A Place to Land

Photographer: Charlotte Drury

I had the pleasure of joining a portfolio review session for International Center of Photography’s  (ICP) Portfolio Day last week and met with a handful of students.  That day about 60 graduating students shared work with a variety of industry professionals, it’s a wonderful moment for the photo community to come together and see the future of photography, that’s how I met Charlotte. Her ICP project, “A Place to Land” skillfully documented her connection to both the gravity and nuances of sport. The work included vulnerable portraits, intimate moments and the full spectrum of those who are performative. We’re used to seeing the monumental moments, not the in-between of what it means to be involved in sport, striving for excellence.

Heidi: How did your career as former Olympic athlete in the sport of Trampoline (2020) inform this body of work?
Charlotte: This project wouldn’t exist without my past career in sport. I felt particularly drawn to tell this story because of the complex relationship I have with my career and experience in gymnastics. When I first started going to the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation I didn’t know what kind of photos I was going to create or what kind of story this would be.

At the beginning of shooting, I was almost desperate to find proof that the gym could be a good place for kids to grow up. I knew that at one point, when I was very young, I loved the sport with all my heart but through my years on the National Team I lost sight of that. When I tried to remember what it felt like to have fun with gymnastics, it felt so far away. As if some other little girl had experienced that joy. It showed in my photos too. In the beginning, I only wanted to focus on the moments of celebration or playfulness, desperate to see the “good”. As time went on and I reflected on what I was observing, I realized the magic of sports are the in-between moments. The subtler expressions of hope, friendship, focus and even disappointment and frustration started to draw me in more than before. I watched, and photographed, as the gym invited all of these experiences in and the athletes not only got to explore the full physical landscape of being a kid but the emotional one too. It was important for me to see that.

What sparked your interest in photography? What was the photo that became the turning point for you?
I must’ve been 11 when my parents got a Canon Rebel for the family. It quickly became “Charlotte’s Camera” and whenever it went “missing” my parents and siblings knew where to find it (on my bedside table). My bedroom was on the second floor and looked out over the bird feeder. I loved pulling the screen off and dangling my legs out the window, waiting for the birds to come by and snapping their photos. I’d wake up early and go shoot the morning light in the park by my house or I’d bring it to the gym and shoot my teammates during practice. When I got older, I brought it with me on my unreasonably long solo road trips and the camera became my buddy during weeks alone on the road. Ever since I was a kid the camera had a natural magnetism that I didn’t think twice about. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized not everyone felt that way and that perhaps I had found my new calling.

Why did you choose The Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation Harlem, NYC for this project?
I went to a few gyms before finding the Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics Foundation but they just weren’t it. They weren’t bad gyms but I could sense unspoken tension between the athletes and coaches and the values of the program weren’t what I was searching for (even if I didn’t know exactly what that was yet). I think at the end of the day, there’s an ease to this program. Wendy has done an amazing job of lowering all barriers to entry to gymnastics. She offers tons of scholarships, organizes outreach and has the kids doing so much more than Trampoline and Tumbling (including community performances and fundraisers). The emphasis here is on doing gymnastics, not grinding out champions at all costs. It was refreshing and exactly what I was hoping for.

Was part of this project self reflection or “self portrait” discovery?
I would say this project is heavily self reflective. When I retired after the Tokyo Games in 2021, I had a lot to process and work through. My career wasn’t easy on me and it didn’t end well. By the time I retired, I lost my faith in sports as a whole and my new goal was to put as much distance between me and gymnastics as possible (hence the cross-country move from California to New York City). But part of what encouraged me to start exploring gyms in the city was that a piece of me was desperate to challenge that narrative. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life hating something I had dedicated over two decades to. As I watched the kids here play, challenge themselves and banter with each other, I started to remember the happy days I had growing up, memories I didn’t even know were stored away. I also remembered how much fun it is to just bounce on a trampoline which is a pretty big deal for me.

How did it feel to be behind the camera and not on the floor, but still striving for excellence?
Mixed. There are days when I’m so glad to be the one photographing because I genuinely just love to make pictures. Then there are days that I get filled with this deep ache and I dearly miss being the one out on the competition floor. For all the hard moments I had in my career there were some spectacular ones too and I miss those. It helps me to remember that there is a season for everything, and my season of competing in Trampoline is behind me. Photographing gives me the chance to make my subjects feel just as special as I did when I had my picture taken. It’s also an amazing way for me to invite my past into this new future I’m building. It’s nice that even though I’m retired those skills I honed over the years as an athlete are still serving me.

What would you share with any pro athlete that is turning to the arts post a successful career in sport?
Remember what you do is not who you are. The obstacles in your way, become your way. And have fun, you’re allowed.

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