“Every week in the late Sunday afternoon light, as the day cools very slightly from the mid 30s, the players from the Freetown team practice on a sandy pitch at Lumley Beach,” Todd Antony tells me. This Freetown football team is part of The Flying Star Amputees, a group of teams created by the survivors of forced amputations carried out by rebel soldiers during Sierra Leone Civil War. With the help of a local fixer, Antony was able to tell their stories.
“The trip as a whole was so indelible,” the photographer says. “But there was one moment on Lumley Beach that will never leave me. The sun was setting, and I was with one of the players, Osman Turay. No camera, just talking.
“I asked him how his amputation happened. He lost his leg when he was eight years old. His mother was carrying him on her back as they ran from the rebels, when a bullet struck his leg. Shortly after, most of his remaining family were rounded up into a house. The doors were locked, and the house was then set alight and burnt down by the rebels while they remained locked inside.
“As I walked up the beach a few minutes later, I made a voice note on my phone of what he’d just told me, so I could give the images I was about to take of him context. Fighting to get the words out beyond the lump in my throat and the tears building in my eyes. Struggling to wrap my head around what he had just told me.”
In Antony’s portrait, Osman Turay leaps into the air in a feat of athleticism, his foot extending above his head to meet the ball. You can see his crutches but just barely, as they blur into the rolling waves. He looks like a bird in flight.
The civil war in Sierra Leone resulted in the deaths of 50,000 people. Thousands of surviving civilians had legs, arms, or hands removed by bullets, landmines, and deliberate amputations. Some of them found hope, joy, support, empowerment, and community in football.
Antony first connected with the Flying Stars through his fixer, Kabba, who was friends with some of the players. “When I got to Sierra Leone, I made sure to spend time with some of the players without a camera, before taking a single frame,” he remembers. “Just spend time with them talking, meeting their family and seeing where they live.” In addition to Freetown, he also visited Bo, about a four-hour’s journey away.
It was in Bo that the photographer met Umaru Sandi, the captain of the local team. “We spent a few days with him in his local amputee resettlement village, down the end of a dirt road surrounded by bush–his little three-year-old boy, Joshua, following us wherever we went and peering into my camera cases to see what we were doing,” Antony tells me.
On a Sunday morning, Sandi invited Antony to join him at church. He was welcomed into the football player’s house and permitted to accompany him as he worked in the field–“one hand holding a crutch to balance while the other hand wielded a machete to cut the bush for planting, sweat rolling off him.” They had a “kick around” in the village. Antony originally planned for a one-hour interview with Sandi; finding he didn’t want to end the conversation, it quickly turned into three.
During that first day Antony went to meet Sandi, he noticed a field, still smouldering from a recent fire. “With the wet season approaching, they were slashing and burning areas of bush in preparation for planting to grow food over the course of the season,” the photographer remembers. “I asked if there was an area they were already planning to burn off, that we could set fire to the following evening after sunset. I wanted to use the flames as a visual metaphor for the war and the turmoil both he and the country faced during that period and beyond.”
Antony never got to play with the whole team, but he did experience what he calls the “next best thing.” As part of the creation of a forthcoming short film, he documented a match between East and West Freetown. “I spent an hour charging around the pitch with them with about 10kgs of camera gear in hand,” he remembers. “Unsuccessfully trying to keep up with them and just about keeling over from heat exhaustion.
“Their speed, strength, and athleticism on the pitch is absolutely incredible. And all this while half of the players were fasting for Ramadan. The speeds they get up to on their crutches, and the impacts they have in some of the tackles are pretty mind-blowing. The players share a strength and resilience that few people could claim to have, and I wanted to ensure that this also shone through in the images.”
The setting itself also provided ample inspiration for the photographer. “The pitches they play matches on are of hard earth and stone chip, the vibrant colour of burnt umber and terracotta,” he says. “The fine red dust is constantly kicked up into the air. The vibrancy of the red earth and rich green of the jungle are ever-present in Sierra Leone, so I wanted to include that to some degree.
The Flying Stars had been photographed by journalists before, but this project was different. “This was the first time they’d experienced someone coming in with a bunch of lighting and really taking the time to shape an image in a particular way,” Antony says. “It was just really nice seeing their reactions as the images came up on the laptop as we shot. Lots of laughing and ribbing each other.”
The photographs are joyful and celebratory, but they also carry the weight of a painful history. “I wanted a number of the portraits in the project to get across some small sense of the trauma the players have experienced in their lives,” Antony says. “I used lens diopters and slow shutter speeds to create ghosting and jarring effects within the image that allude to the trauma and ghosts of their past experiences.
“In some images the refracting nature of the diopters I placed in front of the lens create a blurry, mirror ghost image of their remaining leg where their missing leg would be.” In some cases, perhaps that blur becomes something else as well: the slightest hint of beating wings against the twilight sky.
Although the Flying Stars Amputees are trying to secure government funding to establish a premier league, the government hasn’t provided them with any funding, as of this writing. Todd Antony has set up a GoFundMe to support the teams, who need funding for crutches, ferrules, and transport. In Sierra Leone, crutches cost ten to fifteen times more than they do in countries like the U.K. or U.S. Donations of any amount are welcome, but those who donate £150 or more will receive a signed, limited edition print from the series. Show your support here.
All images © Todd Antony