By Jim Colton
“Some are born weird, some achieve it; others have weirdness thrust upon them.” ― Dick Francis, Author - To the Hilt
Weird: adjective. Strange and different from anything natural or ordinary.
The word "weird" is defined by various dictionaries as odd, bizarre, eccentric and unconventional. And where most of these traits could be considered unsettling, in the world of photography, and specifically sports, it could also translate to a gold mine.
The essence of photography is to capture a truly remarkable moment. And many times, different (or weird) can be good. If photographers covered the same events from the same angles, we really wouldn't achieve anything unique or memorable.
Sports photography, in the eye of this photo editor, can be summed up into two categories; action and features...which correlate in the simplest of terms to "crunch" and "grace." I've always been more drawn to "grace." As it is there that the photographer infuses their own personal "style" as opposed to nailing a peak action moment.
Sure we need traditional coverage of football and baseball and the core sports; that's what gets published on the sports pages of newspapers and magazines all over the world. But I've always been in love with the idea of introducing viewers to the unexpected.
When I was the Photography Editor at Sports Illustrated, I was responsible for the Leading Off section of the magazine. Three double trucks (two-page spreads) in the front of the magazine highlighting the best sports moments of the week from around the world. We published everything from Buzkashi (The National Sport of Afghanistan...where they drag around a beheaded goat while on horseback) to elephant polo in Nepal.
Many viewers would categorize those images as "Weird Sports." So why not make that the core of your coverage? That's exactly what photojournalist Sol Neelman did.
Neelman, a self-proclaimed failed athlete, has had a remarkable career in photojournalism. He was a staff photographer for the Portland Oregonian for seven years and was part of the team that won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for a story about a family that went missing in the Oregon Mountains.
An avid traveler, Neelman has been to Bosnia, Poland, India and China to name a few countries, and claims on his website to have had a little-known gambling experience on the Trans-Siberian Railroad (which we won't ask about). He has covered the Olympics in Beijing and Vancouver and his images have appeared in publications such as National Geographic, TIME, People, ESPN, AARP, Wired, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, the New York Times Lens Blog and Penthouse (again, we won't ask). His commercial clients include Nike, adidas, EBay, Ace Hardware, Umpqua Bank and Clif Bar among others.
He left the Oregonian in 2007 to pursue his love of travel, sports, photography and "weird shit." Those travels turned into his first book "Weird Sports," published by Kehere Verlag in 2011 and the sequel, aptly titled "Weird Sports 2," will be published and available next month on Amazon (see links below).
This week zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the not-so-weird Sol Neelman as we discuss his penchant for the odd side of sports.
Jim Colton: When did you first become interested in photography? Who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Sol Neelman: I started photography back in junior high school, because the cool kids were doing it. Plus it gave me a chance to get random access around the school, and to cut class to make photos. Most importantly, I was terribly shy, so taking photos allowed me to be more of an extrovert. I could be assertive when it came to photographing my classmates, just not when asking girls out on dates.
My local newspaper growing up (The Oregonian) was the one I'd end up working for many years later. The photographer whose work there stood out from early on was Paul Kitagaki, Jr. There's a grace and poetry in his images, full of composition and quiet moments. I felt if I could emulate some of Paul's style, I'd be on the right track.
While at The Oregonian, we did not have a sports photo editor. So my goal was always to try to impress my good friend and co-worker Bruce Ely. I helped him out on his brilliant photo column, "Sidelines," which captured quiet moments surrounding high school sports events around Oregon. We didn't care about the play of the game, or the star or even the sport, only about making photos that captured the feel of what prep sports meant to these kids. At one point, I told Bruce I wanted to do an international version of “Sidelines." And that turned out to be "Weird Sports."
I also started working at the paper with photo guru Mike Davis, who'd later edit my Weird Sports books. He gave me the confidence to take and choose those sports photos with quiet moments. He's always made me look smarter than I am.
And not to ramble on, but I am nothing without my community. In 2005, I attended my first GeekFest, the annual photo retreat created by aphotoaday.org’s Melissa Lyttle. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by like-minded, passionate, talented photographers doing their own thing. I can never thank Melissa enough for creating the type of photo community I'm so very proud to be a part of.
JC: You state on your website that you are a failed athlete. What sports did you play as a youngster and do you think this influenced your interest in sports photography?
SN: I rode the bench for my high school basketball teams. I think my coaches were hoping I'd finally get a clue and some coordination to match my 6'3" frame. Tragically for all involved, that never happened.
I think that being an unsuccessful athlete in school made me appreciate everything about sports, not just the star athletes or the big-time schools, but the tradition and community of sports. And the suffering of running lines in the gym to get in shape, without the promise of playing time.
That said; the reason why I love sports is because sports filled the gap growing up without my father, who died when I was two. It was my way to connect with the boys in the neighborhood. If I could talk and play sports - even poorly - I was part of the gang.
JC: You were a long time staff photographer for The (Portland) Oregonian. What were some of your favorite stories that you covered while there? And weren't you also part of a team at the paper that won a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting? What story was that?
SN: I was one of the few native Oregonians in the photo department at The Oregonian, so the thrill for me was being able to cover my home state. When I started, my knowledge was pretty much limited to the Willamette Valley (Portland, Salem, Corvallis and Eugene), but there’s so much more to Oregon. After seven years at the paper, I knew every small town in the state and their school mascot.
I think that the culture of the paper when I was there, was to focus on trying to compete with the national newspaper powerhouses to do huge projects that drew attention and critical acclaim. But for me, I was just proud to be a voice for people in my home state, and that meant doing the smaller stories people cared about locally.
As for the Pulitzer, it was for Breaking News Reporting in 2007. Jamie Francis and I were among the team of staffers that covered the surreal story of a missing family in southern Oregon. No one will confuse my aerial photos and press conference images as being groundbreaking work. Awards are a crap shoot and 100% subjective. What I'm most proud of is that I tried my best with every assignment, without an eye towards awards.
JC: You claim that you are a travel addict. How much time do you spend on the road a year? Are those trips sponsored or self-generated? Is travel photography a good source of revenue for you?
SN: The first time I went around the world, I was 4. And while I don't remember much about my trip to Morocco and Europe, growing up I knew I would always want to travel.
For the past 4 years, I've averaged about 5 months on the road, taking photos mostly for myself and sometimes for clients. I've shot over 200 weird sports events in the past decade, and only about 3 or 4 of those were paid for by magazines.
And while I tried repeatedly to get my Weird Sports work published along the way to help pay for my expenses, few people took interest. So I kept going for myself, because it was important to me. I use money I make from corporate clients like Nike, adidas and Umpqua Bank to pay for my travel addiction.
JC: In 2011 you published your first book "Weird Sports." What can the viewer expect from this book and how long did it take you to amass the collection of images?
SN: Originally, I submitted a book project that included all sports - weird and traditional - that spanned over 6 years. When I met Alexa Becker, the acquisitions editor at Kehrer Verlag in Germany in 2010, she encouraged me to focus on one or the other. Choosing weird sports was a slam dunk decision.
"Weird Sports" is my first child, so I’ll always cherish that book in a special way. It meant that I could leave this life with a souvenir leave-behind of what piqued my interest and what made me smile.
JC: How do you find these weird sports? And what criteria do you use before making a commitment to cover them?
SN: I originally heard about roller derby's renaissance in 2005, and found a Seattle league to document. That was my first weird sport. I had so much fun with that, so I looked online for other ideas. There was a Weird Sports Top 10 list that included a cow chip throwing contest in Oklahoma, so I shot that…and underwater hockey in England, so I shot that too. Before I knew it, my mission had spiraled.
As for the source of story ideas, they're really everywhere. I'd skim through Sports Illustrated or ESPN looking for minor references to odd sporting events that would be fun and photogenic. I pay attention to random news and images on the internet. And most importantly, I'm thankful that all my friends and colleagues continue to think of me when they stumble upon something they think I should know about. When a clip went viral of Bubble Soccer, I got tons of messages from people, all hoping to be the first to break the news to me.
When I worked for newspapers, we were often asked to make chicken salad photos from chicken shit assignments. What I learned from working on "Sidelines" with Bruce was that it was easier and more rewarding to make chicken salad assignments.
Weird Sports is really low-hanging fruit; people being active, often in costume, usually with beer and always with laughter. If that’s not a recipe for a fun photo, I’m not sure what is.
JC: Many shooters think the best pictures are made from assigned and credentialed positions at sporting events. Do you find this to be true? Isn't there a better chance for making good images when you are less "restricted?"
SN: I grew up wanting to cover the World Series and the Super Bowl and every big game in between. But what I've learned is that there are fewer unique images to be made there. Access is horrible and it's honestly less fun. If you're talking about making the best, pure sports images, I much prefer covering high school sports. Access is great and emotions are raw.
Part of what makes Weird Sports low-hanging fruit is that access is seldom restricted. They're thankful I'm there and taking interest in something few people outside their circle of friends know about.
I used to use a 400mm f2.8 lens for covering college football, in large part because we were stuck on the sidelines. My #1 lens for shooting Weird Sports is my Canon 35mm f1.4, in part because I'm not battling a sports information director for access. There are times like with Drag Queen Prom Dress Rugby that I was actually on the pitch taking photos with players flying around me.
JC: You've covered traditional sports as well...including several Olympic Games. Do you approach this work any differently?
SN: Honestly, I don't. And that may not be a great thing, at least for making money. I found myself at the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics looking for interesting and quiet moments that documented what it felt like at the Games.
And as with “Sidelines,” I didn't really care who the athletes were or what they won. I just wanted images that were interesting to me. There weren't a lot, and they weren't of commercial interest to clients. In fact, I don't know if I sold a single image from the Vancouver games, which is fine. I shot them for myself.
While attending the Olympics is incredibly interesting - and a fabulous gathering of cool photographers - I don't think there's great photography to be had there, at least by me. Finish line photos with the Olympic rings in the background bore me to death. And the shooting positions are cramped and limited.
JC: You have a new book coming out this spring...aptly titled, "Weird Sports 2." What new/different/weird sports are included in this batch?
SN: There's a bunch: Bubble Soccer, Quidditch, Flaming Tetherball, Live Monster Wrestling, Lingerie Basketball and much more.
I hope the work is stronger, though that’s open to debate. Since I knew I had a publisher in my corner when I began working on my second book, I focused more on finding off-the-grid sporting events that make you go, "WTF?"
JC: What lies ahead for Sol Neelman? Any new projects that you are working on? Do you think there will be a "Weird Sports 3," in your future?
SN: I'm pretty much a one-trick pony. With Weird Sports, I found a topic that suits my personality and interest level. Most importantly, it makes me laugh. So yeah, I imagine there will be more books in this series. Finding ways to fund that (and pay my mortgage at the same time) will continue to be the challenge. I'm hoping to continue working for Nike and adidas, as well as other clients that want fun in their photographs.
JC: What advice can you offer to the up and coming photojournalist either about shooting sports or photography in general?
SN: The main thing to me about taking photos is finding a topic or theme that is important to you, that you’d want to photograph if no one was either paying money or attention.
For better or worse, I didn't find mine until I was 34, when someone casually asked me “What do you love to do?” My answer: travel, sports, photography and weird shit. That’s when things clicked.
Weird Sports represents my sense of humor and interest - and it is an excuse to travel. While it's received fun recognition, the first book was published with only two photos that had been published previously in magazines.
My point? Take photos for yourself. Not for others. Not for awards. Not for publications. If you need to, find other ways to support your habit. There’s nothing wrong with a day job.
Just because an editor says “no" doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. I heard “no” so often I decided to take things into my own hands. It’s not easy or economical, and it’s often very lonely. But it’s also extremely rewarding.
As photographers, we are very lucky. We get to leave behind a life portfolio of our personality and interests for others to see long after we’re gone. Few people are fortunate enough to say that.
JC: Any last words you'd like to share with our audience?
SN: Thanks for your interest in my work. And if anyone has any weird sports story ideas, I'm all ears: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sol Neelman website: http://www.solneelman.com/
Sol Neelman Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/solneelman
Twitter & Instagram: @solneelman
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