletes. I think my second passion, photography, saved me many sleepless nights dwelling on the stresses and pressures of being a professional athlete. It allowed me to turn off a side of my brain and focus on something within. To channel my energy, challenge and express myself in a different way helped me. Everyone should have multiple passions and they should be celebrated.
What would you change about the modern game?
The modern game is becoming too modern. The sponsorship deals are widening the gaps between the top tier sides and rest of the pack, VAR has been controversial for 3 years now and the regular supporter has to have 4 different streaming platforms to find where they can watch all of the leagues.
What’s next for you?
I have recently started a creative agency with some colleagues creating content for football and lifestyle brands. We have quite a few exciting projects in the works that we can't wait for you all to see!