When I was looking for funding and sponsorship for Portraits of Pride in 2019, feedback returned to me by an organisation who declined to participate, was a comment along the lines that, ‘the images are well lit, but they’re just a guy followed by another guy in front of the camera.’ In context of the conversation there was no malicious intent or tone in the comment, rather it felt like a spontaneous throwaway line. However it is a comment I keep coming back to and it intrigues me that the remark was made by someone in a decision making position with little consideration of the challenges the project faced (Ed’s note: when I started I also underestimated the scale and challenges of the project).
So why portraits; why and how did I decide on close up portraits of the players? Why not 3/4 images or photographs showing lifestyle elements such as location?
In regards to the images themselves by adding one element of variety, namely two different colour backdrops (black in addition to white), my equipment list virtually doubled. The lighting set ups for the two backdrops are not mutually compatible for the images I wish to photograph and while I regularly analyse my kit to ascertain where savings may be made, I err on the side of caution due to the variety of locations I find myself shooting in. While so far I have taken the images at sports clubs no two spaces have been the same; the bars, dining and changing rooms are all as unique as the clubs themselves. I’ve taken the portraits in a clubhouse at the end of it’s life (it was like being surrounded by ghosts), in an empty clubhouse on a Friday night, a clubhouse full of players eating their post match meal etc etc. The only consistent are the low ceilings all the changing rooms have had thus far.
Which brings me to the portraits themselves. When I started I took both wide, 3/4 length shots, as well as close up portraits. I am now taking solely the latter due to a combination of scale and time. While a certain amount of information can be ascertained from body language and location if included, I have found myself focusing on faces as the main element of the composition. Rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes; however it is more time efficient to compose and offer direction on only one element, ie the face, than the multiple varying elements the sport quite rightly prides itself in. And while many of the clubhouses have terrific amounts character that would add to the portraits, photography in wide environments I can not control is time consuming; there are too many variables. A face positioned in front of a backdrop, for 1/200 of a second, is something I can control.
Time is the final piece to the puzzle. My normal portrait sessions take two hours as I familiarise myself with my subjects and understand what it is they are after and why, however this is impractical when photographing a dozen or so subjects. As such I’ve had to adapt my routine and now allocate 5 minutes per person. I do not line the players up like a conveyor belt as I do not expect to connect with someone, in order to take a meaningful portrait, if I haven’t engaged with them and built, even a minimal, rapport. However distinct benefits exist, compared to my two hour sessions, that aid with these condensed encounters. These are the intangibles of shooting on location, whilst my subjects wear a rugby strip and often having just walked off the pitch which mean they are already in a mindset appropriate for the portraits.
Returning to the original comment at the start of this post, yes I agree, there is a certain element of the portraits being ‘just another guy in front of the camera’. I could make my life simpler by minimising my equipment to a single backdrop and one light. If I follow that train of thought to a then why not shoot the project on a camera phone? Indeed, why not ask the players themselves to take selfies? Why incur time and cost by shooting them myself? I jest as, I believe, one reason why I’ve had buy in from the clubs and players is due to the quality of the work. And, as I’ve just laid out, achieving such standards is a challenge with few short cuts. Why embark on the project if I do not try and take the best portraits I am capable of to show the players and the sport in the best possible light?