David Finch

David Finch, hard at work in Paris.

By Nicolas Messner

For decades he has been travelling the edges of tatami around the world armed with his camera. His best weapon? His eye! To help him, his knowledge of judo. If he is no longer the young man he was, the 77-year-old British photographer retains the ability to react to the quarter of a second that’s needed to capture the present moment before it flies away. David Finch is an aesthete of the beautiful image of judo and since becoming a photographer, he is without doubt the one who has the most extensive image bank of competitive judo on the planet.

“I don’t know, I must have more than one million images of judo competitions around the world. I’ve been accredited as a photographer at almost all world championships and except just a few editions of the Paris Tournament, I’ve been there on the edge of the tatami, waiting for the action.”

In 1971, when the Paris Tournament was launched, David was not present, but from 1974 on, he didn’t miss a single edition of the event. “The first time I came here was for the Orange Judo Magazine and for my judo club, the Budokwai in London. There was that incredible athlete, Angelo Parisi, who was still competing for Great Britain and who was an Olympic Bronze Medallist from Munich in 1972. I was following him. He had such incredible potential. I had already started taking pictures for my judo club in 1972. Later, in 1979, I also started to collaborate with the German judo magazine and since then I never stopped taking judo pictures. Since 1980, I have attended all world championships and all Olympic Games. The only one I didn’t attend was Tokyo this summer, unfortunately.

I was never full time with photography, not until I retired from running our family removals business. We had up to 60 employees at any one time and that gave me the freedom to be able to travel. The business supported my judo travels.”

Today’s Paris Grand Slam is held at the Accord Arena but this was not always the case, “For many years, the event was organised at the Stade Pierre de Coubertin, on the other side of Paris. It was very intimate; we were basically sitting on the tatami, really so close to the action. At one point the competition was organised over three days. I preferred when it was like that, it was a little more relaxed.”

Having been a privileged witness of the evolution of judo over the years, David sees it obviously through the eyes of a photographer, “From an image point of view, I miss some of the old, spectacular, aerial techniques that leg grabs allowed, but I also like the evolution of ground work. The fact that the action can continue outside of the combat area is really nice. Athletes are getting even closer to us, the photographers.”

Beyond all the images that he took, there is something else that continues to impress David, “Judo is different from any other activity and sport. It carries values that are totally embedded in the sport. It’s really an incredible educational tool with all that discipline, the self-control and self-confidence and above all the friendship.”

David Finch has indeed made a lot of friends since he started being a photographer and moreover since he started judo, “I first came to discover judo in 1964 when, with a group of friends, we started the sport. Among all those friends, I’m the only one who kept doing judo. Judo is so special. Over all those years, I met incredible champions but also outstanding human beings. I can say that being a judoka helped me as a photographer and being a photographer helped me stay with judo and make so many really good friends. It’s a double win!

If you ask me who I have enjoyed taking pictures of the most, I can mention Angelo Parisi of course, but also Dietmar Lorenz, Neil Adams and more recently Teddy Riner or Lucie Décosse. My favourite photo, though, is one I took at the Rio Olympic Games, of Kelmendi and Giuffrida, in the -52kg final. Giuffrida came up from behind at an unexpected moment and there is a real look of surprise on Kelmendi’s face and also on the face of Driton Kuka behind her. It’s a photo that really captured a moment and for me it is a great illustration of judo.”

Just before David went back to the tatami to capture several thousand new pictures, he took the time to offer advice to young photographers, “Always sit next to the clock. During a match the athletes are always looking at the clock, so that’s where you can capture the expressions. It’s really important.”

One could sit for hours talking to David and let him slowly go through all those years of being a direct witness of the evolution of judo, of beautiful victories and painful losses but the clicks are not waiting! He finishes his coffee and rushes towards the mat, where he can really feel like a millionaire.