As part of our ongoing collaboration with Nike on THE CHANCE, we’re profiling the people that have played an important part in the project – both on and off the field. Sol Neelman is an American photographer with a passion for sports. His niche area, so to speak, is capturing the stranger elements of the sporting world – a vocation which can be found well documented in his book, Weird Sports. His photographs are intimate and personal, and often focus more on the spectator than the competitor. Most of all they capture the joy that sport brings us. Recently, Nike asked Sol to play a part in THE CHANCE, photographing some of the young players in the final stages of the competition. We caught up with the photographer for a chat.
Hey Sol, where did your interest in photography spring from?
I started taking photos back in junior high school. Something about hanging out in the darkroom for hours on end and listening to the radio while making prints was very cathartic for me. Working on the yearbook staff then, and many years later for newspapers, allowed me access into other people’s worlds and insights into human nature. I feel very fortunate to have discovered photography, because I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
How long have you been in the game?
I’ve been a professional photographer since 1996, when I went to former Yugoslavia on my own dime to photograph a feature for a small newspaper in Oregon. Somehow while there, I scored a job working for a humanitarian organization and lived in Sarajevo for 6 months. When I returned home to Oregon, I landed a job at a small community paper. Three years later, in 2000, I was working for The Oregonian, one of the largest papers in the U.S. I quit my staff job in 2007 so I could travel more, and unknowingly at the time, produce a photo book.
So, on your website you claim to be a failed athlete, but you’ve been involved with sports photography for a long time. Are you a big sports fan?
I’m not a big sports fan. I’m a HUGE sports fan. All sports. The comment about being a failed athlete is because I’ve never felt super coordinated. Just tall and lanky. I did play basketball in high school, largely because I was tall, as if height was a skill. I was the Chuck Nevitt of my time. If you don’t know who he is, there’s a reason why.
Tell us about your book, Weird Sports.
I love sports. And I love people that love sports. I also love surreal scenes and quirky people. In 2005, I found myself photographing a roller derby match in Seattle and had such a blast. I quickly realized I needed to find more weird sports to shoot. Along the way, it became an obsession. Before I knew it, I had a vast digital library of weird sports photos from all over the world. In 2010, I met the art buyer for Kehrer Verlag, a German book publisher, who was familiar with my work. That day, she offered to publish my book. I couldn’t be happier with the finished product and with my experience with Kehrer. The book has been getting a ton of publicity in Germany and the United States. A friend just messaged me that MoMA is now selling my book. How weird is that? Anyway, I’m already well into Weird Sports Vol. 2, which I hope to print in the next 1-2 years.
What has the experience been like with THE CHANCE?
I’ve had a blast photographing The Chance. I can easily relate to what these kids are going through, looking to stand out from your peers and be recognized for what you love to do most.
Perhaps that’s why I love sports. It’s an allegory for life.
Has your documentation of the young soccer players changed your view on the sport at all?
What I love about all sports is watching people play with passion and pride. That goes for all sports, including soccer. And when something is on the line, it’s very exciting as well.
Can you tell us of any moments in particular which have stuck with you?
Photographing Angel was great, in part because he is simply so passionate about soccer. I went to photograph him on “a normal day,” and he was immersed in soccer literally ALL DAY LONG. When I arrived, Angel was watching the European Championship on TV with his brother and a friend. During a break, he was kicking around a soccer ball in the kitchen. Then he went to a soccer pitch for an hour, grabbed lunch, then worked as an assistant coach for his brother’s youth soccer squad. At night, he went to sleep under Manchester United blankets. The kid breathes soccer. It’s pretty awesome to see.
Have you got any new projects lined up for the near future?
Next month, I’ll be going to England to photograph a Weird Sports Olympics. Every day for over two weeks, a town in Wales will showcase a vast range of weird sports, including bathtub racing, wife carrying, bicycle bog snorkeling and underwater hockey. It has my name written all over it. Aside from that, I’ve been approached by a few TV producers about doing some sort of Weird Sports reality show. Me in front of the camera? Now that would be weird. But it’d also be fun and funny.