Follow the Dream

Athlete Jaide Stepter and photographer Aaron Anderson on what it takes to meet goals on the track and behind the lens

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/320 sec at F8.0, ISO 160

In early 2021, two paths cross in the Arizona desert. Athlete Jaide Stepter on her quest for Olympic qualification, and pro photographer Aaron Anderson, following a personal mission to tell the stories of the nation’s untiring sportspeople. The images created on that day, and in other sessions, give a rare glimpse into what it took to get there for both parties, as well as their families and friends.

“I first met Aaron through Parity Now, an organization that’s fighting to close the gender pay gap in sport,” Jaide explains. “They partner professional athletes with sponsors and brands, so women can earn the money they need to fund their training, traveling and competition. They had set up a photo session, with all the expenses covered between the organization and Aaron, which I thought was amazing. We stayed in touch and vowed to do something else together during my qualification.”

That lack of an even playing field is clearly a subject that energized Aaron, and not just for female athletes. “Many of these competitors don’t have publicity, they don’t have any money, and they don’t have the resources that bigger stars do,” he explains. “It adds a level of struggle and complexity to what they’re trying to achieve. With that in mind, it really became my mission and journey to photograph their stories.”

“Through documenting these athletes,” Aaron continues, “I’ve met such an amazing group of people, and got to hear their tales, so it’s really something I’ve grown to concentrate my photography on. And there are so many. Here in Colorado Springs, for instance, we have the Olympic Training Center with some of the best athletes in the world. They’re gold medal winners and record holders, and when you can sit down and talk to them over a coffee, and hear the journey they’ve been on, it’s just amazing. That’s how it started with Jaide. We chatted, I listened to her story, and then I started working out how to tell it with my camera.”

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/320 sec at F8.0, ISO 160

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F4.0, ISO 400

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F4.0, ISO 400

The importance of story has become paramount to Aaron, and “the fun thing about that,” he says, “is people in the sports world are so used to photographers coming in with one hard flash and a wide-angle lens being like, ‘this is the photo we took.’ For me, I want to explore lighting and location, so that it gives some insight into who this athlete is and where they’ve come from. It’s so important because their stories and their struggle is really where their inspiration lies.”

Like so many others, Jaide’s story is a great one. The daughter of Olympic 400m hurdler LaTanya Sheffield, who’s now her coach as well as a leading figure on Team USA, she won gold at the Pan American games in 2019, and ran close to qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games in the 400m, falling just short of making the trip to Tokyo. But like any drama, it’s the struggle, the adversity and the people that support them that make an athlete’s journey so compelling.

“Most of the time, you simply don’t see what’s behind an athlete competing,” Jaide explains, “so that’s why what Aaron is doing is so great. Track and field is a full-time job. Six days a week, I practice at 7am for about two hours, then I start work as a graphic designer at 9am. When I take lunch, I weight lift for about an hour, then ice for recovery for the rest of the day. And when I’m not training, I can’t do many of the normal things people do with friends. I can’t go out and drink, or eat food that’s not a part of my plan, or I miss gatherings because I have a track meet on the other side of the country.”

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/500 sec at F4.0, ISO 160

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F8.0, ISO 160

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/800 sec at F7.1, ISO 160

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/500 sec at F5.6, ISO 160

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F3.6, ISO 400

“You miss out on a lot,” she continues, “so you need strong people around. My mom, my husband, my sister and all the other people who support me, they pour their love and support into me, and that drives me on to win for them. That way you go to bed exhausted and wake up the next day wanting to do it all again. But the funny thing is,” Jaide says, “I know that the same challenge to achieve exists in what a creative photographer like Aaron is trying to do, too.”

So, is there a comparable struggle in creativity? “I would never say what I do is identical to Jaide’s achievements,” says Aaron, “but there are similarities in the single-mindedness required to get where you want to be.” Starting out retouching other photographers’ work, before moving on to find his own voice, “my mantra was always do a lot of work, and then see what emerges from that,” he explains. “My family can attest to that: it’s taking on four projects a month, working to know your gear back to front, 16-hour days on set… but all the time you’re chipping away at a sculpture of who you’ll be. And eventually it’s clear.”

When all that training and work brings success, it’s addictive. “I have always been very competitive in nature,” says Jaide, “and from school to now, any time I finished out in front, I knew I wanted more of it. A lot of that was because it always meant something, from paying for my college and saving my family money, to qualifying for the biggest competitions… even repaying the faith people have put in me, something’s always on the line. While I have inherent talent from my mom, it’s actually my parents’ work ethic that I think has been most important.”

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F3.6, ISO 400

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F4.5, ISO 400

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F4.5, ISO 400

For Aaron, winning means the completion of a vision. “You have a picture in your head – that’s your goal – and when you actually see it on screen for the first time, it’s kind of what I live for. Together with the subject and everyone who’s helped on the session you’ve done something special.” When photographing athletes, he says, there’s extra pressure and extra reward, “because you’re looking to catch that perfect jump or extension in their movement, and just as with all Jaide’s training meaning she crosses the line first, it can be a hundredth of a second moment that you’ve been working for. It’s kind of high stakes and I love that.”

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F7.1, ISO 100

Back to the Arizona desert. Why did Aaron pick that location? “It was indicative of many parts of her story,” he explains, “the harshness of the place, and those long roads, embodies not only the difficulty of her journey, but some of the loneliness that Jaide explained to me. No one’s watching you, but you have to work. I liked the idea that the rocks represented both her own strength and the hardness of the obstacles, and she started her career in Arizona, so the desert is very much part of her history.”

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F7.1, ISO 100

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F4.0, ISO 400

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F4.0, ISO 400

“In some of the pictures we also paid tribute to one of her icons,” he continues, “track and field star Allyson Felix, and some portraits made of her by Annie Leibovitz, where she’s running with the Stars and Stripes.” In others Aaron framed Jaide with a simple studio background on a stand, “which for me was about showing her strength,” he explains. “In those locations sometimes body shape can get lost in the scenery and for me it puts her in a kind of spotlight, where you can see her strength and her power.”

For continuity, and to tie her journey together the same backdrop was used in Jaide’s apartment for the images of her and her mom, LaTanya. “I loved all of the images,” Jaide enthuses, “but particularly the portraits of me and my mom. I think Aaron really captured the nature of our relationship perfectly. It can be fun and light hearted, but at the same time, very deep, because a coach sees you at your most vulnerable moments, just like a mother does. My success is really her success, and vice versa.”

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F7.1, ISO 160

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR, 1/800 sec at F7.1, ISO 160

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F7.1, ISO 160

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F4.0, ISO 400

“I also loved the image of me with the flag and the backdrop that’s kind of out-of-place,” she continues. “That’s something I’ve felt myself, that I don’t belong. It has this grungy and raw feel which is like pulling a diamond out of the rough. And I feel like that’s what this whole journey has been, especially this last year with COVID. It felt like the world was on fire, and all the time I’m trying to hone my technique, come out of it, and be a winner.”

Whether a creative or an athlete, getting better, learning how to succeed. “Whether it’s in photography or anything else, it’s one of the biggest myths that successful people just arrived at that place fully formed,” Aaron says. “There’s nothing magical about it, it’s years of hard work to make a reality. That was one of the reasons why I photographed Jaide in her office space. Most of us don’t even have the discipline to go to the gym three days a week, but she’s doing it three times a day, as well as holding down a job.”

“Most people have to put themselves through hardship to live their dream,” he finishes. “And that’s been true for me, too. We sold our house and we live in an RV, so I can travel around, and I make pictures of these amazing people. Not everybody can do it, but I like being in this world. In fact, it feels like I’m punking the system. There can be a lot of risk involved, but you have to just ride with it and keep on moving forward.”

Photo 2021 © Aaron Anderson | FUJIFILM GFX100 camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F4.0, ISO 400

The last word goes to Jaide. “Like a lot of athletes my journey has looked so different to what you typically see on TV or in advertising, and it’s also different to what I imagined,” she says. “Even with hardship and disappointment, it has been amazing. I haven’t accomplished every goal I’m going after, but I’ve done a lot. Whether they’re athletes or creatives, or both like I am, I want people to invest 100% in themselves and grasp every opportunity to find happiness and joy. So many people told me ‘Hey, you can’t work full time and be a full-time athlete.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, if that’s what my journey looks like, then yes, I can.’ You have to know that you’re worth every sacrifice.”