Peter “Poby” Pobyjpicz is a freelance commercial photographer. Poby was born in Germany from Russian parents who lived in West Germany after WW2. Poby played water polo with the German National Team and trained for the 1980s Olympics but did not attend because of the boycott.
Poby, Thank you for sharing your story and experiences with Athletes Soul.
How did you get into photography?
I always knew sport was not the only thing I had in me. I liked to draw and play the piano. I liked to express myself differently than the other boys. I had plenty of other interests in the arts and music. But at the time, it was not popular to pursue different activities and most of my teammates were focused solely on sports.
I started with Super 8 filming during that time. My father bought me a Super-8 camera and I instantly fell in love with it. Then my best friend bought a SLR still camera and it inspired me even more. At 16, I started working and saving money to upgrade my equipment and explore the photography world even more. There were no digital cameras when I learnt photography so I was practicing with analog film. I remember developing the films in my parents’ small apartment and spilling chemicals all over the bathroom.
A bit later my older sister had a baby and I started taking lots of pictures of my niece. In order improve the quality of my photos, I would write down the settings for each picture in a little journal so I could refer to them later on. It was a very methodical and slow process. It helped me a lot with portrait and lifestyle photography.
When did you realize you could become a photographer?
One of my friends saw an ad in a newspaper for a photography agency. They were recruiting sport photography interns. I called the agency, got an interview and eventually got the job. Eight weeks later, when I started the internship, I realized there were two other interns I had to compete against and that only one of us would continue on.
What was your first photographic assignment?
My first job was a political assignment. I covered a state election in Germany. All three interns went to the election and each one of us had to pick a party to cover. I covered the conservative party which won the election that night. Just before the results were announced, I noticed a large table in the middle of the room. I realized whoever would win would use the table to deliver the winning speech. I knew I had only one chance to take the picture. So I climbed on the table at the same time as the conservative winner and took a close portrait of him. This picture made the news headlines the next day! This started my career and made me realize I needed to be fast seizing opportunities just like I did in water polo.
What did you do after the internship?
After my internship, I stayed with this sport agency. It had three offices in Germany. After several months, I put my hand up to manage the office in Dusseldorf. Although it was a small office with two other freelance photographers, it was quite a bold move to ask for the position. This was in the early 80s. The world of photography was intense and challenging. My boss was difficult. If you were successful, you wouldn’t be noticed but if you made mistakes, he would scream at you. I learned from it.
Did you always want to be a sport photographer?
When I joined the Agency, it was a nice way to blend my love of arts and sport. Photography was also a good way to express my feelings. I could show artistically how I sensed the world and the results were quick. If you draw, you have to really do a lot of practice to come even close to a character or realistic situation. But when you have a camera, even though it was more complicated back then, you have a nearly instant reproduction of what you saw at that moment.
How long did it take you to become a photographer?
For me photography was a craftmanship I wanted to learn. It took me years and years to understand what photography really is and how I could control it. Learning to use a camera was way more complex than I thought it would be. Today, you have a phone and anybody can take a good picture. But to really understand photography and reproduce it for a billboard, you need deeper knowledge and it takes time.
When did you become your own boss?
In 1986, I went to the World Cup in Mexico. I had several arguments with my boss there. I was so upset, I decided to quit before the end of the World Cup. This was a crazy decision considering Germany had just qualified for the final. But I had made up my mind and I was not going to go back on my words. The funny part is that my boss gave me one more assignment before leaving the agency. I had to replace the photographer covering a meeting of the Queen and German President. I ended up flying to England from Mexico. Shortly after my arrival, I had an accident and broke my leg crossing the street (I did not look the right way!). I ended up standing in the front row to photograph the Queen because I was on crutches and a cast! After this episode, I decided to study graphic design and arts. I became a freelance photographer and immediately started working freelance for a large sports newspaper covering the city’s sporting events. From that point on, I was always my own boss. It is sometimes hard to be self-employed and not have anybody to bounce ideas off but I prefer it this way.
How did you transition to advertising?
During my time at the sport agency, I would sometimes be assigned feature photography with pro soccer players. This means taking pictures of them at home with their family. It usually would be really staged and I absolutely hated it! The athletes would not get paid for these pictures. You would have to play the celebrity game and beg them to do it. I always felt uncomfortable. This is why I transferred from sports photography and journalism to advertising. If I take pictures for Nike or Adidas, the athlete and I both get paid. It puts us on the same level and we have an equal way to communicate. As a former athlete, that was important to me.
Did your water polo skills or vision of the game help you with sport photography?
It is a very interesting question. Back in the days, the majority of my work was to photograph soccer. I was not a fan of soccer but an understanding of the game. To take pictures from the side of the field, you have to have a two-dimensional thinking and you have to anticipate the plays. I already understood the dynamic of team sport thanks to my experience as a water polo player. There was no autofocus and only manual cameras, so everything needed to be done manually. The only way to catch a goal was to know how the game worked. The side passes in water polo were literally the same as in soccer. You have to know who is going to pass to whom and, with that knowledge, you could focus on the future actions and be ready instead of trying to follow the ball and constantly be behind the game. So yes understanding team sport taught me good imagery.
How do you cope with the challenges of being self-employed and does it make you a better photographer?
I don’t know a different way as I have been self-employed the majority of my career. It is hard for me to say if it makes me a better photographer. It definitely makes me more competitive. If I pitch a job and don’t get it, I have to get up again and try for the next one. Again and again. It is that simple and that hard at the same time. It makes me think out of the box more. It forces me to do so. I can’t sit here and say we always did it that way, I have to re-invent myself all the time.
How does one become a photographer?
To become an artist, a photographer or any kind of profession, you have to have the same fire and same complete love you had for your sport, period. It doesn’t matter what school you go to. I never went to school to learn photography, I went to school to learn arts. All the photography I know is self- taught. If you have the deep desire to do something, no matter how difficult, it will work out. It doesn’t matter whether you have no place to sleep, not much to eat or people laughing at you saying “you can’t do that”. If nobody has done it before, then people will question what you are trying to do but you need to keep going. If you can resist that discomfort and have the courage, energy and power to try again and again, then you will be successful. Surround yourself and connect with more accomplished and more experienced people so you can constantly learn. But it is really important to believe in what you are doing. If you have the fire, you can do anything.
Could you have done any other jobs?
Literally for me this was what I was burning for. I could not picture myself doing anything else. Back in the 80s, people were laughing at me. “How do you think you can make money by taking pictures?” Sport photography wasn’t as big as it is in now. We were not celebrities like the fashion photographers. It has definitely changed in the last 20 or 30 years. I would be asked often why I was pursuing sport photography instead of fashion which was more lucrative. But for me this was what I wanted.
Sport Photography is more widely accepted now, how do you remain competitive and continue to be creative?
My successful moments and the urge to create something new and beautiful motivate me. If you have done it once, you can do it again. As a photographer, you can have lots of successes but also failures and you have to keep going. Sometimes you don’t get the job because there was someone else who was better connected, more creative or just working with a lower budget than you. And the question is how to recover from that. You have to accept you can’t always be ahead and have genius ideas. But you must keep trying again and again. It helps build resilience. One thing that helped me be different is that I used to be an athlete. I can relate to them. So when the cameras became completely automatic and basically anybody could take an action picture, I turned my focus to the athletes’ emotions. I still do all the action shots like everybody else, but I also look at who the athlete really is. How can I portray the athlete’s soul? As a former athlete I can connect with them and understand there is so much more than the gold medal. Advertising used to only show winnings, but this has changed. The journey is now recognized as important as the win itself. I focused on this aspect very early on.
Have you ever considered changing your focus from sport to another subject?
I photograph a lot of other things too. For my own happiness, I do fine arts photography with analog film cameras. I drive across the country with a 1960s camera and 1960s car to portray a different world. It is more an abstract emotional approach to landscape. The pictures are more like paintings. The photographs are 10m times exposures and play on different layers instead of being completely crisp and sharp. When you go close to the image, you see the sharp lines and different objects but when you step back, you have an unfocused effect. It impresses you more with the kind of being and the colors. It is a different approach and goes back to my analog photography knowledge and training in the Arts.
Do you always see the world around you through your photographic mind?
I see the world through lenses all the time. I think about how it would look in two dimensions on print or on the screen. I watch people and situations and I know exactly how and when to photograph them to get the perfect picture so that it becomes a story without a caption. These are the moments I constantly see around me. And it doesn’t stop! Sometimes I even make notes about specific situations in my phone so I can shoot them later on.
How do you do to stay focus during your work?
I usually listen to music with my headphones. I did this early on and it was not always well-perceived. I would sit on the side of the pitch with my Walkman on and people thought I did not care, but it actually helped me stay in the zone and cut out the distractions. You can get really excited and nervous when in a stadium with more than 60,000 fans. I still listen to music especially when I have a big job and I need to be focused. It helps me to concentrate, makes me happy and therefore more creative.
What other interests do you have?
Music. Music is important to me. I have been drawn to vinyl records since I was 18. At that time, I bought a very expensive stereo system that I recently upgraded with modern components and it sounds fantastic. I listen to it when I work. I also like to play a bit of jazz piano. I am not too good at it probably because I am too lazy to practice. My dream would have been to be a jazz pianist but photography worked out so I didn’t pursue it!
You have shared about your career as a photographer. Tell us about how you went on to play water polo for Germany and how you retired.
When I was 15, I could not make the German National Youth Team because I did not have a German passport. I was talented so eventually Germany offered to provide me and my family with citizenship. I received my citizenship in eight weeks and started playing with the German Youth Team. But because of the 1980 Olympic Games boycott, I could not make it to the Olympics.
In the 1980s, you could not make money playing water polo. My father was putting pressure on me to start supporting myself financially. So I decided to retire from water polo to make a living on my own.
It was a brutal transition. I had just received German citizenship so my coach was quite upset. I did not realize at the time the political importance of granting German citizenship to a Russian-born during the cold war.
Once I decided to retire, I did not have the guts to tell my coach so my father did. Five years later, I was able to make peace with my former coach - who I liked and respected very much - and was able to explain why I had left. I wasn’t aware how my departure had hurt him personally. We made peace and that was important to me.
Do you still play water polo?
Currently I am taking a little break because my shoulder is injured. After I retired, I did not play for ten years until we had a reunion. After I moved to New York, I joined the masters club team at the famous New York Athletic Club and played with former American National Team players. I really enjoyed it and when I moved to Arizona I joined the master water polo team there too.
What is your best memory from your sporting career?
To be the German National Champion for the first time when I was 16. I was the captain of the team. I liked that I was an active part of the win and not just any player. I was very happy and proud.
Do you feel that your passion and job as a photographer is as fulfilling and satisfying as water polo?
Yes. You have to transfer the soul and fire you had for your sport into your new passion. You need to transfer the standards from your athletic career to your new profession. Whatever you start has to have the same passion, soul and love as you had for your sport. If you do something just to be busy, you will never have the satisfaction you had during your sporting career. And it has to be something that you enjoy doing.
You need to find a substitute for your sport and it is a process. You didn’t become an elite athlete in seconds. Often we forget how we started our career. We forget that we had to grow slowly into it. You need to do the same thing in life too. If you are more open-minded for things before the end of your career, then it is easier to make the transition. You can allow yourself to explore and start the process before your career is over.
I had to grow into arts, I had to grow into photography and business. And I had to find that thing that would give me the same happiness and touch me in the same way as my sport. Although I know photography was the one to pursue, it took some time to be successful at a high level.
You said it took you years to return to water polo and make peace with your coach? Do you feel it took you years to transition to life after water polo?
My weakness is that I need to do everything at the highest level and when I have get there, I fall apart. I give so much that sometimes, all of a sudden, I really need to change. After water polo, I needed a break and needed to pour myself into something else until I was ready to go back.
Has the same thing ever happened with photography?
In a way it has. It is the moment when I think I don’t have ideas anymore. Or I have many options but I don’t know which one to choose. I start overthinking about the process instead of just playing with it.
When you are an artist, can you have a balanced life?
If I am honest, it is very hard for me. I personally can’t stop thinking about creating new things. If I don’t have my kids, family or friends to distract me, I can’t take an evening or weekend off. It is even more extreme now than it was with water polo. I didn’t use to think about my next game or my next practice but with photography I do. It only stops when I am amongst people (friends and family). So my balance is to always create, it makes me very happy and gives me peace.
Tell us one thing about yourself our readers don’t know about :-).
I loooove handmade salted dark chocolate truffles, coupled with a beautiful, chilled glass of white wine.
Discover more about Poby at www.poby.net or for his Fine Arts Photography at www.pobycollection.com.