Eric Sawitoski: Soccer Superstars Up Close and Personal

Eric Sawitoski is the global creative director for Aon. He was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He honed his skills photographing nightlife for the Chicago Sun-Times as a freelancer, all the while building his reputation as a street lifestyle photographer. He has covered fashion and live music for WWD and Michigan Avenue magazine, and has earned an Emmy for his work with Aon and Manchester United; his compelling portraits of the renowned U.K. soccer team players capture their human possibility.

Q: What camera equipment do you generally use, and which camera did you use for shooting the powerful portraits in this portfolio?

A: The Leica D-Lux (Typ 109). I chose it specifically for its size.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: My photography tends to be more street-style than studio. I’ve spent my career covering live music and fashion. In my role as creative director I use the D-Lux to document my process and approach to creative platforms. The manual settings feature and compact size are great for my job.

Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?

A: The images capture reference frames for a film. We asked the Manchester United first team players to communicate emotion without speaking in our Empower Results film. The process is meant to have the players comfortable with ECUs (extreme close-ups). We shot the majority of this project on the Manchester United summer tour in the United States this year. We’ll film the remaining shots in the U.K. this fall.

Q: How did you come to shoot the Manchester United players?

A: In my role at Aon I have worked with Manchester United since the beginning of our partnership in 2010. Photography and film are a large part of bringing this relationship to life.

Q: Did you have a specific goal for these images? If so, do you think you achieved it?

A: Our goal for this particular project was twofold. First, we wanted to capture the players on film and demonstrate an emotional connection to the audience. We partnered with the Mob film company to capture 4K video portraits of the players at various focal lengths. The idea was to give the players minimal direction and let them initiate their moves to camera. We needed to capture detailed portraits that demonstrated human possibility.

The second goal was to have stills to tease out the campaign film. We are continuing to shoot throughout the year in various locations and pushing through versions of the film via various interactive channels. Starting with Aon’s global headquarters in London, we’ve implemented a video system that leverages large format displays throughout the entrance that can create an emotional connection to our brand.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: The images are meant to be candid portraits. Hopefully viewers connect to the images through their simplicity.

Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?

A: As a creative director, photography is one of my primary practices along with design and film.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: I became interested in photography as a child. My father was a serious photo enthusiast and my sister studied at the Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois. I studied photography while attending university and built a solid network photographing live music and fashion during my twenties and thirties.

Q: In what genre or genres, if any, would you place your photos?

A: If I had to categorize my photography I think it would be street photography. An assignment I had in college was to photograph people doing what they do. At the time I though it was so vague. Then I heard a fire truck go by and I decided to follow it. As the truck pulled up to a burning house, I followed the firemen. It seemed to be a small house fire and easily contained. As I put my eye to the viewfinder and framed the two firemen with the hose between them and house in the background, the building exploded. I’ll never forget that moment.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I first became interested in Leica when I met Jesse Lirola. We were both on assignment covering Lollapalooza in Chicago. He was shooting with an M9 and told me how his father taught him about cameras, shooting, and Leica. His portrait work is breathtaking. His passion for everything technical (especially film related), music, and fashion have always been an inspiration. We’ve traveled around the world shooting together.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Photography is another way to tell a story and make a connection. It gives you the opportunity to present your point of view as you see it. I love to have new experiences and being able to share them. There are so many opportunities to immerse yourself in another person’s world, and into their frame or stage.

Q: Are there any other features or imaging characteristics of the D-Lux (Typ 109) that you found especially useful for shooting this series? Why is having manual settings great for your job and how do you use them?

A: Size was the first consideration when picking this camera. We were shooting in multiple locations on the West Coast and I wanted something that I could have on my person at all times. The lighting from location to location varied greatly and being able to manually adjust the camera settings easily was a key factor. It was also great to have for the drive down Pacific Coast Highway 1. You couldn’t ask for a better road trip camera.

Q: You describe these images as “reference frames for a film.” What exactly does that mean, and what function, aside from getting the subjects used to being photographed close up, do they serve in terms of enhancing or creating a film?

A: There are multiple stakeholders in creating the Empower Results film with Manchester United. We’re working with one of the best film production companies, The Mob (based in the U.K and Los Angeles) and providing daily updates to my chief marketing officer, Phil Clement, as well as our senior management team and Manchester United. Being able to capture stills from various sets and send them out in real time is tremendous. The camera broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal that I can sync with my iPhone and Lightroom. There is literally no down time.

The camera also has the ability to shoot 4K video, and that also comes in handy when you’re on the road and need to document behind the scenes in a pinch.

Q: All the images in this portfolio were output in black-and-white. What is it that draws you to this medium, and why do you think these images are more effective or compelling in B&W? By the way, did you shoot them this way in-camera or convert them in post-production?

A: The images were all shot on the monochrome setting. To me, B&W focuses the viewer on the subject. I’ve always had a connection to it because that’s how I learned to process film. In my mind that’s how I see each frame and that becomes my compass when I shoot.

Q: How did you light your subjects?

A: We used a very simple set-up to light the players. We had to have a small footprint, as we were never sure where we’d be able to set up the shots while the players were on the U.S. tour. Two celebrity lights in front and one fill light behind gave us the look we wanted.

Q: Your animated portrait of Chris Smalling captures something of his jovial and kind of jaunty personality. Do you agree, and how did you interact with him to get him to express himself in this revealing way?

A: Each player has a unique personality and projection when they step in front of the camera. Chris is no exception. He’s much taller than I am so I was balancing on my tiptoes. I had to grab a chair because we didn’t have an apple crate, and I did this awkward crane pose to get the shot.

Q: This image of Daley depicts a person who seems to be friendly and outgoing but also a bit more reserved and serious than Chris Smalling. Do you think it accurately reflects his essential character, and is that what you were striving for?

A: This was my first time shooting Daley. Sometimes when you hear people talk about bone structure, you’re like — come on! But really, he just has a face that’s perfect for photos and film. His facial structure captures light in such interesting ways, so I asked him to smile, then take a deep breath, and then pause. I couldn’t be happier with the result.

Q: The portrait of Sam Johnstone seems to suggest his competitive intensity and focus. Do you think this captures something of his essential nature? Also how do you know when to press the shutter release when shooting portraits like this? Is it just a spontaneous intuitive action on your part or do you have something specific in mind beforehand?

A: Sam is the keeper. He is the last line of defense. I have yet to meet a keeper that isn’t intense or, at least, doesn’t have the ability to project a stone-face. When standing in front of a player like Sam you can almost feel what it’s like to go up against him. You can be joking with him one minute and then you lift the camera to your eye and there it is — you’re not getting anything past me. Click. It’s almost a natural rhythm to push the shutter release.

Q: What exactly is your role at Aon, and what kind of a company is it? I assume that they’re sponsors of the Manchester United soccer team, but how does this sponsorship arrangement benefit the company?

A: My role at Aon is the global creative director. My team is responsible for developing the strategy for all creative operations and providing leadership related to our marketing efforts. Aon empowers results for clients on two of the most important issues in today’s global economy: risk and people. This is done via innovative and effective solutions and through industry-leading global resources and technical expertise.

Q: Can you tell us about winning an Emmy for your work with Aon and Manchester United? What was the nature of the project that earned you this honor, and how has it influenced your work going forward?

A: We won an Emmy for outstanding craft achievement in the director category. In 2010 our goal with the Manchester United partnership was to increase overall brand awareness. We looked at Manchester United’s global footprint and the diverse make-up of the team and decided to execute a very simple idea — Aon is a global company with offices in almost every country. Wherever you watch football, Aon has an office. The shoot was set-up on a green screen and we created the award winning post-production look that subtly emphasized our new brand identity. We had players like Edwin van der Sar wearing an Aon branded kit (jersey) walk to camera and say, “We have Aon in the Netherlands,” and he would say it in Dutch. We did this with about twenty first-team players in multiple languages and shared this on Manchester United’s channels, as well as social media.

Q: You established your initial reputation as a street photographer photographing nightlife and fashion in Chicago. How do you think the images in this portfolio relate to your earlier experience shooting street photography, and do you think of them as a kind of “controlled street photography” or “informal formal portraits with a street feel?”

A: The images in this portfolio represent a different output but a similar approach. I’m more up-front with the players because the output now is more deliberate. In earlier years I wanted to capture a moment that I had little influence over. I was an observer. Now I have a frame in mind that I’m trying to achieve and I want to guide the process more than in the past.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next 3 years, and do you plan to explore any genres other than those you’ve already mentioned?

A: I hope that my photography will evolve in the future. Social media has connected me with so many talented photographers around the world that are always pushing each other to new levels. People like Tyler Curtis, Jesse Lirola, Jason Peterson, and Brian Willette are all creative photographers that share a passion for capturing unique images, and so do I.

Q: Do you have any plans for exhibiting these portraits, or your other work for Aon, in gallery shows or other venues, or to publish them in the form of an online or in-print book?

A: I would welcome the opportunity to showcase my work, whether in a gallery or in print. I think that would require some downtime and I don’t see that happening in the near future. And that’s a good thing!

Thank you for your time, Eric!

– Leica Internet Team

To see more of Eric’s work, connect with him on Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr.

 

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