Pennsylvania-based photographer Brett Carlsen has been working for the New York Times since 2011, when he was still a student. The strength of his photojournalistic style made him an obvious choice for the NYT’s October feature on the Seattle Seahawks, who would be traveling nearly 5,000 miles to play against the Oakland Raiders at Wembley Stadium. At that point in the season, the erstwhile Super Bowl Champs had a middling record of 2-3, and in playing the Raiders would be facing off with former teammate Marshawn Lynch. As Brett explains,
The story would focus on the kind of ‘in-between’ state of the team, from Super Bowl-worthy to fairly mediocre in their season to date. [It was a] fairly subtle story topic, how this trip may be representative of what they are doing to change that. For me, however, I was there to photograph the team as they went through a huge trip together.
And the trip was, by all measurements, huge: the Hawks transported 21,000 pounds of gear to London and their chartered Airbus A340-600 held 45 sleeping pods. For Brett, preparation included flying out to Seattle ahead of time to photograph a home game as well as the crew’s preparatory efforts — though when the time came to board the plane, he could hardly bring as much gear as the Hawks.
Because we were flying on a chartered plane with VIPs, we couldn’t have any checked bags, as that would delay travel for everyone. So I had to fit all of my equipment into a single carry-on bag.
The Hawks and their support staff had less than four days before the game to adjust to the radical shifts in time, climate, and diet. Planning was essential to keeping the team both physically and mentally balanced. On Brett’s end, rigorous planning was likewise essential to maintaining the focus and creative integrity that such a large-scale, immersive project demanded.
I plan out the logistics of everything: what will the weather be like, how am I getting around when I get there, what situations will I be in and in turn what photographs I’m trying to make. All of these change on every job, but when you’re thousands of miles from home, it’s important to make sure you thought of everything so you have tools and equipment ready to deal with those issues.
Mentally, I have to run through ideas and style choices. You can’t decide to change your approach once you’ve arrived as your kit is limited, and because your work must be congruent across the story. So pack light, but more importantly, pack efficiently. Bring things that work double duty. Take less outfits if it makes room for extra creative options; for example, maybe a zoom set makes more sense than primes. I took primes on this trip anyway, but I had to skip lights because of it.
Brett kept close to the Hawks throughout their travels, staying at their hotel and following them through the streets of London. He was afforded “fantastic access” to the team all weekend thanks to Ken Belson, the writer who was covering the story. And such access required diplomacy.
I think the biggest challenge was that you’re dealing with very sensitive access. These are very highly skilled athletes in a private environment for a week or more that no journalist ever gets to see, let alone one with a camera. Keeping the PR people happy while still capturing a scene is always an issue in this career, but this project had the volume turned up. There was many negotiations and rapport-building exercises to get a lot of the photographs you see in the final project . . . The players had to be befriended in a period of days. And all of this in the midst of an international trip to a place most of them (and myself) had never been to. Everyone was amazing to me, but it definitely took a delicate touch and persistence to make it all work.
Brett’s efforts paid off. His goal was to create “illustrative photographs and somewhat meditative video clips,” and the results speak for themselves. Though Brett describes the final style as “fairly straight photojournalism,” there’s undeniable emotionality in every image that echoes the Seahawks’ backstory. And this is the product of an expertly executed artistic vision:
[NYT’s sports photo editor Becky Lebowitz Hanger] and I spoke about some of those choices, and we opted for sticking with natural light, as an example. But, as always, I got creative. We had to capture then emotions of a team in turmoil, in flux. This is not something most would think of when identifying trends for a sports photography essay, let alone American football. But story drives everything in my world, and I make decisions that best tell the story.
The Hawks’ preparations paid off, too: they bested the Raiders 27-3. Read more about their trip in the full story here.
See more of Brett at brettcarlsen.com!
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