Behind the Lights – Mel D. Cole
From hip hop to international football. Interview with the famous American photographer
“My photographic vision is based on creating a work of art and a story at the same time. I think everyone in their ‘game’, in their profession, needs to have a certain range, needs to show that they can do more than just one thing. I don’t want to just be a photojournalist or a music and sports photographer, I want to be great at as many things as possible”
Confidence. Mel D. Cole’s body language shows a genuine, unshakable confidence. A confidece that naturally combines with awareness, that snubs politically correct filters, useless catchphrases and boring humility.
The visual range of this American photographer is enormous, just like his pedigree. The artistic research of this multifaceted portraitist in the last years has begun also to focus on football (‘soccer’, for his compatriots): the last piece of a thematic parable cultivated in the underground hip hop scene, continued alongside the best interpreters of the overseas music scene and punctuated by social reportage, such as those related to the recent BLM protests.
The seed of sports imagery in the New York native’s mind and eyes had always been ready to sprout, watered by family traditions and years of practice and passion.
“I can’t even remember when the genesis of my relationship with sports dates back to. My dad played american football in college, and as a kid I followed his footsteps. I quickly got hooked on almost every discipline, from track and field to basketball. Then, a decade ago, the ‘Beautiful Game’ burst into my life”
The ‘Beautiful Game’. A strange intersection, a strange fascination, a strange transition that led Mel D. Cole from the explosive concerts of Beyoncé, Kid Cudi, Jay Z and Kanye West, to the religious turmoil of the Stadio Olimpico stands and the dusty football of Cuban streets and Ethiopian villages.
“I don’t call it ‘soccer’, I call it ‘football’, and I think that on a social level it’s the ultimate unifier. All over the world. As you know football in the U.S. is not so popular, some time ago I honestly wasn’t interested in that, but thanks to videogames like FIFA I started watching leagues like Premier, Serie A and Liga, and I realized how relevant football was: it’s a much bigger phenomenon than any major American sport. The relationship between cities and teams, in many cases between neighborhoods and teams, is deeply romantic. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen a ball being kicked: in Cuba children were playing barefoot on the asphalt, in Angola I relived the same situation, in an Ethiopian village lost in the middle of nowhere there was a ball rolling around, chased by dogs and kids. I’m lucky: being a well-known photographer gives me the opportunity to attend incredible events. For example I’ve been to Anfield Road, inside this iconic and noisy stadium positioned between houses and courtyards, I also experienced a Roma match from the sidelines, in the magical Olimpico…”
Rhythms and free kicks. Microphones and chants. The photographic approach of this New York-based artist doesn’t change depending on the scenarios. Mel D. finds in the green grass and in the ultras’ clapping the same vibrations propagated by singers and hip hop fans. Inside the arenas and stadiums he portrays harmonious bodies driven by sound and athleticism.
“I look at the soccer field as a stage: a place where I can portray emotions and bodies in motion. I try to focus my camera on everything, not only on the players. In my opinion every detail is fundamental: from security guards to flags, from a tackle to an header. I don’t have any specific points of reference in my visual archive, I’m not inspired by a particular photographer, I have a series of collective images that guide me”
Mel D. Cole is trying to lead a sort of cultural revolution through his work. He recently founded Charcoal Pitch F.C., a football photo agency (the first in this field run by an African-American professional) driven by the desire to shoot football through an innovative multiracial lens.
A vision that fits perfectly with another noble goal. Mel D. greatest will is, in fact, to spread the word of the ‘Beautiful Game’ among the new black American generations. A step, he says, that is necessary to evolve the entire US soccer movement.
“I want to use my platform and my photographs to influence the African American community. When I was growing up only white kids played soccer: that mentality has to change. If we want to move forward, our best athletes need to look out for this sport. And when I say best athletes, I’m talking about young African-Americans. What would have happened if LeBron James had been a football player? Think about it. Through art I try to engage, to stimulate, to provide different perspectives to these new generations.”
These perspectives have generated the interest of famous clubs and brands in Mel D. Cole’s work. His vision far from conventional has already led him to collaborate with companies like Chelsea, Manchester City, Nike, Adidas and Umbro, and to divide his commitment between visual projects and clothing lines.
These high-level clients put expectations and pressure on Mel D but, at the same time, they strengthen Cole’s desire to have an impact on football storytelling, to evolve it, to continue a significant personal path.
“It means so much for me to collaborate with these companies. It’s ecstatic to talk about football projects with the Premier League clubs and the biggest brands in the world. The pressure makes me perform: I costantly need to challenge myself and I know how to work hard. I don’t want to be relegated like a football team, let’s put it that way”
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