What Nike Wants from Photographers

January 23, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Peter Ash Lee

Suzanne Donaldson. © Peter Ash Lee

Suzanne Donaldson is the senior director for creative production of Nike’s Global Brand Imaging department. She moved to Nike a year ago to create its first global art buying department, and has built a production team to commission imagery for Nike’s various sport categories.

When PDN last interviewed Donaldson, she was executive photo director of Glamour. She has also worked at SELF, Oprah, Lucky, Real Simple and Vanity Fair. She has consulted for Wieden + Kennedy and held creative positions at Arnell Group, the gallery Luhring Augustine and the studio of Robert Mapplethorpe.

In an interview conducted via email, we asked her about the photography she’s commissioned, and how her experience in the fine-art, advertising and editorial worlds influences her work with photographers.

Suzanne Donaldson
Senior director for creative production

PDN: How long have you been in your current role at Nike, and what are your responsibilities?
S.D.: I came on board with Nike a year ago in a newly developed role as the Senior Director of Creative Production for Global Brand Imaging.

Within our team we leverage relationships with the photo and art community to deliver inspiring creative to the global design team and manage productions to make sure we are delivering pinnacle creative assets.

PDN: Nike is a big company with a storied reputation for outstanding photography. Does the Nike name add any pressure or expectation about the caliber or type of photography you want to show?
S.D.: The brand most certainly has a point of view about the caliber of partners we collaborate with. As far as how to describe the type of work, I think it’s most important to understand what each sport category is trying to achieve through imagery. Our subjects are strong, competitive, innovative and inspired. The work needs to be bold and aspirational and relate to the sport we are presenting.

PDN: Can you talk about some recent projects you’ve done that you’re proud of?
S.D.: I was incredibly proud to be part of the FE/NOM Flyknit Bra campaign that was recently shot by Cass Bird. As the project was being briefed, I had a strong opinion that the story would be strong if the campaign was shot by a woman who understood the bra’s features in a direct and personal way. Mia Kang, our model/boxer, and Cass had a great rapport on set and the images speak for themselves.

PDN: Are you working on video or motion? Do you think photographers should learn to make video—or direct?
S.D.: I honestly think it takes a team. Our shoots are so fast-paced and we capture a large amount of content. In my opinion, it’s nice to have a DP and a second shooter or behind-the-scenes on set to allow the photographer to fully focus on our primary need, which is still imagery. In general, I think it only helps if you can do both but one should complement the other.

Photo by Cass Bird/courtesy of NIKE

Cass Bird photographed a campaign for Nike’s FE/NOM Flyknit Bra, which featured soccer player Sydney Leroux Dwyer. Photo by Cass Bird/courtesy of NIKE

PDN: How often are you and your team looking for new talent? Or are you relying on photographers Nike has relationships with?
S.D.: We are looking for new talent daily. As far as relationships, they are very important to us and if someone has done an outstanding job, they’ll be considered for future brand campaigns. The bulk of our images capture movement, so this is a must. Photographers such as Nick Knight, Tyrone LeBon, Christopher Anderson, Carlos Serrao and Benjamin Lennox are often considered.  That being said, we are always open to new talent.

PDN: If you’re looking for new talent: Where? Any favorite sources? Is Instagram as important to you as you once told PDN it was?
S.D.: I live for Instagram. I personally have two accounts, so you can only imagine how much I am on it. Part of our weekly production meeting is devoted to spending time perusing feeds. We often start with a photographer we love, then follow who he or she follows and next thing you know you have new considerations of people to meet with. We do get many mailers, many of which we do pay attention to in addition to meeting with folks who pass through Portland.   

PDN: And how do you evaluate their work? What skills or qualities are you particularly looking for—or are you drawn to?
S.D.: I look for curiosity in their work—a surprising point of view, energy, inquiry all play into the way I view their work. We love a play with color or speed so anything that is not considered “traditional” sports photography.  I mainly look at fashion work that has a bit of movement and youth culture in it.

PDN: How do you think the experience you’ve had as a producer, and in the fine-art and editorial worlds, influences how you evaluate or collaborate with photographers?
S.D.: I think every experience you have informs the next. I’ve learned several elements that help in my day to day. Having worked for Robert Mapplethorpe, I understand the importance of the quality of light when photographing bodies. Having worked [at] Glamour with photographers such as Norman Jean Roy [to shoot] an Olympic athlete portfolio, or watching Pamela Hanson interact so beautifully with her subjects, only informs how I would choose a photographer for a given situation.

If it’s capturing an elite running athlete like Eliud Kipchoge for the Breaking2 attempt [the challenge to run a marathon in under two hours], I would tend to [choose] a documentary-style photographer like a Chris Anderson, who I know will explore many variations.

PDN: How has your collaboration with photographers changed in the course of your career?
S.D.: I studied photography myself and felt more compelled [by] … discovering new talent than shooting myself. Early on, I understood that I wasn’t keen on working with one or several photographers, and feel most adept at assessing a situation, and working with creatives to come up with a common goal, which is to produce and make the best possible work given any situation.

I have been lucky enough to have worked in the art world, editorial and advertising arenas and each one informs the other. I truly found my dream job where I can utilize all the skills I have built to help usher a brand into the future.

PDN: What do you wish photographers understood better about your job or Nike’s needs?
S.D.: This is a great question. I think oftentimes photographers or agents do not spend enough time researching the brand that they are going out to for work.  Have you seen our latest campaign or looked at the brand’s website or social media accounts lately? If so, especially if you know I am at Nike, why are you sending me a picture of a cheeseburger?

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