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How a Hair Flip Created a Memorable Portrait

“It's a testament to her personality, too. That’s what’s cool about it,” veteran photographer Kevin D. Liles says.

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Photographing the stars of the South Carolina’s women’s basketball program started out as a typical shoot for Kevin D. Liles last October. Or, as typical as it can be during a pandemic. 

  • Get COVID-19 tested: Check.
  • Find an assistant in the area who had the time and resources to get tested: Check.
  • Rent the necessary equipment: Check.
  • Prepare your game plan: Check.

Liles and his assistant carefully laid out the nine-foot seamless backdrop on the gym floor, meticulously placing the 50-foot roll of paper on stands to help create a clean background. As Liles put it, the photo looks like “it was shot in a studio.” One light was placed on an octabank, an eight-sided soft box, on stage left while the other rested on stage right.

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He fiddled with the dials on his camera, making sure the exposure and lighting were as close to perfect as possible so that he could focus on the creative aspects when the players came. Liles had a game plan prepared after talking with SI’s director of photography Marguerite Schropp Lucarelli with specific poses picked out because when it comes to a staged photoshoot, you don’t know how the player will react.

But South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke ended up being “a photographer’s dream,” Liles said, because right off the bat, they stayed true to themselves. While they have dominated on the court, leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four, the two showed off their “playful” and “down to earth” personalities that October day.

“As soon as we started shooting, I knew that it was going to be a fun shoot, no matter what we got,” says Liles, “because they were just so laid back. They were open and ready to try new things and have fun.”

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Cue the peace signs, goofing off and cheesing for the camera.

They also worked through shots of driving to the basket, looking tough side-by-side, and other poses the editors had asked for.

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But then something caught Liles’s eye: Boston’s electric blue hair contrasting against the black background.

“And it just came to me,” says Liles. “I was like, ‘Why don't you flip your hair back?’ … As soon as we looked at it on the camera, we knew that it was something cool, and she was all in.”

Over ten shots later, the memorable photo was born. And Boston’s reaction is one that Liles won’t forget.

“Aliyah was so psyched about it,” says Liles. “... The SID was standing there, and Aliyah was asking her, ‘Can you get those pictures?’ And she had to calm her down, and said, ‘O.K., we'll make sure that you can share this. We just have to wait till it publishes first.’ ” (Boston eventually shared the shot with her tens of thousands of Instagram followers with the caption “just different 🖤,” as did the @sifullframe account.)

The shoot had something special come out thanks to two players who stayed true to their personalities and to electric blue hair.

“It's not every day that you make something that you’re really, really proud of, and it's a testament to her personality, too. That's what's cool about it,” says Liles. “It's not just a young lady with blue hair and flipping it back. From what I could tell, she was a lot of fun. As soon as I mentioned it to her, she was like, ‘O.K., great, let's do it.’ It's not like with some people you have to convince, like, ‘Hey, I promise it will look fine.’ You know, just to like, coax them to do it. She was all in.

“The coolest thing is that when you’re doing portraiture, you try to capture the essence of someone's personality or at least a glimpse into their personality. And I think this photo does that because it does show Aliyah’s personality. She's fun. She's not your everyday basketball player. She's willing to try new things, and I think that is what is coolest about it to me.”

Have questions, comments, or feedback about Sports Illustrated's newsletters? Send a note to josh.rosenblat@si.com.

Full Frame is Sports Illustrated's exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI's photography.

To get the best of SI in your inbox every weekday, sign up here. To see even more from SI's photographers, follow @sifullframe on Instagram. If you missed last week’s edition on a cover shoot that may have revealed locker room drama, you can find it here.

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