I was recently asked to take portraits of the players at Sale Sharks, the English professional rugby union club from Greater Manchester, that play in the English Premiership. In support of their local gay and inclusive rugby club, the Manchester Village Spartans, signed prints are being auctioned in the lead up to the Spartans’ 20th anniversary gala dinner later this summer. The Spartans are the UK’s second oldest gay and inclusive team and are a founding member of the International Gay Rugby Association and Board, and hosted the Bingham Cup (the international gay and inclusive rugby championship) in 2012. The portraits form the basis of a new project by the Spartans called Pride In Union, celebrating the passion and diversity of players across the game of rugby union.

Taking the portraits during a mid week training session, Sale offered 34 people to be photographed including current players including England internationals Tom Curry and Chris Ashton, Scotland’s Josh Strauss and Byron McGuigan, South Africa’s Faf de Klerk, former Sale and England legend Mark Cueto, Director of Rugby Steve Diamond and club owner Simon Orange. Unlike the structured portrait shoots I’ve had thus far this year, taking at least an hour per subject, the Sale shots were far more time constrained with mere minutes per player. In a situation like this, it was important to conduct as much preparation work as possible to make every second count. In addition to the more banal issues such as a kit list, batteries and memory cards, my two key considerations were the lighting set up and the direction to the players. 

England international Tom Curry still suffering from the side effects of a head injury leading to blood seeping into his right eye

Unlike slower shoots which allow me the time to change the lighting depending on what I believe best suits a person, this wouldn’t be possible with the Sharks. As such I decided on two lighting setups, with a white and black backdrop respectively, swapping from one to the other half way through the shoot. And equally importantly, with such a short amount of time per player I would not be able to build rapport. How then to gain a meaningful portrait with people accustomed to be being photo’d by various agencies for advertising, press and stock purposes? How could I make these portraits different? Ultimately, I settled with the following direction;

‘Close your eyes and have a think of what the sport (of rugby) means to you; be it a match winning try or a try saving tackle. Really own that memory or emotion. And when you’re ready, open your eyes. That’s when I’ll take the shot.’

George Nott returning from two seasons of injury

I had hoped for the players to trickle in during intervals in their training session for me to shoot in relative calm. In reality the players came en masse with many of those not in front of the camera acting as audience to those who were. In such a situation the preparation work was more important than ever, and having given it due consideration I only needed to take a handful of frames per subject. An unexpected challenge of having a busy set with frequent hecklers was the necessity to concentrate on each subject and allow the background noise to be just that and not affect the shots. The reaction from the subjects was varied; most listened to the direction and offered a response while others either ignored my direction or requested to be photographed naturally, almost candidly, which frequently was a big fat grin. As a generalisation, the forwards were more serious than the backs offering more intense looks with the later offering a more approachable bearing. 

For the beady eyed, there is a short 24 second time BTS lapse video close to the bottom of the Spartan auction page showing the Shark players being photographed by me. Watching it now what I find telling, from a personal point of view, is the fact I spend most of my time talking with the players, not shooting them. Having done my lighting prep work, my main focus was clearly trying to get them to buy into the photographic process and offer me a meaningful portrait.

Inserted into this post are some of the shots along with my thoughts. I believe it’s important to note I had never met any of the subjects before so it’s possible that my reading of their expressions may just be my own projection while those familiar with the players (and the players themselves) see something different.

South African-born Scotland flanker Josh Strauss dials up the intensity

A mixed reaction from Director of Rugby Steve Diamond

A confident former England international and Sale legend Mark Cueto

The full set of portraits can be seen here and, for fans, prints on C Type Fuji Matt Crystal archive paper are available for purchase here.

It is worth noting that these portraits were taken while Australian Rugby (AR) has been engaged in a legal battle with one of their star players, Israel Folau, over comments made in his social media. AR sees the comments as anti- gay, while Folau believes the comments, in which he quotes the Bible, are part of his religious freedom of expression. While these events are literally half a world away from the UK, in the world of rugby union players of Pacific Island descent, who place great importance in their faith, ply their trade globally in both national leagues and at international level. As such the events with Folau have potential world wide influence in this, a Rugby World Cup year. Portraits with Sale were organised prior to Folau’s latest comments and it was a privilege to be involved with the Spartans’ Pride In Union project supporting openness and inclusivity in a sport I’ve always been passionate about.

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