In Conversation With Photographer Olly Burn
We speak to photographer and director Olly Burn about his moving sport scenes: “I use photography as an excuse to get involved in situations”
Photography by Olly Burn
A fascination with people and places, as well as moving scenes, lends itself perfectly to the work of London-based British photographer Olly Burn, who has the ability to encapsulate real and honest stories featuring top-of-their game athletes. His locations become integral to the story, whether that’s a London skatepark, downtown Kingston in Jamaica, a Mars research facility in Utah or the Somaliland planes. Even though Olly thrives on movement themed commissions (clients include adidas, ASICS, Nike, PUMA and Reebok), he manages to capture the essence of any sport whilst retaining a sense of calm, serenity and ease in his subjects. We were keen to find out more:
Glorious: What was your route into photography?
Olly Burn: I was constantly drawing from a very young age and experimented with other mediums as I got older. I first started taking pictures as a teenager. We had a little broom cupboard darkroom at secondary school. I was shooting on my mum’s compact 35mm and able to explore black and white hand printing. There’s something almost alchemic to seeing the images appear on the paper in the trays. I was hooked from then.
I did a degree in photography at Falmouth, spent a year photographing passengers on a cruise ship before moving to London. It was through assisting that I learnt the skills that enabled me to go it alone. I assisted two photographers full-time and had a handful of freelance clients. That exposure to the industry and to what works and what doesn’t was really important to me.
Glorious: The majority of your work is sports based imagery. What made you choose to specialise in this field?
Olly Burn: I use photography as an excuse to get involved in situations. I still wouldn’t consider myself a sports photographer, but admittedly a lot of my work is sports oriented. I’m fascinated with people and places, and especially people doing something they’re passionate about or excel in. That definitely lends itself well to sport. I love to work collaboratively with my subjects and when you’re in the company of an athlete they bring next level commitment and skills.
Glorious: Do you have a special interest in one sport or another?
Olly Burn: Photographically I’ve always been obsessed with basketball. It’s visually so iconic and its influence transcends the sporting world into various aspects of culture, especially music. Growing up in the UK in the 90s, this period was a particularly influential time for basketball in pop culture and it brought a new wave of Americana across The Atlantic. Its iconography made an indelible imprint on me.
Glorious: Is storytelling important to your photography?
Olly Burn: I hope so. Sometimes a subject matter demands a series of images to fully communicate the story, but often (and particularly in sport) one image can be more impactful. Sometimes the stories might be super simple, representing a unique moment or some nuanced characteristic, specific to the subject.
Glorious: Which photographers do you think you’re most influenced by?
Olly Burn: I have a few favourites and think they all have similar traits in that their work is very much about who and where they were and the culture that is/was around them. Jamal Shabazz, Malick Sidebe, Gordon Parks and Martha Cooper, to name a few. I’m also very inspired by my photographer friends around me.
Glorious: Has your photography evolved, and which direction would you like to explore?
Olly Burn: I think it’s always evolving and hopefully will continue to do so. I’m naturally curious about things, so development and change should be a result of that. What I choose to photograph and how I do it is a reaction to what interests me and what’s around me, and that’s changing as I get older.
Glorious: What format do you shoot on and is all your work shot in camera?
Olly Burn: I shoot the majority of my stuff on Canon DSLRs and think the format really lends itself to the way I like to shoot. I’m pretty impatient by nature and love the freedom it allows to shoot without ever having to feel precious. Generally, everything is captured completely in-camera, although I enjoy the grading process to enhance a feeling or mood.
Glorious: You also direct short films. We love your female skateboarding piece. Do you prefer photography or do you think you would like to experiment more with film?
Olly Burn: I think the two mediums are so closely connected, especially in the field that I’m involved in. Really they both come down to the way that you like to work with people and how you communicate ideas. Both disciplines are essentially storytelling. I’m currently working on a series of short narrative-based pieces, which is really exciting. I’ve always worked in a more reportage way, so coming up with a story is an exciting new field for me.
Glorious: You have an impressive client list, from commercial clients, such as adidas, to editorial pieces for titles like Esquire. How different is shooting for a client rather than for yourself? What is the process and how much planning goes into it? How many people do you work with in your team?
Olly Burn: In my personal work I like to be quite reactive to what’s around me so I prefer not to plan very much at all, and follow things as they happen and be open to opportunities. Commercially it’s very different, yet the same at once. Planning is always meticulous and every element considered, from casting and location to styling and lighting. Doing this allows us so much more creative freedom whilst shooting, enabling us to work in a spontaneous manner and really react to the talent and the environment. I love working on commercial briefs, there’s something so satisfying in working with a team all pulling towards an end result, with everyone contributing their own ideas, skills and energy to a shared goal.
Glorious: You travel a great deal for work, where is your favourite place to work? And where would you most like to travel to next?
Olly Burn: I couldn’t pick a favourite, but it’s great when the opportunity to go somewhere more obscure arises. I love travelling and seeing new places, or returning somewhere to see a familiar face. I think the benefit of travelling for work is that we’re met by local people who are always keen to share their own experience of where we are. They’re always gonna take us to the bar, beach or bowling alley that isn’t in the guide book.
Glorious: When you photograph a moving sports scene, you still manage to convey movement and the power of the subject in each shot, how hard is this to achieve?
Olly Burn: I think the key to capturing the essence of the sport is in the collaboration. I’m certainly no expert in any field so working closely with the athletes is the best way to get an image that’s representative of what they do. Being open to working in a reportage way that’s loose and flexible is also helpful, getting a feel for the sport and being reactive to it.
Glorious: Glorious is all about women’s sport, what is your favourite shoot you’ve captured that features women?
Olly Burn: We shot Ada Hegerberg for Puma and that was amazing. Given everything that she’s achieved in football individually, and as part of a team, it was incredible to work with her and see her do her thing. It was also so refreshing to work with a footballer at her level but without the entourage and ego that comes with the men’s game.
Glorious: You perfectly illustrate the fun that comes with participating in sport. We particularly love your ‘Play Up Play Up’ series featuring female football players with their teammates and the basketball photographs of Giulia Zed. We think these portray the organic essence of women’s sport. Can you tell us more about these shoots? Where were they shot and how did they come about?
Olly Burn: I met Giulia when I was photographing the women’s basketball leagues in London, Love Basketball. I approached her to shoot when lockdown was relaxing last year. I think we were both grateful that we had the opportunity to get out and do something. She’s a really strong and hardworking player, and has a killer collection of sneakers. ‘Play Up Play Up’ was initiated through the player’s sport management company, Forte. We shot on a beautiful autumn evening in Blackheath. I chose the location to allow me to frame the action against the sky and focus all of the attention on the players. I let them take the lead when it came to playing… and I think that’s reflected in the pictures.
Glorious: You manage to capture a serene scene of stillness and calm in your ‘Trapeze’ series. We imagine it is quite the opposite of what is actually happening! How do you go about setting up a shoot like this? Is it extremely hard to direct and control?
Olly Burn: There was absolutely no control! The action was happening in front of me and there were a number of limitations regarding access, due to safety concerns and the physicality of the rig. I love working in that way though; feeling my way through obstacles to find a creative solution. The team at TLCC Trapeze School were so welcoming and accommodating, and the flyers were just brilliant. I think the sense of calm comes from the grace of the flyers themselves, maybe teamed with keeping the compositions as clean and distraction-free as possible.
Glorious: Can you tell us about your latest work, photographing gymnast Taeja James?
Olly Burn: I connected with Taeja through her agent and was drawn to photographing her through her sheer ability. She’s super young but incredibly skilled and she’s got a huge future ahead of her. On top of that, she was really lovely to work with, I think her determination to succeed really shines through the pictures.
Glorious: How long does it take to shoot a series like this? We can imagine it takes several attempts to get the right shots.
Olly Burn: Due to Covid and access restrictions, it took ages to organise the shoot, but the shoot itself only lasted approximately two hours. With a discipline like gymnastics there’s only so many times an athlete can repeat a move due to the stress it puts on the body, so I follow their lead in how many attempts we can make to get the shot. Under these circumstances, I have to make sure I’m ready to shoot and not making the athlete repeat moves unnecessarily, it’s a fast track way to becoming very unpopular!
Glorious: We love the shots you took at The Skate Retreat. You’ve mentioned previously how you like to use photography to insert yourself into situations – how did physically participating in the retreat change your process and/or approach to taking these photos?
Olly Burn: It was a super chilled day with lovely people in a stunning environment, so it was hard not to become engrossed in the situation. It was a long drive up to Sheffield, so to arrive and kick back with a beer, pizza, chats and watch the skating, was great fun. This also meant that when it came to shooting, I already felt a part of what was happening. On top of that, the setting at Danni’s allotment was beautiful, and having spent the past couple of years trying to polish my growing skills, it was an incredibly inspiring environment to be in.
Glorious: If you could shoot any sport that you haven’t covered, what would it be and why?
Olly Burn: Ah loads. I’d love to shoot more water-based sports, whether that’s wild swimming or sea swimming or something more abstract in a pool. Or diving. Or cliff diving.
Glorious: Who is your sporting hero?
Olly Burn: Eric Cantona. His ability and playing style were next level. His swagger transformed the team, and to a certain extent, the entire league.
Glorious: Where can we find you?
Olly Burn: www.ollyburn.com @ollyburn Or some park in South East London with my dog, Arnold.