Ryan Nicholson: The “Why” Series

Oct 25, 2018
Photographer Spotlight

Kansas City-based photographer Ryan Nicholson is no stranger to sports and fitness photography. But when he heard of a unique opportunity to photograph of a 48 hour, 340-mile race from the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, California to the Welcome to Las Vegas sign in Las Vegas, Nevada, he jumped on board. Ryan asked each participant on "Team Out of Nowhere" of The Speed Project, an annual unsanctioned team relay race, to write down why they were putting themselves through the mental and physical challenges of such a trying expedition. Preserving the various reasons in each person's handwriting, Ryan used Photoshop to place the words on top of the photos of the runners in action, making for a moving, multi-dimensional project called the "Why" series.

Tell me about this project and how you became involved.

I got involved with the speed project 4.0 through my dear friend Gordon Clark who was one of the runners on the team (shout out to "Team Out of Nowhere") that I followed. Gordon and I have known each other a long time going back to the days when I was based in Phoenix, Arizona. He has been a great friend and supporter of my work and has opened up several photographic opportunities for me over the years. And just for context, the speed project is a 340 plus mile relay race that starts at the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles and ends at the "Welcome to Vegas" sign in Las Vegas, Nevada. It has been taking place for four years now, the brain child of Nils Arend and Blue Benadum. The speed project is a non-sanctioned, no rules, no prize money, epic relay race and to be involved you have to be connected to a team, a runner, or one of the organizers. In other words they don't give out media passes to this thing. When Gordon was invited to run with "Team Out of Nowhere" knowing my interest in photographing athletes he reached out to see if I wanted to be the photographer for the team. It didn't take me long to say yes!

Photographer Ryan Nicholson's Why Series Inspired by The Speed Project

I want to start embracing the wild things in life. I never want to think that I have done it all in a world full of adventures. I could never get this opportunity again so...why not?

What was the goal for the project?

My goal for the project was first and foremost to create images for the runners on my team as I was the "team" photographer. I was in their RV, and along with the other support people, fulfilled a role for the team. Beyond that, I love photographing athletes and I knew the speed project would be a unique opportunity to create some images of athletes pushing beyond their perceived boundaries which is absolutely a favorite subject matter of mine. While out on the "course" itself, I shot other runners when the opportunity presented itself as well as some landscape images. Operating on little to no sleep certainly quieted the "editor" in my head so if something caught my eye, I photographed it. 

Photographer Ryan Nicholson's Why Series Inspired by The Speed Project

I started running 2 years ago, it was for my health and to help cope with 2 losses. Running has always been my ultimate fear but after my 60-pound weight loss, I knew it was time to face my fear. After my first 5k run, I was surprised at how much I fell in love with running. It helped me feel stress-free, but also made me realize that there is nothing I can't do. Running has helped me become a stronger individual, physically and mentally. I had something to prove to myself, that I had the mental capacity to push through even if I couldn't anymore. I wanted the speed project to teach me more about myself. I am scared, I am nervous, but like with everything I do in life, I do it from the heart. This project is for me and 2 loved ones who passed away. I love you dearly.

What was involved in planning and preproduction?

The biggest preproduction decision was selecting the minimal amount of gear I felt like I could survive with because I was going to be in a very small shared space. As a commercial and editorial photographer who often works with assistants and cases of gear, it was good experience to get back to the basics. It was during the planning stages of the shoot that I came up with the idea of pairing together an image of each runner along with their handwritten response to my question "why" they decided to run the speed project? I knew that every runner would have to have a reason to put their bodies and minds through the challenge of running a race of this magnitude and that an image by itself wouldn't tell their story. The pairing of the image and reasons "Why" definitely helped by adding some context.

Photographer Ryan Nicholson's Why Series Inspired by The Speed Project

I run for different reasons.

-Run to win

-To beat my personal best

-To honor my friend (Kathleen Trinidad)

-To build strength mentally and physically

-Run each race and I can succeed!


What were the shoot days like?

The experience of shooting the speed project 4.0 and documenting my team was something I will never forget. It was beautiful madness; I had no control over anything taking place, and I will be honest, initially that was frustrating as I wanted to put myself and my camera in position to create specific images that I saw in my head. After watching the runners push themselves during the first few segments, I quickly recognized that this event wasn't about me and to take the opportunity that was given to me and make the most of it. There were a lot of great moments during the course of the race. As related to the images I selected the shot of Tracy (picture #2) was one of those. That image was taken during a particularly challenging largely uphill segment in the middle of the heat of the day, watching her battle through it and seeing her teammates rallying around her was powerful. Seeing my friend Gordon (pictured below) power through a sandy stretch of the desert just beyond an airplane graveyard  as the sun was setting was amazing. Capturing a quiet moment with Kit (last picture) looking back at the view of Death Valley after completing a challenging segment was the moment that I knew the images and the series was going to work. There are also countless "inside stories" from the pickle jar to the hilarity of the RV Dump Station to the moment when we reached the Welcome to Vegas sign that aren't directly related to the series of images but are definitely part of the amazing experience.

Photographer Ryan Nicholson's Why Series Inspired by The Speed Project

I never could've imagined this is why! 340 miles, thru the Mojave to LV?! Stupid! But as I've gotten older, as a runner, as I've become wiser (?), I've had my mind changed on what running is. It was once to me a lonely occupation. Now, it's a tribe, my tribe, a fraternity of endless love, shared pain, group glory. Fuck, it's amazing.

What was your favorite part of the project?

My favorite part of the project was getting to know the runners, there is something about shared suffering (and I am not saying I suffered like the runners) that brings you together. I went into the project knowing my buddy Gordon and came out with a bunch of new friends and collaborators which is a big part of what I love about photography. I am an introvert and my camera has allowed me opportunities to meet and ultimately photograph people that I otherwise never would have crossed paths with, and I love that aspect of photography.

Photographer Ryan Nicholson's Why Series Inspired by The Speed Project

Not knowing if I could run & complete something with such great magnitude, like The Speed Project, is what motivated me to do it & find out. Being given this opportunity was a chance to prove that I can push myself to accomplish anything.

What has the reaction to the images been so far?

The reaction to the images (which I shared as a series on Instagram) has been really fantastic. The pairing of "story" with image added another element that engaged the viewers, I have received some great feedback and interactions from the images which is always rewarding. Most importantly my teammates loved them. 

Photographer Ryan Nicholson's Why Series Inspired by The Speed Project

The night before the run, I couldn't sleep. I'd done Ragnar, so knew there'd be some "suck" ahead. I nearly convinced myself to bail. "Just make up some crazy excuse, catch a flight home, and not stress." That's when I started repeating a phrase over & over. "Get over it." Get over it." I thought about letting down teammates I barely knew. I thought about this ridiculous foot race, this honor and this privilege. I thought about how the only thing that sucks more than running...is not running. Not having an opportunity. So thank you TSP, thank you Out of Nowhere. Thank you for the ass-kicking. Hope it was mutual.  

What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

There were lots of challenges on this project. Physically it was tiring, being crammed into a relatively small RV with a large group of people made everything difficult from trying to rest, to figuring out when and what to eat. You have lots of, shall we say, interesting smells (pickle jars and hard boiled eggs) in the RV but ultimately all of those challenges were what made it great. 

Photographer Ryan Nicholson's Why Series Inspired by The Speed Project

The first two things that came to mind is 1. How nuts am I to do this again. 2. Why not, why not encounter this moment, experience one more time.  Sure the first time was not easy but definitely life experiencing with great individuals whose main purpose was to push one another from start to finish. What really motivated me was the simple fact that this experience, everyone is not chosen to do compete/participate. I was chosen/so I felt very honored/ and privileged to partake in this TSP4.

Check out more images from Ryan's "Why" series project on his Instagram.

See more of Ryan Nicholson at ryan-nicholson.com.

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