Photographing the euphoric energy of top athletes in training
John Balsom gained unique access to the before-and-after moments of competing sports legends.
From the series ‘Lusophony Games’ from Architecture + Beauty © John Balsom
Over two days in July 2009, the London-based photographer John Balsom shot the second ever Lusophony Games, less preoccupied with the sports taking place and more curious about the athletes themselves. Over a decade later, the series is part of a new compendium of John's personal projects, titled Architecture + Beauty, published by GOST Books.
"Lots of people say no to pictures. They don't want a photographer invading their space," John says. "This is an edit of the people who said yes. The Lusophony pictures I didn't look at for eight years, but I guess now I'm revisiting them, actually sitting down and working them out." The book saw John collaborate closely with GOST publisher Stuart Smith, with whom he arrived at the four projects that make up Architecture + Beauty (as well as athletes there are ships, cadets and diving boards). "Most of the book is based on these scrapbooks I do,” he says. “[In the book] they're exactly how I did them years ago, without thinking too much,” referencing the early collages that appear inside the cloth-covered hardback.
Lusophones are people and nations that speak Portuguese (around 20 million worldwide). At the 2009 event in Lisbon, where John shot many of his pictures, over 1,500 athletes from 12 countries took part. "History is a big passion of mine, and in some ways, Lusophony is a big historical project," says John, acknowledging the ex-colonial model that echoes Britain's own Commonwealth Games. While there is a political undertone to the competition, John was more concerned with the celebratory aspect. The resulting pictures are lively and joyful.
Integral to his practice, and especially paramount at the Games, is conversation and body language. "It wasn't just grabbing them and taking their picture; I tried to speak with them and learn their backstory," he says. "I like that it's down to you [as the photographer] to get them to relax and reveal their personality -- it's about engaging with them, being inquisitive." While some people spoke English, John relied on the other great communicator: music. He took a small speaker with him as he moved around the city. "Body language and energy can break down those barriers, and music helps; it softens the energy."
Motivated by gut instinct and a fascination with people, John's pictures have little in common with traditional sports photography, more akin instead to portraiture or even nightclub photography. Often the camera is honed in on a specific part of the body, and mostly the subject is alone in the frame; the occasional group shots accentuate a kind of glow that dominates the series. "I was backstage, less interested in people running around the track, more so in trying to get something intimate," he says. Armed with a 'power pass' and great zeal, he was privy to all areas of the action, which in turn provided many of the project's more tender scenes. "I'd go to practice sessions as well, where I could get more interaction out of people,” John recalls. “In my experience photographing athletes pre-match, they're focused on competing and don't really want you there."
While much of the project's mood is heightened on account of the potent colour of the photographs -- frequently matching the energy of those in the frame -- several black-and-white pictures offer an equally effective reading. "I shot mostly with the Pentax 67. I'd always have one colour [roll], one black-and-white, and I would just have to decide on the spot if he or she would be great in colour or vice versa. This kind of project doesn't leave much time for thinking, but that's a good thing sometimes."
John's favourite image from the series is illustrative of how intuitive the overall project feels. Created in a few short seconds, it features a Goan hurdler, pictured in monochrome, smiling and turning away from his lens. "Her energy was just so lovely," John finishes. "I like all of them, actually. But that one picture, it's just a moment. The only picture I got of her."
Images courtesy of John Balsom