Umaru Sandi, Captain of the Flying Stars Amputees ©Todd Antony
Interview with Todd Antony by Polly Gaillard
Todd Antony is a New Zealand-born, London-based photographer. He searches the globe for personal projects that keep him creatively satisfied when not photographing for a major brand. He won the Best of Show in the 2021 APA Awards for his image of Umaru Sandi, Captain of the Flying Stars – a soccer team of amputees in Sierra Leone. Antony's portraits of the players evoke vulnerability yet illustrate determination and strength. When viewing the images of the amputees, I feel a push and pull. At first, I am sympathetic; then, I feel a sense of profound gratitude. I am grateful for these men who play soccer without arms or legs; they become a testament of resilience and perseverance for every viewer. Many of Antony's projects celebrate unlikely people accomplishing unimaginable feats - the disabled are able-bodied; the old are youthful, women are empowered as if superheroes in a Marvel movie. Antony's projects speak to the human spirit's will, reminding us that no matter the circumstance of our lives, there is brilliance in our humanness if we embrace it.
PG: Congratulations on winning the 2021 APA Awards Best of Show for your image Umaru Sandi, Captain of the Flying Stars Amputees. How did you become involved with a soccer team of amputee players? What was your ultimate goal in undertaking this project?
TA: Every eighteen months or so, in addition to my advertising work, I try to undertake a personal photo project to keep myself fresh from a creative and emotional standpoint. I get to go out and create work purely the way I want to, answering only to myself. In the last seven or so years, these projects have led me down the path of shooting various subcultures and groups worldwide - ordinary people that lead extraordinary lives in their own way. The lesser-known, the better. As I tried to work out which direction my next project would take during my research, I came across a short video of the Flying Stars that grabbed my attention. The more I read about their experiences, the country, and the civil war, the more I knew that I wanted to shoot it. I found a website they had set up and got in touch to see if they might be interested in working together with me on the project, which they were open to. We then spent the next couple of months writing back and forth, discussing everything.
In terms of an ultimate goal for the project, this one differed somewhat from most of my previous ones in that the people I was shooting have a tangible need. They're not funded in any way, and most, if not all, come from impoverished backgrounds. So they can't afford essentials such as crutches. It was very top of mind that I didn't want this to be a case of me going over there, shooting the project, and then heading off into the sunset at the end. I wanted to make sure that the resulting images and film from the project could provide some sort of tangible benefit for the players. Part of that is through exposure - getting the work into the world to as many people as possible, then seeing what comes of that. For instance, I quickly had someone contact me to discuss potentially working with me to provide prosthetics for the players if we could raise funding. So that exposure created potential opportunities. I've also set up a GoFundMe to try and provide all 150 Flying Stars players in Sierra Leone with new crutches. Over there, they cost around $200-250 a pair, which makes them prohibitively expensive. Whereas here, they can be picked up for a little over a quarter of that.
Link to the GoFundMe campaign
PG: Do you remain in contact with the players? Although you have given them strength and resilience through your portraits, was it difficult for them to see themselves in the pictures as amputees?
TA: Yes, I'm still in frequent contact with them, primarily through one of the players who also helps to run the Flying Stars organisation across the country. I am keeping him updated on the progress of the GoFundMe and talking about the teams' progress. They're trying to get an amputee premier league of sorts established with funding from the government, which is proving difficult.
They were all really at ease in front of the camera. Probably more so than any group I've ever shot, I'd say. They've been photographed in a reportage way by journalists a fair amount, but this was the first time they'd experienced someone coming in with a bunch of lighting and taking the time to shape an image in a particular way. Most of the players became amputees at a very young age - some as young as five or six. It's almost all they've ever known. A number of the players related to me was that when they are playing football, they forget that they are amputees in that moment. There's a lot of justifiable pride in what they have achieved.
PG: How did this project impact you emotionally?
TA: The experience of all the projects I shoot stays with me in some way. But this has probably had more of an indelible effect on me than most of the others combined, right from the research phase, through shooting, and into post-production. I remember sitting in my office one day while researching; I was reading an article about a six-year-old girl whose village was attacked by the rebels. Upon finding out that she was the daughter of a local elder, she was singled out and had her arm removed with a machete. Seconds later, my own six-year-old daughter bounded into my office. The starkly differing situations laid bare, and it was all I could do not to burst into tears in front of her. A couple of similar moments had me on the brink during the shoot - when I was talking one-on-one with some of the players as they recounted their experiences of their amputations and life around that time. It took me a few weeks after returning home to process the whole experience in my mind properly. Obviously, the background behind the story is a very dark one, but my experiences in Sierra Leone and with the players were nothing but positive and amazing. As a group, they are all funny and inspiring. And their strength and passion when they get on the football pitch is incredible. I think Sierra Leone can often be viewed in a particular way because of its history, but the reality is very different from the perception. There are a lot of very positive stories and experiences there.
PG: In addition to the amputee soccer team, your personal projects explore Aymara indigenous women climbing mountains, Bolivian women wrestlers, and the Sun City Poms, a group of cheerleaders who happen to be fifty-five to eighty-six years old. Your work seems to focus on populations of people that, despite all odds, are doing something positive, something improbable given their age, disability, or circumstance. Why these stories? Is it personal for you?
TA: It's a very conscious decision to focus on groups like these. Ones that are little-known - ordinary people leading their own extraordinary lives. It's not to try and be political or controversial in any way. There's just something that emotionally resonates with me when I discover these little unique nuggets of people's lives. There's a saturation of images in the world these days, and if we're honest, a lot of it is superfluous. To me, that makes the story within an image even more critical - to elevate it out of the noise. It's not enough to take a nice picture. There's a massive culture of worshipping celebrities and influencers when we should be elevating people like the kind seen within my various projects; peoples whose uniqueness, activism, creativity, strength, and resilience are un-manicured.
PG: Can you talk about where your ideas come from - they don't seem to be influenced by what we see on the daily news? How does research play a part in your process?
TA: Research plays a huge part in each project. For some stories, it might only be a few weeks, others many months. But generally speaking, the more time, the better so the ideas have a chance to breathe and evolve in my head. You can never be over-prepared. I generally avoid things we might see in the daily news, although something seen there might lead down a rabbit hole to something else. I really enjoy that part of the process when one thing leads to finding something else completely unexpected. I don't think the process for coming up with an idea or subject has been the same on any two projects.
For my Dekotora project in Japan, I specifically honed in on that country knowing they had a wealth of subcultures. But I consciously wanted to avoid the more well-known 'touristy' ones. For the Sun City Poms Cheerleaders, I almost quite literally stumbled upon them while on a road trip shooting landscapes in the US. I stopped off a Motel 6 in Sun City late one night and decided to research where the hell I was after a long day of driving and came across them in the process. However, it was about three years before I went back to shoot them for the project. One thing I've learned is that I can't force an idea. It's not a case of, "Today, I'm going to research and find something." Some days your head just isn't in the right place to think fruitfully. Sometimes it might take months and months to find the right thing, other times a few weeks. But once I've come across it, generally speaking, I know almost instantly - when you get the little feeling of excitement in your gut.
PG: How much preplanning is involved in your work? Do you have a crew? How are you managing lighting setups in deserted city streets? Do you travel with a translator?
TA: I'm big on planning. I treat my personal projects in a way that isn't too dissimilar to how I approach shooting an ad campaign. It's just the way my mind works. Part of that is wanting to get the best shot possible, so you have to have prepared well. And part of it is that if I'm going to be spending a lot of money on a personal project, I want to be sure that I'm going to come away with something of very high quality.
Most shoots tend to be just me and one of my main assistants that I take with me. Occasionally we might pick up a local assistant, depending on where in the world we are or if I think I'll need one. But the first port of call is usually a local fixer or producer as they are hugely important in the project's success. I didn't do that with Sun City Poms as I know the language and the country. But since shooting that project, I've almost always been shooting somewhere far-flung, where it's a necessity. One has to overcome any language issues and have someone on your team that knows local culture and ways of doing (and not doing!) things. That's been extremely important in Japan, Bolivia, and Sierra Leone. An excellent local fixer is going to know the right local people to make things happen.
In terms of lighting setups (and nearly all the projects I shoot use some degree of lighting), I really enjoy the stripped-back nature of shooting a personal project. I generally only take around four Profoto B1 heads with me, but it's not often I use all four at once. Shooting the wrestling Cholitas in Bolivia, at one point, I decided to use the headlights of our production van to rake light down a relatively dark empty street at night, in combination with a few of the flash heads.
PG: How do you initially become connected with the people in your projects – most of them live a world away? Do you continue the relationships when the series is finished?
TA: It depends on the circumstances and the country, really. For Dekotora in Japan, I researched as much as I absolutely could. Then once the language barrier became too big of an issue, I passed the final parts over to my local fixer to contact the subjects and organise logistics with them. Although I'd learned Japanese back in school in New Zealand, I'd lost way too much of it from my brain to be helpful! For my Bolivia projects, my fixer/producer already had a degree of contact with both groups of Cholitas, so getting in touch with them and bringing them on board with my ideas was straightforward. So, where possible, I always contact them directly, as I did for the Sierra Leone project.
In some cases, language makes that impossible. In my Bolivian projects, I had the additional issue of having no way to contact the subjects in terms of a web address, email, or phone number. And that's where having the right fixer is imperative.
More often than not, I'm still in touch with people from the projects once they are finished.
PG: How do you fund your projects? Is the expense to you personally worth the outcome? What is the average timing from your inception to the completion of a body of work?
TA: All of my projects are self-funded. I see it as a symbiotic relationship between my personal projects and my advertising work. My advertising work effectively funds these projects, and in turn, hopefully, these projects help me in getting more advertising work.
Inception to completion varies pretty widely between projects. It depends on the logistical hurdles that need to be overcome and my commercial workload. I'll often have to shift a personal projects dates when a job comes over the horizon. For the Bolivian projects, I was on the ground there within about six weeks. In comparison, Sierra Leone took the best part of a year to fall into place.
PG: Has the pandemic changed your ability to work on global projects? Do you have any ideas about what you will pursue next?
TA: It's definitely put a spanner in the works! It made heading to Sierra Leone very difficult as I had to juggle travel restrictions in flying there due to Covid, making sure it was safe for both my assistant and me and the people I was shooting. And that, in turn, had to be juggled with trying to avoid the wet season when shooting wouldn't have been feasible. This added many months to when I wanted first to shoot it and the added cost of a total of twelve PCR tests for my assistant and me to fly there and return. Commercially it has reduced the amount of working overseas, and often having to do some sort of quarantine at one end of the journey or both has become fairly excepted and allowed for now.
See more of Todd Antony's projects: