Olivia Rose: A Wink & A Roar Exhibition

Exhibition Photography: Tom Morgan / Interview & Words: Tom Everest

Although the European Championships only come around once every four years – and five next summer due to the COVID-19 disruption to the football calendar – the memories and emotions will last forever. To immortalise the romanticism and patriotism of a new jersey and to unearth the emotions of the new trailblazing influence of England players – Harry, Marcus, Trent et al. – Nike and GAFFER enlisted the help of Olivia Rose to commemorate the new look and a new era for the England national team.

A Wink & A Roar showcases a range of powerful and personable images of the England team through the eyes of Olivia. Filled with individual statements, stories and emotions from the players who are redefining more than just the game, the campaign offers an intimate look into England’s latest generation and their influence on an entire country. 

Olivia Rose is one of the UK’s most culturally relevant photographers and a pivotal pillar in the bridge that connects the worlds of music, art and sport to the heart of authentic storytelling. Her ability to humanise everyday icons and draw raw, untouched emotion from even the most recognisable faces in contemporary culture has forged an entirely new image of what football, and footballers, represent. As a result, A Wink & A Roar removes all rules and borders, all pre-existing beliefs and premonitions, to capture the real heart, soul, energy and attitude of each England player along with a sprinkling of the fearlessness of the three lions.

To extend the thread of authenticity and storytelling, we spoke to Olivia Rose to unravel her creative process and to discover a few of her favourite moments and memories from a day at St George’s Park.

You made a conscious decision to move away from previous templates and what has become expected of football portraits to allow the ‘player to shine with their personality and beam with the pride of representing England.’ Why was this the right time to capture that message and theme? 

It’s 2020 and we’ve just tumbled perilously out of the EU… which makes the dynamic of a European sports tournament even more dramatic and exciting. It’s our chance to prove something, maybe that we can all get along as friends? Or maybe that we have the edge. Only time will tell. 

But, next summer a true spotlight will be put on the tournament and England’s place within it. In my opinion, it couldn’t be a better chance for us to show that we are more than just a nation of Brexiteers, we are indeed a nation with pride and sportsmanship that doesn’t always take itself too seriously. Most importantly, the Euros gives our country something to really get behind at a time when the entire landscape is seemingly so divided.

Why do you think no one else has taken on an approach like this before?

I think that footballers have a lot of red tape surrounding them. As a person who has photographed a number of actors and musicians, I can confidently say that footballers are some of the most protected talents around. It’s often hard to get a dedicated shoot slot with them, so there’s an element of rush and go. This one was no different but we decided to do away with the formality of box ticking to spend the time we did have with the players to make them feel as comfortable and themselves as possible. For me, this was about doing away with that age old illusion that the players are untouchable superheroes… because we all know they are that, but what we don’t often get access to is their humanity, their authentic selves or their stories. 

What overriding emotions would you like people to feel from the campaign?

Pride! These are our boys, going into a tournament to bring home a win for our country. There’s few things in life that bring people together in the same way as football does and I think whether you are a fan or completely new to the game, there’s an authenticity to the images that will resonate. I wanted people to look at the campaign and feel like they were learning a little something about their team. It would also thrill me if younger aspiring players saw these images and felt inspired by the players attainability, like they could really for once imagine that was going to be their picture in ten years.

What impact do you want these images to make?

Catastrophic! Meteoric! Crater-sized impact! Ok, I’m over cooking it but I do love the idea that these images will speak to people because they are going against the grain. They are the polar opposite of the regular digitised, retouched, highly static ‘power’ images that we are used to and I think that will, at the very least, be a refreshing change that will make people smile. 

Why did you choose the ‘With a Wink & a Roar’ tagline to spearhead the campaign?

Honestly, it just sort of came to me when I was looking at a tight crop of Trent Alexander Arnold’s million dollar smile. There are moments in the expressions on the players faces that just feel so real… it’s young and energetic, cheeky, with a peppering of the fearlessness of the three lions on the shirt. That logo and it’s connotations is such a strong representation for us as a nation and sums us up brilliantly. We know how to have a laugh, but we also know when it’s time to get serious, to step up and to be triumphant.

What did you do to ensure you captured the players in such precious moments and natural expressions? 

I was unabashedly myself. I don’t know how to be any other way. I just act like the loveable idiot I am and hope for the best. I don’t like hierarchy. I don’t like rules. But I do like people, so as a photographer who specialises in portraits of people, I just try and stay on a level. 

Everyone is a silly old human at the end of the day, no matter how skilful or talented they are on the pitch, they are still a person with a story – with laughter and with sadness. St George’s Park is quite a formal setting for this kind of shoot and I wanted to break down that formality. It helped that we had brought three massive traditional portrait backdrops, a speaker full of music and a general vibe. I think the set itself was impactful and felt completely weird but oddly normal all at once. We also had a moodboard of some of my photography up so the players could understand my style. I think having shot Skepta and Kano got me a few thumbs up from the lads. 

What or who was the biggest surprise for you on the day?

Harry Kane! I love Harry! I’m a Spurs fan – although I don’t know very much about football – but I grew up in North London and I always just sort of knew that I supported Spurs. Even if I don’t know what I’m shouting about, I fiercely support England in international tournaments and I am very vocal when I do so. Anyway, I digress, Harry was just really warm and personable. I liked that our fearless leader was happy to share a joke with me on set, but also indulge me when I was asking him to pose outside of his comfort zone. My line is: ‘feels weird, looks good in the picture’ and Harry was very trusting, so we got some iconic shots.

Which images are you most proud of? 

My favourite is the black and white of Mason Mount on the bench. There’s something very classic about it, the look, the pose, the lighting – it’s hard to believe we were under futsal strip lighting. But the best thing about it, is that I feel like I’ve captured that moment when for one tiny second, Mason forgot he was having his picture taken at all.

What do you usually look for when it comes to the people you shoot and how did that change, if at all, from preparing for England’s football elite?

I always look for an angle. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong type of face but it’s about how you look at it. In a deeper sense, I am looking for my sitter to trust me, so I can direct them confidently. I’m really looking to build a connection, just for a few minutes, so that they feel comfortable enough to relax and let the camera do the work. And with these guys it was the same. I guess in a way, I didn’t come in with a massive preconceived idea of each player, so I got to take them at face value and discover them in a really organic way – face to face.

How much of this experience was refreshing to you? Being able to operate a little bit out of the ordinary and put your imprint on a realm which has previously been more conservative…

Oh really, honestly, I feel like my whole professional life has been built on sitting somewhere just outside of the box. It’s the whole reason that I was entrusted with a project like this by Nike, who let me shoot with no digital operator on set and with no polaroid tests which is just how I like it. They understood that it’s this very way of working that allows my subjects to forget about the distractions and just be themselves for a short moment.

What was the biggest thing you learned on this campaign?

That a player is offside, when any part of their body – other than their arms – is in their opponents’ half of the pitch and closer to the opposition’s goal line, than both the ball and their second-last opponent. 

How much sentiment does this project hold for you?

I’m a woman who has built a lot of her career around an ability to be a woman within male dominated spaces. My team – set designer Ciaran Beale and stylist PC Williams are the same, the female force was strong, my friends! For me, bringing that energy, that fearless wink and roar from my side, helped the guys step their game up and I think this campaign really shows off the mood we collectively created on the day.

How important is it as a photographer to have a physical space like an exhibition to elevate your work? Is it a place of solitude away from the copy and paste culture of social media?

There is definitely not enough emphasis put on bringing imagery into the physical realm, now we are all social media hungry beasts with the attention spans of goldfish. There is something about the artistry of a physical framed print that makes me people stop and look for just a few more seconds than they might if they were scrolling through an Instagram feed. 

It’s also a traditional setting for portraiture, something that I have always been inspired by and something that is sadly getting more and more lost. I don’t think it’s necessarily the physicality of the work that elevates it, more the fact that we wanted to display it this way. It is by its very nature more precious, more craftsmen work on these finished pieces than just me – they go through a process of printing by master printers and are then framed by hand. The process is bespoke and curated with a respect for both the photography and the players and that is something that our pop culture generation could certainly benefit from.

Vol. 2

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