Zak Waters is a multi-award winning photographer. His many awards include Winner Royal Photographic Society Terence Donovan Award (2006), Photographer of the Year B&W Photography Magazine (2005) and UK Winner BP Oil Young European Artist. Birdmen has completed a solo exhibition at Kunsthal, Rotterdam. Netherlands.
I grew up in a small mining community in England’s North East. As a child in the 1970s, I watched groups of pigeons flying above my village, all owned by local men, members of a Homing Society, who bred, cared for and raced their pigeons. Birdmen numbers were at an all-time peak. The sport passed from father to son, like generations before them. Work was good and the Birdmen from the UK were world renowned.
Years later, in the mid-1990s, I was walking through a rough area of Newcastle. Above me was that familiar scene from my childhood - groups of pigeons looping around the sky. I followed them, climbed over a locked gate and came to fenced gardens with a number of wooden huts in each plot. Men were sitting outside talking and joking as they drank tea and looked into the skies for their birds. I knocked on a gate and was told to come through by a broad and booming northern voice. “De ya wanna cup of tea, son?” I had just entered the world of the Birdmen. This is where it began for me.
The 1990s was a disastrous time for the Birdmen. From an all-time high of over 130,000 members and 2,000 separate clubs, the number of registered racers had fallen to under 60,000. The 1980s had been a pivotal decade; heavy industry was on the decline, the coal miners had fought the government and lost their jobs. The iron, steel and the shipbuilding industries had long since peaked.
Communities all over the Britain were affected by enormous economic and social difficulties. Skilled men, whose families for generations had been in employment, were faced with redundancy and the prospect of unemployment or lower paid non-skilled work. Communities were in turmoil and so were the Birdmen. The economic carnage of Thatcher’s Britain tore society apart and I witnessed Birdmen killing their birds out of depression, anger and frustration because they had no money to look after them.
Pigeon racing is all about love. For the men, it is the love of the sport and, for the pigeons, the love of each other. Pigeons once paired will stay with each other for life, which is why, when a bird is released at a point 600 miles from its home, it will strive to be back beside its partner, often in under twelve hours. The Birdmen’s success in pairing compatible birds together, as well as keeping them fit and healthy is the key to producing a successful racing pigeon.
The racing season starts in April, and ends in September. Normally the birds are picked up on a Friday evening after the Birdmen have selected and registered their birds at their clubhouse. Their birds are then taken by basket to a transporter and driven overnight to the race venue. The race distance can vary from 150 miles within the mainland to a cross-channel race in France, Belgium or as far as Spain.
Once the birds are liberated, the birds begin their journey home. When the first bird returns, the Birdmen removes the ring and places it in a slot in their timing clock that records its return time. From this time-stamp, an average speed is measured and a winner of the race announced.
The Birdmen is a book about the last of a working class breed, through whom you can chart not only the decline of traditional industries in the UK, but changes in the life of a community that is fast becoming lost forever.
Birdmen will be a hardback limited edition book with approx. 192 pages. It will be printed in a large landscape format (27cm x 29cm) in duotone. The text is by Rod Adams, legendary writer on pigeon racing.
Risks and challenges
There are none. Bluecoat Press has a long-established reputation for publishing high quality photobooks including successful Kickstarter projects The British Abroard,The Writing on the Wall, Beeton Grove, Being Irish, Small Town Inertia, Youth Unemployment and Like You've Never Been Away.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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