Welcome to Industry Insider by Behind Sport. Our first guest of 2021 is freelance sports photographer, Russ Williams!
Tell us about yourself, what is your current role and what roles have you done previously
Hey! My name is Russ Williams, born and raised in Manchester and I’m a freelance photographer. It’s only recently that this has become my full-time. Previous to that, I spent 7 years working in a photography studio for a marketing agency. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to progress and during this summer I was made redundant – so from there, it felt like a natural next-step. Over the last few years I have been slowly branching out, and working with sports teams like Manchester United, Toronto Wolfpack, Team GB and more recently, Manchester Giants Basketball team.
What do you do in your current role?
So now, I get to chase down work rather than wait for it to come to me – which is great and I’m loving it! I feel like I’ve discovered a newfound freedom, and have been fortunate enough to begin working with new clients, on exciting, bigger projects that I could never have done with the restrictions of my previous job. I will pitch my work to clients, marketing departments and agencies who are looking to use my experience, knowhow and style to gain the imagery they need – helping them to fulfil their campaigns from an aesthetic perspective. We will work together to source equipment, lighting, locations and talent – book it, shoot it and work with re-touchers/ editors allowing the images to (hopefully) go live for the public with a quick turnaround! It’s a massive collaborative effort, and granted with COVID this can sometimes be challenging, but most people I’ve worked with are embracing it and doing amazing things.
What does a normal week look like for you?
It can be a mixed bag – I’m slowly settling into being a freelancer full-time. I’ve done bits in the past around my previous job, but this is the first time I have really given it a go. I send a lot of e-mails, LinkedIn messages and make a lot of phone calls! Mostly I don’t get a response, or I get put through to someone’s voicemail and don’t get the call back. This is normal though – and people being furloughed accessed the country adds another hurdle to proper communication. I can send 100 emails and get 1 response back 2 weeks later and 9 times out of 10 it’s “sorry, but we can’t at the moment”. This year is an odd year for everyone and some of the responses I’ve had reflect that – but there are still some positive notes to be found. People have been getting back to me more recently after returning from furlough to organise shoots, or just have a chat for potential work in the near future. For the most part people are confident and I’m excited that 2021 will have more demand for my style of work.
On the other side, I can be organising lighting, shooting test shots, arranging locations and much more in preparation for a shoot. A lot of work goes into prepping, and each job is unique and tailored differently, so I have to make sure that each client has their needs specifically tailored for.
How did you end up where you are right now?
It going to sound annoyingly cliché, but I genuinely didn’t think I would end up being a photographer, let alone photographing sports personalities. I wanted to be a script writer for TV and Film – although reading this you can probably tell that writing isn’t my forte! I had previously done a test shoot at Chester Rugby club, and at the time the Toronto Wolfpack were looking for a photographer to document the start of their first season. We had connected through a mutual friend, who kindly sent my test images to them. A year later, the images for ‘The Wolfpack’ were picked up and used in Esquire.
When did you know you wanted to work in sport?
From there, I met and worked with other photographers and sports teams which eventually led to shooting player portraits at Manchester United. Once I started photographing sports personalities, I realised that I wanted more and more experience in this area. It can be quite stressful and you don’t have a lot of time, but that’s what I love about it – I think I do some of my best work under pressure! From there I got involved with some TeamGB shoots, and some further campaign shoots for Manchester United.
What are you excited about in your industry at the moment?
People are engaging with video and images more and more each day. I think whilst 2020 has posed a number of challenges to sports and marketing teams, it has also accelerated production of content in some other areas. I’m excited to see the wave of creativity that I think is inevitable when people are restricted for long periods – I know there are people out there that have been working on projects throughout lockdown, and waiting for the right time to share / release them. I’m also excited to be a part of that wave in whatever way I can, and think I have some projects lined up that people could be interested in!
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone wanting to work in the sports industry?
It will happen if you step outside your comfort zone, and if you keep pushing for what you want. It can appear a little chaotic and off-putting at the moment, but I have a feeling that for anyone like me – the opportunity to take a risk and pursue something I’m passionate about, on my own terms, will be the best thing to happen for my career. I can focus on so many different things, talk and meet interesting people, go on interesting location shoots, and work with a variety of clients. So, I’d say don’t limit yourself. Talk more to people in the industry that you want to be in, and learn from them. If you want to photograph footballers, knock on the door of your local football club, and ask! You don’t have to jump in to a premier league club straight away. Go and find your style, and approach by helping your local teams.
How to follow Russ Williams on social media…
Thanks for reading our Industry Insider with Russ Williams! If you want to read more from the series, you can do so by clicking here.