It started with a Facebook post. Photographer Sophie Ebrard says she was “taken aback” by the photograph posted by her friend of a Dunk Elite training camp, where some of the world’s best basketball dunkers were being put through their paces.
So after getting in touch with her friend, Dunk Elite manager Simon Piechowski, Sophie found herself in New York in May, spending a week in an Airbnb with seven of Simon’s slamdunking stars.
For the uninitiated, a slamdunk is a basketball term for “a shot in which a player thrusts the ball down through the basket.” But whereas it used to be a spectacular part of basketball matches – a showboating flourish sure to excite the crowd – now dunking has become a sport in its own right.
“People are starting to really get into it,” Sophie explains. “In the beginning it was mostly NBA players doing it, but now the best dunkers in the world are not NBA players any more; it’s these guys because they specialise in dunking. It’s been democratised and there are more and more dunk competitions happening all over the world. It’s become an industry.”
In fact when Sophie was in the States, a TV show called The Dunk King was proving hugely popular. Porter Maberry, who won the show, was one of the dunkers she was living with in New York for the week, and he had a certain celebrity status. “People were coming up to him on the subway and saying, ‘Are you the dunk king?’”
But there was a serious plan behind these guys coming to New York. There is a famous street basketball court on West 4th Street in Soho known as The Cage, which has an iconic place in the sport’s history. Simon wanted to bring his dunkers to The Cage and have them show off their skills.
“It was a meeting of these two worlds,” Sophie says. “They wanted the stamp of approval from these street basketball guys, and to show them what the dunkers were about. It felt like it was the beginning of something.”
Sophie, it’s worth saying, was not a basketball fan before she went to New York. But creatively she enjoys immersing herself in worlds she knows nothing about and working out how to earn the trust of her subjects. She describes it as like being a chameleon, adapting to your surroundings, and it’s a skill she has honed in some unlikely places. Her hugely successful series It’s Just Love, for example, was shot on porn sets.
“You can’t go there as a complete novice, you have to become part of their world,” she says. “That’s where the chameleon thing comes in. I didn’t want them to feel I didn’t know anything about basketball, or didn’t care about basketball. So I spent a bit of time trying to learn a bit about the different kinds of dunks and how they work.”
While in New York, Sophie had a very different kind of life than she is used to – living on a diet of donuts, pizza and beer and spending a lot of time watching basketball games in sports bars. But she clearly loves this performative aspect of her job.
“It’s not about me; it’s about them and how they live their lives. I really love to try and understand these different groups of people. What excites them? What do they want to achieve? What is their story? It’s about being curious and open and not being a pain in the ass.
“It’s therapeutic in a way because you forget about your own world and see things very differently. The more remote it is from me, the more pleasure I take.”
This approach clearly pays off. The pictures she has taken are intimate and engaging, helped by the fact she doesn’t use a zoom lens and so gets right into the action. “I like my pictures when they make you feel part of it,” she says. And although she does think in advance about the kind of pictures she wants to shoot, on the day she just follows her gut instinct and photographs what grabs her attention.
“I am all about trying to find beauty in whatever I shoot, trying to make the mundane look beautiful,” she says. I like to find unexpected angles.
“I definitely felt like one of the guys while I was there. But it’s not fake; I don’t do it just to get the picture. I love it because it’s like playing a role.”