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Photographer Atiba Jefferson about "shooting greatness"

The photographer Atiba Jefferson shoots portraits of iconic NBA matters, adding a peculiar flair and a personal touch to his snapshots. He did the same for the cognac brand Hennessy and was not shy when needing to push the shutter button. 

Photographer Atiba Jefferson

For many of us, when we are children, the world of the NBA and all the stars that surrounds it sometimes exist more as a myth – it's like a faraway land that we hear about, see through a medium but don't experience first handed, if we are not lucky.

Later, in adulthood, that myth often materializes into poignant yearnings, becoming stones carried in our shoes, yet that faraway land seems closer and obtainable, accessible. The photographer Atiba Jefferson's relationship with the NBA was made whole when he started working for the basketball magazine SLAM. "I shot over a hundred covers of NBA players for this magazine," he shares while adding. "I have a very unique and different type of photo career. It's all over the place,"

The American-born NBA savant has a modest upbringing: raised in Colorado Springs by a single mother, he later came to dedicate his career to fill in the spaces that, for many kids, including himself, were unreachable. "I never went to a game when I grew up because we couldn't afford it. But once I was able to afford it, it was something that I did regularly as a fan. I'm a huge basketball fan. And once I started working for the NBA, to have access to just the whole thing, sitting on the court, sitting in front of the celebrities and shooting photos… it's a crazy experience."

Atiba Jefferson went to his first sporting event in 1996, an unforgettable moment that marked the beginning of his career. "It just kind of happened that it became my career. I grew up pretty poor, and I was happy just having a job and being able to have enough money to buy a couple of rolls of film. I was very content with not much, and I never thought I would travel the world thanks to basketball."

Photographer Atiba Jefferson NBA Basket

Jefferson was of a young age when he picked up the camera for the first time. The commitment to the basketball culture that he had in his youth grew stronger, and he started to explore the flux that exists in between. "When I picked up the camera, when I went to the darkroom and I saw a print being made, seeing the photo come to life, I knew that this was something that I wanted to do forever."

It is a place that holds neat delineations. Far from being satisfied, gulping for more, his feelings of otherness, approaching the culture through his lens, has often left Jefferson with an even more palpable sense of more, where the world of basketball always played a special part. "I think I've been able to have a very special relationship and perspective of basketball through my career as a photographer because you're documenting the change of a sport for over 20 years now."

Some photographs of his are candid action shots: motion-blurred players, mid-jump, carrying dapper silhouettes; a pair of vertiginous corners, arched in exertion and framed by a shadow, a forearm, and the swell of rising excitement. Others render interludes between performances. "I love what I do; that's what's driving me when shooting these icons," is his answer to the genialness behind every frame, be it of an iconic NBA player, or of a court, or something in between those two.

Jefferson has always been riveted by the personalities and attitudes of both the audience and the performers and attempted to capture their flair through his lens. But his subjects, engulfed by a lit atmosphere and incredible scenery, did not eschew the focus he sought to give them. "When you're shooting greatness, it makes you strive for greatness in the way that you're shooting," he explains when asked how he's able to capture all that.

Hidden in the gaze of those subjects pictured in the photos is not only Jefferson's presence behind the lens, but also his constant pursuit of connection to a culture that he is still infatuated with and understanding of. "If you do what you love, you're never working a day in your life," he discloses. "And I love what I do, I love photography. It's something that I can't turn off. It's always on. I just love it," he continues and closes off the conversation with a secretive smile that ensures the love towards a life filled with snapshots. Snapshots of different NBA-related matters, all coming together within four corners of a meticulously composed frame.

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