For the love of running
“For me, running is personal. My love of running, both as a sport and as an activity, fuels my creativity as a professional photographer”
– Paul Calver
I started running just over 4 years ago, running the 2018 London Marathon to raise money for a charity which helped my youngest daughter Maeve during her cancer journey.
I finished in just under 5 hours, physically beaten but happy to have completed the challenge. Thankfully Maeve is now fully recovered, inspiring me to take on new challenges. The evening after the marathon, muscles still very sore, I decided to sign up for another marathon, but this time, learning from all the classic mistakes made on my first attempt. 11 months later, I managed to clock a time of 2:56 at the Barcelona Marathon. From this point onwards, I was hooked!
I’ve been a photographer for over 12 years, I shoot a large range of subject but have always had a fondness for sport and the passionate people who inhabit this world. This has naturally involved shooting a lot of running over the years, in both commercial and personal projects. Through-out all of my work I like to explore more than just the activity in question, looking under the skin of what drives the people involved. Being a runner myself now, the first hand experience this gives is invaluable in creating images within a world which means so much to me. From the talent we feature, the story they have to share and to the locations they inhabit.
A self portrait after completing a virtual race earlier this year (excuse the gurn!) and a portrait of my youngest daughter Maeve. I’m wearing the red and black stripes of my running club, the Herne Hill Harriers, Maeve is wearing her trademark smile!
To explore this topic in more detail I sat down with model/athlete Revée Walcott-Nolan and retired athlete/model agent Dale King to discuss what makes great running photography, and how the industry is blurring the lines between performance on the track and performance in front of the camera.
Screen grab from our zoom meeting in late November 2020
To the uninitiated, running looks simple; to the connoisseur it’s anything but.
Introduction text and interview by Andy Waterman.
Running is a simple activity, and yet, its simplicity disguises hidden depths. Like an iceberg, what you see is less than half the story. Anyone who has ever run with something resembling ambition will know the feeling – the more you run, the more you realise there is to learn. It doesn’t matter whether your ambition is to run 5k without walking or to break 2hrs for a marathon, the second you go all in on running, you discover a world you never knew existed.
Where the uninitiated might imagine running is all about talent, hard work and blinkered intensity, the connoisseur will tell you it’s about community, creativity and learning to be humble enough to keep that intensity in check.
The difficulty for any creative comes in capturing that powerful simplicity of movement without downplaying the emotional complexities that make running so rewarding, addictive and enjoyable.
A photographer has the tiniest fraction of a second to do that. In an attention economy everything has to be perfect at first glance, from the athlete to location to outfit to lighting. It’s a big job, and time is of the essence.
Paul Calver has made a career of capturing these moments.
“For me, running is personal. My love of running, both as a sport and as an activity, fuels my creativity as a professional photographer. Likewise, my love of photography and working with athletes is what initially inspired me to start running. It’s a perfect loop.
I always enjoy working with athletes. Their knowledge and their passion not only informs what I shoot, but it brings to the photos an authenticity and a natural grace you just can’t fake. In return, via the fees they earn, it allows the athletes to focus on their sport with the reassurance of an income. Our worlds are linked in a virtuous cycle.
Collaborating with athletes works for everyone – athlete, photographer and above all, the client. One other benefit for the athlete – and one I’m only recently beginning to think more about – is the potential to inspire a new and underrepresented group to think about going on to work in the creative industries. We talk about athletes being the talent on set; to keep hold of that talent in the industry, making athletically-informed creative decisions could be brilliantly rich and rewarding for the industry.”
– Paul Calver
What are your favourite places to make images?
Paul – My favourite places to shoot are the bigger landscapes in the great outdoors. That’s my personal connection with running and where I enjoy being. But I think the big thing when you’re shooting is that there are so many different types of running, you have to be in tune with what you’re trying to say.
Revée, do you have a favourite place to be photographed?
Revée – My favourite places to train are also my favourite places to shoot. Track sessions are the highlight of my training, and I also find that shoots on a track are my favourite – that’s where I’m doing something high intensity that I enjoy, where I can get something real from the shoot.
Why do you prefer to work with athletes?
Paul – It comes back to working with real talent. If it’s something they do day in day out, hopefully they do enjoy. That’s the thing about using real runners who are also used to the world of photography. The authenticity – those fun moments – comes through. You don’t want every photo to be pure running, you need to get that fun across, that lifestyle. The sport is one thing, but for so many people it’s a chance to get out, meet people, hang out. If someone runs badly, you notice it no matter how good the lifestyle stuff is. If someone runs well, you don’t notice their running, you just notice they’re having fun.
Images from a recent personal project, Blood Sweat & Tears
“Paul Calver is one of the only creatives I know who is actually interested in running. I see him at the tracks. He understands the sport and what it’s about.”
Are young athletes encouraged to see the creative industries as a legitimate career choice?
Dale – I don’t think the pathway is clear. When you do high end sport, you’re probably going to go to college to do a sports related degree, unless you go to one of the universities like Leeds or Cambridge or Birmingham, where sure, you’re not going to study sport, but you’re probably not going to study creative either. You’re going to do law or medicine. There’s a massive gap there.
Paul – A lot of skateboarders make documentaries on the side. That’s how I started out – I was a skateboarder.
Dale – The biggest challenge I’ve got is with the coaches. Their back goes up when you try and fly one of their guys away for a shoot for a couple of days. We’re trying to guide them, like, listen – when I was an athlete, I was digging holes as a landscape gardener. I was working in pubs, working in a running shop, standing on my feet all day then trying to knock out 12x400s of an evening.
“The day before I won a medal at the British Champs, I was digging holes.”
Dale – The money I was earning, I had to work 40hrs per week to get it. You get some of these on a modelling job, two days per month, they don’t have to work the rest of the month! If you can alter your schedule around doing a shoot, I believe performance goes up as they have less stress and more money in their pocket to finance their goals.
Dale – Coaches need to understand that you’re no longer getting paid by the brands to finish first. Those days are gone. They’re always like, what else? How can we activate them? How can we sell shoes off this kid? That’s what they’re saying – yeah great, he’s run 10 seconds, but how do we sell product? Sports marketing then goes to brand marketing and says, can you use this kid? If they say no, that’s it. Before, the sports marketing team had full autonomy. It’s not about that any more.
How do you capture the similarity between an elite level runner and your coach to 5k runner?
Paul – Photographing running at any level is about tapping into that emotion. If the emotion that’s driving it is to go sub-2 for 800m, that’s just as interesting as the emotion that drives someone to get off the sofa and run for a minute, walk for a minute. The resulting pictures will look very different, but the tactic is the same – it’s about tapping into the emotion. Using real runners in these shoots means you can forget about the running to some extent, and really focus on the emotion, because the emotion is the most interesting thing about all of this, and what connects with people. If you can forget about the running – as in the running looks ok – that’s when you can focus on the emotion.
What’s it like balancing modelling with an elite runner career?
“I was sponsored by Nike for two years. Being dropped was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Revée – Now I haven’t got the pressure of being sponsored and having to perform. I’m enjoying it more, I’m free to wear whatever kit I want, I can work, I can do shoots with other brands. Even when I was sponsored by Nike, they didn’t use me for any photoshoots. Any jobs I did for Nike were all through the agency, not my actual contract. I’m a lot more free now to do what I want, get on with my training and wear what I want. For me, I prefer not being tied down.
Dale – A lot of the talent on our books don’t have to work (besides modelling). For brands to pay them a deal, for how good they are, would be tough. But they’re able to earn an amount of money that allows them to be a full time athlete. What happens when you’re tied to a brand, is that you stand on the start line and you think, shit, if I don’t perform, I don’t pay my bills. The modelling takes that pressure away – you’ve got money coming in but it’s not tied to athletics. The pressure brands put on athletes is so high, and when they break it down, they realise, actually I’m skint still, and they’re on the start line, you’ve got no money and you’re eating beans on toast for dinner. It’s stressful, so that’s what we try to do with the modelling – we give them the platform so that they can earn more than a brand is willing to pay (them as an athlete).
There’s a lot of people falling out of the sport when they get to 21, 22, incredible athletes, because they don’t have the finance to support it.