The Spirit of Champions Collection: Q&A With Nigel Barker
At this year’s New York Fashion Week, world-class athletes walked the runway to raise funds and awareness in support of Laureus USA. The day before the benefit show world-renowned photographer and Mimeo Photos’ Creative Director, Nigel Barker, took portraits of 16 athletes for the book, The Spirit of Champions Collection.
The photobook, produced by Mimeo Photos, contains the original signature of the featured athletes and Barker, including:
- Marcus Allen
- Miles Chamley Watson
- Kristi Castlin
- Nadia Comaneci
- Kimberly Hise (ChinTwins)
- Cristen Barker (ChinTwins)
- Missy Franklin
- Tony Hawk
- Carl Lewis
- Edwin Moses
- Ibtihaj Muhammad
- David Robinson
- Alex Shibutani
- Maia Shibutani
- Lance Thomas
- Kerri Walsh Jennings
The Spirit of Champions Collection was auctioned on Charity Buzz, with all proceeds directly benefiting Laureus and our mission to improve the lives of youth and unite communities through the power of sport.
We sat down with Nigel to get his inside details of what inspired the collection, and how he captured the iconic shots:
What was the inspiration behind The Spirit of Champions Collection?
As Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world.” Those words inspired the creation of The Laureus Sport For Good Organization. It also set the bar high for the kind of imagery I wanted and truly felt needed to be captured to give the athletes justice and inspire others to get involved.
I have called the series of images, The Spirit of Champions Collection, as that is what I set out to capture.
It’s not always easy to capture dedication, athleticism, and passion in a still photo. But by asking each athlete to evoke what they love to do in front of the camera ﹘ giving them balls to hold, dribble, and shoot with and using water when shooting Missy Franklin ﹘ and ultimately having a team of people working beside me who created an environment where everyone delivered was the key.
How does sport inspire you?
I grew up playing rugby and was a part of my high school high jump and shot put team. During those special years, and in large part because of the teams and coaches I trained with, I gained confidence and learned what it meant to be a part of a team.
Now, as an adult, I encourage both my son and daughter to play as many sports as they can for the same reasons. Winning is fun, but playing and working together is what it is all about ﹘ that’s where the real results lie.
In fact, I was lucky enough to start training again with a group of friends in my forties every morning at 5.45 a.m. What started out as a handful of friends has turned into one of the best training facilities in NYC, The DogPound. None of us could have created The DogPound alone, it took teamwork.
How were you able to capture a feeling of motion in a still photograph?
It’s not just motion but emotion that I set out to capture. Let me set the stage:
We shot at one of my favorite studios in NYC called Highline Stages in the Meatpacking District. The studios are huge and cavernous. From the moment anyone arrives they feel in awe of these mega sound stages.
Music is key as it helps bring out emotion and sets the tone, so with every athlete I ask them what they want to hear, what music do they train to etc. It was not easy for any of my subjects to be photographed as I pushed them to repeat certain motions from their sport over and over again.
At first, these motions put them in a happy place since it’s something that they know how to do well. Eventually, the repetition breaks through the prevention of being in a photography studio. When the athletes become out of breath, that’s when the real champion comes out.
Specifically, I made each photo’s shutter speed between half of a second to one point six seconds ﹘ as we all know how races are won and lost in a just millisecond. That effect coupled with a rear sync on my strobe units created the spirited look of golden vapors left in their tracks.
How does photographing athletes differ from models? Did it pose any unique challenges?
Everyone is different. Each athlete is different. Even when shooting models, I am always first and foremost interested in their personality as it’s the look in their eyes that ultimately brings a photo to life.
Regardless of who I am shooting I always look to capture the narrative and some people come with one while for others I help to conjure a story. You can call it method-modeling!
If you could trade in your camera and switch careers with one of these athletes, which one would you choose and why?
Ha! Hard question… Do I want to be the fastest man on earth? Be 7 feet tall and dunk any hoop? Swim like a fish or balance like Spiderman?
Probably, and if I could only pick one athlete, I would swap places with Miles Chamley-Watson. I absolutely love the grace and power of fencing. Miles has moves that the sport of fencing has never seen before.
Why was Mimeo the perfect partner for producing this photo collection?
It’s very important to me that my photos are reproduced to the highest quality. Having been a long time Apple photobook maker for my personal projects, I was recently turned on to Mimeo Photos when Apple stepped out of the market.
What I discovered was major. Not only was it as easy as creating an Apple photobook, but it was actually simpler and the printing quality is superb. So I joined forces with Mimeo and told them about the exciting project for Laureus.
The Mimeo Photos team went above and beyond to make these limited edition books extra special. We actually had the front and back pages of the books on set whilst I shot the athletes to sign at the studio so we could incorporate their actual autographs into the books ﹘ very cool! They also donated all of their time, labor, and expertise to make it happen.
For me, that was the clincher. Mimeo Photos is a company that goes for gold in everything they do.
What are your tips for calming nerves and helping subjects get comfortable in front the camera?
Knowledge is power, so I research all my subjects ahead of time. I like to know what kind of music they enjoy, what they like to eat, their favorite snacks, and so on, but also what they’ve achieved in their careers and in their lives in general.
That way I can help create a comfortable and conducive environment. Also, it helps when you ask a basketball player to dribble a ball or a swimmer to mimic backstrokes, versus asking them to sit and look pretty.
By putting your subject in a comfortable position it’s easier to create an environment for spontaneity which is when the magic happens.
How did you get started as a photographer?
I have enjoyed photography as a medium to create since I was a young boy. Although, I originally became involved in the fashion business as a model in the late 1980s. It was the era of the supermodels and I was lucky enough to work with the best in the industry from Armani to Valentino.
It was during that time that two pivotal things happened. First, and most importantly, I met my future wife Crissy and her sister Kimmy. Crissy and Kimmy have gone on to be my lifelong muses. Second, the fashion industry changed in the 1990s with the onset of androgyny, heroin chic, and waif models.
I was never any of those things. Rather than hang up my hat and leave completely, I decided to transition from one side of the camera to the other. For several years we traveled around Europe living in Milan, Paris, and London before moving to NYC and setting up my own Studio NB in the Meatpacking District in 1998.
Given your legendary career, what advice would you give to other aspiring photographers?
Simple yet very hard: you must love what you do, have conviction in your opinion, and never stop pushing even if the world doesn’t always get it!
If you only take pictures for “followers” or you think that an image is good because it gets lots of “likes”, then you are doing yourself a disservice.
The world of photography has changed meteorically since the dawn of the digital era. Now, everyone with a phone has the ability to enjoy taking pictures and we are seeing more great work than ever before.
Which means it’s even harder to rise above the noise. Say what you have to say in a picture loud and clear and unapologetically.