From Kobe Bryant to the LA Rams, Will Navarro is Bringing Heart to Sports Photography
Will Navarro does the one thing you shouldn’t do as a sports photographer. He gets too emotionally invested in his subjects.
The funny thing is that’s what makes him so great at what he does.
And he doesn’t get nearly the notoriety he should. That goes for photographers in general, very literally behind the camera shooting what’s in front of them, the subject instantly transposed to a bigger than life image, something to be heralded and discussed.
The photographer, well, they just go home.
But they are the ones who bring these stories to life, put so much vivid detail into our favorite pastimes. For Navarro, his love of media began on a trip to school with his mom. While she sat down to learn the intricacies of using a computer her son tagged along not knowing that his life would change forever.
Navarro speaks with me via Zoom from his studio in Downtown Los Angeles, a location he scooped up this past May. It’s a venture some might not launch at the beginning of a global pandemic. But Navarro needed the distraction of responsibility, the sudden rush of work. It’s fitting because the reason he kicked off his own studio was to honor his hero, Kobe Bryant.
Will Navarro has an extraordinary work ethic. That’s a sentiment that gets tossed around a lot but this is the same kid that gladly went along with his mother on weekends as she learned computers rather than stay home and enjoy Saturday morning cartoons.
Years later and the man is still at it, devouring any project that comes along, saying yes to whatever might come his way.
He is the son of immigrants, his mother was born in Puebla, Mexico, and his father is from Lima, Peru. He is quick to point out that the most impressive quality he gets from them.
Navarro tells me that he credits, “their ethic and their passion as far as becoming immigrants and then becoming citizens, their drive to learn and make sure we get the best out of what we got growing up.”
“My dad would take us to work every weekend when we got older, to construction, to any means of work he had to make us understand that anything you worked for you have to earn it,” Navarro said.
Always working and looking for the next venture. It’s what saw him graduate high school, join the United States Navy and later graduate from the Brooks Institute with a bachelor’s degree in photography.
He continued to chase his dream, catapulting him to cover the Los Angeles Rams and then work for the renowned sports photographer Andrew Bernstein.
“Make sure you're working,” he said of his parents’ inspiration. “I got that from them so much to the point that when I got out of high school, I joined the military and that just added to the value of discipline and work ethic.”
When Navarro was in middle school, he went with his mother to the campus on a Saturday morning. She wasn’t able to finish her own schooling but had a desire to further her education. The school had a computer class for parents, and she brought her son along.
That is where a young Will met Marco Torres, someone who handed over his own laptop to a curious child and piqued that innate desire to learn.
“He was the type of teacher where he wouldn't show you the answer, he'd (say) find out the answer, let me know how you found it, teach me the answer and teach it onto others.”
Torres was an indispensable mentor for a young man just discovering his passions in life. And it was a moment that has made Navarro all the more eager to help the younger generation wanting to explore their own interests.
“I really wanted the Latino community to understand what the Internet really was, what it means and how it can benefit them,” Marco Torres explained of those early lessons. “I started to invite the community to come in and we would do it all in Spanish.”
All of these years later and the two remain very close, Navarro considering his mentor as something more akin to a second father. And for Torres, he can see Will pick up on some of the more important aspects of his tutelage.
“What makes Will extra special is not just his art, but his ability to help others,” Torres said, “I think that's the piece that sometimes gets mixed up with photographers because you’re only judged by your product when you should really be judged by your process, and Will's process is one of a teacher and, I have to tell you, man; it's just beautiful to watch.”
Torres is a professional filmmaker and photographer besides being an educator. He was so taken with Navarro that he once loaned his $6,000 camera to his protégé.
“And he would hold like it was a baby,” Torres quipped. “And then when he graduated (high school), I gave him that camera.”
It was a gift that became Navarro’s source of great joy as he traveled the world with the Navy, sending pictures from around the world back home.
Navarro graduated from the Brooks Institute in 2014. He plunged himself deep into the world of photography, taking any gig he could find, assisting in studios and at weddings. He would do anything that procured him the kind of knowledge necessary to work in this business. And he never forgot the power that comes with shadowing a mentor.
“You’ve got to pay your dues and get into the grime, learn how to be an assistant before you start leading,” he said.
At one of his photo shoots, he met Jeff Lewis, an Associated Press photographer who was covering the U.S. Olympic Team preparing for the Rio Games at the time.
Lewis is now the Los Angeles Rams team photographer and remembers those early days of meeting Navarro.
With a chuckle, he remembers a rather persistent young man who was quick with a congratulatory call and someone eager to learn.
“Will kept calling me every couple of weeks for a half a year or a year,” Lewis recalled. “And eventually I got the job with the Los Angeles Rams and needed an assistant photographer and hit him up. And then the rest is history.”
It’s impossible to whittle down the type of photographer someone might be, it’s putting too confining a definition on an artist.
But what is undeniable is that Navarro is remarkably generous with his subjects and far more taken with the human element than he is the brief snapshot of a touchdown.
Lewis tells me about a time that one of his lenses broke during a game, a complete disaster for a photographer unless you have someone like Navarro on the team.
“Will runs up and hands me his,” Lewis said. “And he says, ‘Look, you need it more than me. Use it. I'll go figure something out for myself.’ You don't come across people who do that, especially photographers before NFL games.”
Getting the Shot
The job of a photographer is to capture a story in one frame. The adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words but so many images are bereft of so many crucial words, deprived of the feeling that tells the whole story.
“He's looking for the human element,” Lewis said. Navarro excels in conveying the emotions inherent in the moment. From tailgates to the fervor of fandom, anywhere that he can interact with the subject shines in the resulting photographs.
“Will’s strength is in finding those moments,” Lewis explained. “A lot of photography is capturing the light and how people interact with each other in that light. And I think he does a really good job at doing that.”
Take a look at any of Navarro’s images and it’s clear that he cares about more than the moment, he cares about the people that make up that snapshot in time.
“You never really want to get that close,” Torres once told him. “But, man, I'll tell you, you get really, really close.”
His photographs are successful and empowering precisely because he does get emotionally invested in them.
“You know, it's bigger than just trying to get the light right. It's about capturing the thing that he loves about him and he wants to share with the world why he loves that about them,” Torres said.
Navarro’s career-defining moment came when he photographed his hero, Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. The NBA icon tragically died earlier this year in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of eight other individuals including Bryant’s daughter Gianna.
“Kobe Bryant was such a big influence on my life,” Navarro said. It was his childhood wish to not only meet him but somehow work with him.
“That day came just this last year. I had an opportunity to photograph him and collaborate with him, with Granity Studios with Jeff (Lewis) and Andrew Bernstein. And I got to shoot him one on one for 30 minutes on his book. And to me, that was the pinnacle of my career where I achieved one of my dreams to work and collaborate with my hero.”
The book is “Epoca: The Tree of Ecrof,” created by Bryant and written by Ivy Claire. It’s a fanciful tale of two children who fight evil and discover the power within themselves.
Navarro was distraught with the sudden tragedy and decided the best way to deal with the loss was to do what he felt Bryant might do, so he dove headfirst into his work.
“And when he passed, I took that very hard,” Navarro said. “I really didn't know how to cope with the loss. Being that he was a friend but was more my hero, I took photography to another level.”
As COVID-19 restrictions kicked in and the sports world paused, Navarro could have easily gone into seclusion. He decided that rather than sink further into a bleak landscape of isolation he would launch his own studio in downtown.
“And that to me was my coping mechanism,” Navarro said. “I just started to work harder and harder because I know Kobe would want that, the Mamba mentality. You just got to fight through it and that’s what I’m doing now. And to this day, that's why I thank him and I thank photography because that was my coping mechanism.”
The world is infinite in its possibilities when you look at it through Navarro’s lens. He is far more interested in capturing the emotions of the players, each one, he is careful to note, has a story of their own to tell.
It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. He is moved and awed by the prospects of capturing a story within a single frame, locked in time but with the right light and with deft skill the images instantly become timeless.
He leans on an adage that has served him well as he continues to further his career. “Anyone can take a picture, but it takes a storyteller to produce a photograph.”
Navarro is quickly becoming one of sports great storytellers.