Tim Tadder Captures the Undaunting Spirit of National Senior Games Athletes

Aging is an extraordinary experience where you become the person you always should have been.

David Bowie

People don’t always equate aging with the words powerful and strong. Tim Tadder set out to change people’s minds about aging when he photographed athletes at the National Senior Games presented by Humana. Known for creating imagery that elicits a response, Tim shot award-winning competitors in multiple sports. If you ask Tim, after spending time with these phenomenal individuals, he was more inspired than anyone.

Your motivation for working on this project was from a personal project with San Diego Senior Games years ago, photographing a senior athlete. Can you tell us how that project came about, and what you took away from it?

When I was making the transition from photojournalist to commercial photographer, I looked for a way to build my portrait portfolio, particularly with athletes. I decided to focus on seniors as I felt it would create an unexpected collection, and help me stand out and get noticed. In doing so, I contacted the San Diego Senior Games, and they helped me by introducing me to various athletes that were willing to sit for portraits with me. It was a fantastic experience and one that was formative for my career. 

You already knew about the passion and energy of senior athletes, having photographed an athlete in the past. Did Humana come calling due to your Gordie Shields project, your commercial work, or both? 

Humana did not know about my connection with the senior games, and it was a welcomed surprise and one that excited the team. I was all in once I heard that it was for the National Senior Games, and I knew that I wanted to revisit the project and pay homage to the work that I did in 2004. 

The beauty of this project is in capturing imagery of athletes, regardless of age, displaying determination and love of sport. You have said, “While the shell might be aged, the spirit is undaunted.” There must be some stories behind that statement. Care to share?

I think that statement is an excellent summation of the project. I can’t recall where those words came from, but I think I might have read that in an article and did my best to capture that sentiment. We all feel that while the capsule that carries our spirit wears down with the mileage of time, our mind, our goals, our passions never seem to age. I know I barely recognize the man in the mirror, because my spirt still has me as an invincible athlete that can accomplish anything. The wake-up call is always the morning after a colossal mountain bike ride where my body is sore to the core, so it’s true that reality does bite. 

You’ve called plays on-set to football players, to capture their image in action. Did you approach senior subjects differently than your typical NFL player?

Not really, I think it was a bit harder because these people had never been in a photoshoot, so they were very much deer in headlights. I did a lot of cheerleading and positive re-enforcement to keep their energy high and the positive vibes flowing. There were long days where I think we shot 10 or 11 people a day back to back. It takes every ounce of energy to get through days like that. I feed so much to the talent to get their best. The football stars have more camera-ready experience. They come with better media training, often knowing the language of the set and how to work within their light. 

You had the advantage of having a ton of experience photographing athletes as well as photographing athletes who are aged. What did the client tell you they wanted before handing off the baton and letting you run with it. 

I proposed that I shoot it similarly to the way I shot the Gordie Shields images. Those images were shot outside on location at sunset. We chose to do the photoshoot in a controlled, studio environment due to the large number of athletes and time of day. We created a set that felt and looked like a sunset. The client loved the idea, and we ran with it! 

CNN wrote a piece about this campaign, including information from you from a behind the scenes perspective. Did that make you feel like you had a solid connection with the athletes when photographing them?

When you are working with real people – who have never been on a set before – you have to win their trust, connect with them. Some of these people are standing in bathing suits in front of 20 people watching and filming them in a very exposed and fragile state. I have to draw the attention away from them and onto me, making them focus on me and the lens, not the circus behind me that includes producers, BTS crew, clients, PR agencies, other athletes, their friends, family, and a bunch of other crew. It’s very intimidating; I understand that and make sure that they feel comfortable by really taking control, providing tons of empowering and positive feedback. When they walk off-set, they feel incredible, and they are usually beaming. We always make it an experience; it’s as important as the image itself. 

Follow Tim on Instagram for more imagery that inspires and elicits a response.

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