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Through outstanding shots, Nick Compton raises funds and follows his passion

Means of escape during the playing days, a powerful tool for recovery and transition later... Nick Compton's camera is now helping him connect with the "rich cultural history" of South Africa.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | New Delhi |
Updated: March 14, 2021 7:51:54 am
Nick Compton played 16 Tests for England, scoring 775 runs, including two centuries. (Reuters)

A quick scroll through his Instagram page tells you how gifted a photographer Nick Compton is. Stills brimming with freshness. Subjects ranging from the grizzlies of Alaska to gorillas of Uganda, Namibian dunes to Japanese bamboo forests.

The former England opener paints equally compelling pictures over the phone. Speaking to The Indian Express from Cape Town, Compton looked back at a morning spent photographing Mumbai eight years ago.

“I got up at six in the morning and walked the streets of Mumbai with a camera. The merchants coming down on the train into Mumbai Central against the sun coming up. The flowers and the spices. All the markets and people setting themselves up,” Compton says. “It was such a visual experience. I felt probably as excited walking those streets as I did hitting the winning runs the day before.”

The day before, Compton had guided England to a 10-wicket win, levelling the 2012/13 Test series they would famously go on to win. What were his teammates doing at 6 that morning?

“Nursing big hangovers, potentially,” Compton laughs. “Potentially sleeping in, a lot of them. Each to their own, some of the guys enjoy PlayStation and staying in the hotel. I was somebody who enjoyed experiencing the country that I was in. And India was such an exciting place to be.”

Nestled in Compton’s Instagram feed is another memory from that tour. A photo of Matt Prior during the last Test in Nagpur. The England keeper collapsed in a chair in the dressing room, head on the armrest. “I love this shot because test cricket is simply just that – mentally and emotionally exhausting,” reads the caption.

“It was a moment in time. One of those moments in the changing room, which exemplify just how intense Test cricket is,” the South Africa-born 37-year-old says.

With enviable, unrestricted access to numerous such moments, Compton’s camera was never out of reach.

“I found myself often sitting in the changing room, and a player just got out or was padding up or sitting there contemplating how he was going to go about things… I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sitting there, padding up and thinking ‘I’d love to take that photo’. I had to catch myself a few times,” he says.

“It made me excited to capture that and go, ‘Wow, what a great photo’. Definitely got as much excitement out of that as I did at times playing. Every player has their own escape, ways of switching off. I also thought that in years to come, the players would really like some of these photos.”

Means of escape for Compton during the playing days, the camera became a powerful tool of recovery and transition later on.

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Nick Compton retired after not featuring for Middlesex in 2018.

Compton has been candid about mental health-related issues in cricket and his own battle with depression.

“In 2013 when I lost my England place, I also broke up with a girlfriend who had a very public profile. That was definitely a time when I was on the field and realised that something wasn’t right. The performance anxiety became too much. I didn’t feel as resilient. I think I was quite self judgmental because you need to have that resilience to push yourself to play at that level. But I knew that there was a trauma that perhaps hadn’t been worked through. The harder I pushed, the worse it got.”

Compton believes that the stigma has gone away a little, “but deep down, the problem is still very much there” and “a lot of organisations now say the right things because politically they need to.”

“For me, I realised, ‘Look, I’m not well and I need some help. I don’t know what to do’. But it’s also difficult because you’re in a professional world that as soon as you say I need help, something’s wrong, the coach or the captain now see you in a slightly different way with vulnerabilities.”

As a cricketer, Compton carried the legacy of being the grandson of Denis Compton — England’s sporting legend who scored 17 centuries in 78 Tests and 15 goals in 54 games for Arsenal football club. But he asserts that the family name was never a burden.

“I was obviously very proud. When I was very young, seeing the pictures of my grandfather at home made me go, ‘Oh, I want to achieve that’. But when you’re 5-6 years old, how much can the grandfather really have an impact? I don’t know,” says Compton. “I think people can get caught up in the grandfather thing. I viciously and competitively was a very talented sportsman at school. The drive came from within. I wanted to be as good as Kallis or Dravid or Tendulkar or Lara. These are the guys I looked at.”

After a brief international comeback in 2015, Compton took a six-week break in June 2016 after a disappointing Test series against Sri Lanka. He retired after not featuring for Middlesex in the 2018 county campaign.

“At Middlesex, I didn’t finish on my own terms. Particularly at a time when I was struggling with mental health, I don’t feel anyone really understood what I was going through. Fundamentally, when you retire and you finish the sport… it’s like a girlfriend, it was a wife, a relationship that ends. I needed to clear my head and find out what it is that I wanted to do going forward,” says Compton. “It’s all about understanding that you’re probably not going to feel quite the intensity or the heights of scoring winning runs or hundreds.”

Photography, then, allowed him “to tap into some of those feelings again.”

“Going out and getting immersed in my photography, that creative process is very mindful. When I’m behind my camera, in the streets with the lights and the colours and the people, I’m totally immersed. And when we feel connected to our breath, or to our photography, or to yoga, or to even batting when you’re in the moment of batting, nothing else matters. All your problems go away.”

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One of many photographs in South Africa by Nick Compton.

His work has been part of several exhibitions, the latest about to open in Chicago. And for Compton, there are decidedly fewer nerves when it comes to openings these days.

“I think with cricket, I teetered on the edge of dealing with failure and self-doubt. But with photography, I feel less doubt. You want to know that people like your stuff. But I think fundamentally, I’m excited to just be getting out there.”

There are parallels too.

“Sport is a very lonely, selfish pursuit of excellence. And I think photography is also quite a lonely existence in the sense that it’s about your own skill. Behind each shot, there’s something that I’m seeing, whether it be in the colours, the sunlight, the textures, the people’s faces, whatever it is, that attracts me,” says Compton.

“That individuality of expression in a moment of time, I find very similar with opening the batting. Because it’s you against that ball. And a moment in time. You have to be very focused and stimulated. Also, it’s the athleticism behind it. You’ve got to be an athletic photographer.”

The photographic oeuvre features sweeping panoramas and tight portraits, but a lot of Compton’s work is character studies. While he has captured underprivileged areas of India, Sri Lanka, USA, Compton is currently using photography to connect with the “rough, rich cultural history” of Africa. Through his latest photography series, Compton has been raising funds for the indigenous communities and tribes of South Africa which have been hit hard by Covid-19.

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The conversation expectedly veers towards cricket and there’s a lot to discuss. Compton talks about England’s Test series loss in India, the discourse over the pitches, the art of defence — “I didn’t want to get out quickly because what’s the point if you didn’t experience the crowd” — and how Alastair Cook’s team of 2012 was different from Joe Root’s.

There’s a desire to stay connected to the sport. Last month, he sent out a tweet to broadcaster Sky Sports: “I should be commenting/commentating on this India v England Series – come @SkyCricket how many people have won in India (sic).”

“It was a bit more tongue in cheek. Not aggressively or anything, but I was like, ‘hey’,” Compton laughs. “I’m young, I’m fresh. I have a rich cricketing history. I feel that there is a place for my voice. I don’t have to be working for Sky, but I do feel it’s a series that I could have offered a lot of insight for. I’d have loved to come and work in India.”

Compton was gearing up for an India trip anyway, as part of the England Legends squad for an ongoing exhibition tournament, before he broke his ankle running. There’s disappointment, but Compton’s satisfied knowing his memories of India are preserved neatly as a set of prints.

“When I went to India, when we won that series, I didn’t just go from one five-star hotel to another and then left. I kind of had an experience that went beyond that. And I can honestly say that I really experienced the country. My winning that series was a complete feeling rather than being just another cricket tour,” he says. “If I never had that experience again, if I never went back to India… I could really look back and go, ‘well, I did it, you know?”

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