Having studied sports medicine at college, NFL and longtime MLB photographer Jon Willey went on to combine his love of sports with his passion for photography and has not looked back since. Constantly in search of the images he needs to tell the story of the day, Jon has developed a stunning eye for capturing the moments both on and off the field that provide next-level insight into the world of sports. His amiable nature and infectious enthusiasm for what he does has helped him achieve almost unrivaled access to some of the NFL’s biggest names. In this series of candid, black and white images shot with the Leica M ( Typ 240) and the Leica Q, Jon tells the story of life as a modern-day, professional football star, including all the ups and downs, from moments of visceral intensity to those of reflective solitude.
How did you first get into photography?
My first exposure to photography was in 1990. I had always been very into art and fancied myself a portrait artist. When my dad went away to the Gulf War a family friend, Linda Creighton, who was the lead photographer with US News and World Report, came and did a story on my family and other military families. For 4 days I latched on to Linda and was her photography assistant, shooting with these unfamiliar and super heavy DSLR film cameras. I instantly got the bug and my parents bought me my first DSLR shortly thereafter.
When did you discover your passion for sports photography?
Sports has been my life since college. I was studying sports medicine and went on to grad school in sports business. During grad school I came across a vintage film camera in pristine condition. I got the bug again. I quickly learned that I could combine my passion for sports and my love of photography every day. During an 8-year stint as a Certified Athletic Trainer I had the access to some of the best collegiate and pro sporting events. When I wasn’t working my day job I was shooting for the team or the regional athletic trainers associations, etc. At that point I was just shooting anything I possibly could to build a portfolio, it just happened that I had great access to sporting events! Then one day while working a minor league hockey team I got an email about a job opening for a photo archivist for a major league baseball team. I applied for it immediately and was given a chance. That chance turned into a career as the team photographer and eventually creative director. So the passion has been there forever, but in 2005 I was given the chance to make it a reality and I haven’t looked back since.
This series of photos represents a clear move away from intense, point-of-action shots and shows a more candid view of the goings on behind the scenes of professional American football. What was it you were trying to capture with these images?
My goal was to simply tell a story. Every day I ask myself “what story did I tell today?” So when shooting American football I needed to tell the story no one can see without very specific access. I had to become a fly on the wall. I had to make sure that when I was around with my cameras I was just another member of the team. Building a relationship with the players, the staff and the executives was paramount in being able to have the access I do. Once that trust was there, I became simply another member of the team, allowing me to capture the most intimate moments of the team that folks rarely get to see. To me, I had to show the intensity of the preparation these men go through on a daily basis, as well as the fun they have doing it. Showing the highs and showing the lows is something we as storytellers must consistently do in order to really do the story justice. The story changes each and every day they put on their pads and I want to be there to capture those moments.
The strength of this series lies in your ability to capture the intensity of several individual moments. Is this something that comes from training your eye and shutter finger when shooting on the sports field?
It’s simply access and trust, combined with court awareness. These players get hit up on a daily basis by people yearning for their time, which is very precious to them. The time I get to spend with them can also be fleeting, so having the court awareness to go into a practice or a game or even just a workout in the weight room and know what story I’m trying to tell at that moment is paramount to making these images. Years of shooting sports have allowed me to focus on the in-between moments. Those are the moments that you long for as a storyteller.Not putting the camera down after the play is over is one of the most important things I learned early, and is impressed on me daily by my close friend and mentor Surf Melendez. It’s one of the first thing I teach photographers I work with. Understanding that timing, knowing what is going on around you and being present at those times when the players are at their peak intensity allows me the opportunity to capture these images.
The majority of your excellent sports photography is defined by vibrant and colorful imagery. Why did you choose to shoot this series in black and white?
Well, I’m color blind. But, that technically doesn’t cause an issue for me when shooting as much as it does if I’m painting. For me it was more about not letting color distract the viewer from the focal point of the imagery. As you said, sports is vibrant and colorful. Breaking down those distractions and focusing on the light, the composition and the subject is my goal in each of these shoots. It wasn’t easy to transition to almost completely black and white but to me, these guys could be on any team and the story is still being told. Sports has massive up and down swings. But when you make the images neutral, so to speak, it’s not about the brand anymore, it’s about the emotion. I want to get an emotional response from the viewer and myself out of each photograph I take, and to me shooting in black and white makes this happen easier.
A few things influenced this decision. I have had a Leica T for a while and was using that on our flights to games and so on, but when my friend and fellow photographer Mark Brown got me in touch with folks from Leica and I got the M 240, it changed everything for me. It immediately made me focus on slowing down. Going back to a manual focus camera was so liberating for me as I was trying to make art out of the situations I was in. I was forced to see the image before it happened and put myself in the right situation to capture the images I needed. Then, when I tested the Q in the Leica store in London while we were playing there this year, I was immediately hooked on the form factor and the focal length. Both of these cameras are always on me during games. I rotate the M with the 50mm 1.4 and the 90mm 2.0 depending on the reach I need from the side-lines, and the Leica Q with the 28mm focal length helps me portray these players as giants and heroes. The form factor and the lack of sound these cameras make was what sold me on them instantly. I don’t want the players to be distracted by me carrying around huge cameras and lenses and these cameras allow me to not be too much of a bull in a china shop when I’m around them. But the most important thing to me is the image quality that comes with the Leica glass and the full-frame sensors. I can put these images against anything else I’ve shot in the past and they blow them away. The dynamic range of the black and white images is just stunning, allowing me to show the full range of emotion these players go through.
Your images from within the locker room and inside the stadium are testament to the extraordinary access you gained. How did you manage to get so close to the players and coaches?
It took years of building relationships and trust with everyone from the grounds crew, to the equipment staff all the way up to the CEO and owner to gain the access to be able to capture these images. Once you have that relationship and they trust that you are going to capture them in genuine moments and not embarrass them in any way, the access will be there.
In showing the intense side of the players during training and game day preparation, as well as the unguarded moments away from the action, you manage to create a complete portrait of modern professional football stars. Was this something you consciously chose to do? And how would you describe your relationship to the players?
Many of the players have become my friends over the years and I still keep in touch with many of the players from my first year in sports. In this day and age where your social media presence can sometimes dictate who you are as a person, being able to send these images to them to post on their channels is key to the trust I’ve built. A professional athlete’s career can be fleeting. It’s more of a quick part of their entire life than it is a career sometimes. For me, as I get to know these guys, I know what they are looking for and I know I can capture that for them. I learn what they like and what they don’t like and I can tell when to shoot and when to keep my camera down and just get to know them and talk with them. I recently read somewhere that photographers are 90% therapists and 10% photographers. In every situation I put myself in I really try to get to know who these guys are and what makes them tick. Once you become their friend and gain their trust they won’t even notice when you are taking photos of them and you will be able to capture those authentic moments.
In addition to American football, you also shoot an array of other sports. How does your approach vary depending on each sport? And what always remains the same?
I’ve been very blessed to be able to cover not only a variety of sports but also a variety of life experiences as a photographer. I approach a shoot with my family on a vacation the same way I approach each and every sporting event I shoot. How can I tell a story so that the viewer can understand what’s going on in these people’s lives without needing to read a caption.
If you were to offer one piece of advice to anyone looking to get into sports photography, what would it be?
I tell people this all the time, just go out and shoot. Shoot everything you possibly can. If you want to get into sports photography you absolutely have to set yourself apart. This business is full of insanely talented photographers and it is not easy to break in. I constantly ask those who are trying to get in, what are they doing different? How are you going to tell a story with your images today when you are shooting your son’s little league game or your daughters pee-wee football game? Shoot where everyone else is not shooting from, read the light in your environment and use it to your advantage, and most importantly keep shooting through the play.
In addition to your work as a professional photographer, do you also work on personal projects? And is there anything we can look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I have recently dusted off the pencils and brushes and have dived head first into art again. The advent of digital art allowed me to take up my hyperrealism drawing again! I started an Instagram page under the handle @willeyart and just started drawing and painting every day. This was a way for me to start my day and focus on building my creative muscles before I began my regular work day. I also was pushed by my close friends to work more in color. This was a huge step out of my comfort zone for me but once I did I was hooked. I recently did my first street art mural at a local school in Miami and am really looking forward to combining my photography and my art in some realism paintings and drawings around Miami and hopefully around the world!