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Exhibition captures unity and devotion of Bradford City’s female fans

GROWING up a few streets away from Valley Parade, Nudrat Afza often wondered about the chants and cheers coming from Bradford City’s football ground on Saturday afternoons.

“Coming from a South Asian background, cricket was the sport I grew up with,” she says. “Football meant nothing to me.”

In May, 2013 a chance invitation led Nudrat to a City match, accompanied by her daughter, Khadijah. It was one of the club’s finest hours, when the Bantams made it to Wembley for the League Two play-off final.

“My daughter is a season ticket holder but she has a health condition and can’t go to matches on her own. Usually went with friends, but on this occasion I took her,” says Nudrat. “It was my first ever football match – I didn’t know how to fit in, but at the same time I felt like I belonged.”

What struck Nudrat was the passion and unity of the fans, particularly girls and women in the home crowd. “The atmosphere was amazing, with lots of chanting. I found it very moving,” she recalls. “I’d expected nearly all men but here were these fantastic, committed females cheering their team. Women were getting up on seats, chanting, with no inhibitions. I thought: ‘I wish I could do that’.

“I had no idea what to do; I just sat there. One of the male Asian stewards was looking at me, smiling, because he knew I was so far outside my comfort zone. It was like nothing I’d experienced before, but it felt like a magnet was pulling me in.”

A keen photographer, Nudrat later returned, with her camera, and started taking images of women in the claret and amber crowds. Two years ago a calendar featuring her pictures went on sale at the club, with proceeds going to its charities.

Now an exhibition of Nudrat’s images is opening at the Science and Media Museum in Bradford. City Girls is the culmination of a two-year photographic project capturing the enthusiasm, devotion and energy of the club’s female fans, from little girls to grandmothers.

On display are about 80 black and white photographs, some of Asian female supporters. “In the 1960sand 70s there was a lot of racism on the football terraces in England, but it’s more inclusive now,” says Nudrat, who moved to Bradford from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in the 1960s. “Football is a lot more family-oriented now.”

Whereas Nudrat’s calendar focussed on fans outside the ground – mothers, daughters, grandmothers and friends wearing City colours, clutching match tickets in cold queues – this exhibition shows them on the stand, watching matches, with all the highs and lows. Her photographs, which include striking portraits and atmospheric crowd scenes, capture a range of emotions, from delight to despair.

“What excites me about photography is how different facial expressions are,” she says. “People are beautiful. Emotions change in an instant, depending on what’s happening on the pitch. They’re excited and nervous one minute, then upset and shocked, or confident and relieved in another.

“I love the sense of unity, and the drama of the match. Everyone is in City scarves and shirts, there’s a sense of belonging which I felt straight away. I find it very emotional.”

When Nudrat got permission from Bradford City to take photos inside the ground, it was around the time of one of the club’s most recent high points – beating Chelsea 2-4 at Stamford Bridge in the 2015 FA Cup fourth round. “It was a magical time for the club, I was really taken in by the way scenes would completely change each week; the pictures would be completely different.”

The exhibition includes poignant reminders of the Bradford City fire of 1985. One image was taken during a minute’s silence inside the ground, and another is of a mother and daughter looking at flowers laid at the Bradford City Fire Memorial.

Nudrat is now a familiar face at City matches. “It’s quite an intimate process, taking photographs, it’s about building up trust,” she says. “When people see me with a camera, I explain what I’m doing. Nobody has said ‘no’ so far. Feedback to the calendar was very positive and people are looking forward to seeing their pictures in the exhibition.

“Bradford, like many UK cities, has a well-known football team with thousands of loyal fans, it’s good to see the museum both reflects and draws strength from the culture and context of its location.”

Nudrat has been supported in her venture by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who praised her photographs for their “tender look at supporters, fans, believers”. She contacted the Keighley-born writer, whose film credits include Slumdog Millionaire and The Full Monty, about plans to take photos of derelict buildings in Bradford and he gave her a Hasselblad XPan film camera.

“I used it initially to photograph buildings, then I started using it at City matches. I wasn’t sure it would work with portraits but I found it captures backgrounds really well,” she says. “I use different cameras for different kinds of pictures – some are portraits but sometimes it’s very fast-moving and I have to be quick to capture an expression. My pictures are black and white, in a social documentary style. They capture a particular point in time, like social history.”

A self-taught photographer, Nudrat captures aspects of daily life of people from all communities. In 1986 she received a grant from Yorkshire Arts to photograph Bradford’s Bangladeshi community. She later worked on an exhibition of the history of the South Asian communities in Kirklees. In 2012 Nudrat exhibited a series of photographs she took of the former Kenmore Hair Salon on Toller Lane, Bradford, in the final months before the long-term owner retired.

“I have two children, and grandchildren, and haven’t had time to do a course. I use very basic cameras and still use negatives, I haven’t moved on to the digital age!” she smiles.

John O’Shea, Senior Exhibitions Manager at the National Science and Media Museum, says City Girls offers “a new, close-up, perspective on the fan experience”.

He adds: “Nudrat was previously unfamiliar with the world of football, but through this project she has captured the emotion and feel of a contemporary matchday experience. As she focuses on female fans, she also manages to encapsulate aspects of Bradford’s diversity, sense of community and cultural pride.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a book in which women will be invited to write about their own experiences of watching football. Nudrat plans to produce a book of her photographs, and include some of the women’s comments.

“Football is still a game dominated by men at every level and I think girls feel invisible sometimes,” says Nudrat. “What always strikes me are the wonderful females who are every bit as involved, as dedicated and passionate, as the men. It’s been great to put the focus on them.”

One particularly passionate fan is Nudrat’s daughter, who has a serious liver condition. “She loves to wear the claret and amber colours, I wouldn’t have done any of this if it hadn’t been for her,” says Nudrat, who is her fulltime carer. “For me, going to watch City is a lifeline. As a carer, you can lose sight of yourself. This is something for me, as well as her.”

So is Nudrat now a fully-fledged Bantam? “Well, I follow the matches now,” she smiles. “I feel the tension when there are two minutes to go. I shout along with the rest of the fans.

“I’ve lived in Bradford over 50 years and I’m passionate about the city – and its football team. One of my favourite pictures is of a fan who had come with her family from Finland to watch a match. She didn’t speak much English so a family member explained what I was doing.

“I said, ‘Welcome to Bradford’.”

* The exhibition is at the Science and Media Museum from November 17, running until June.

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