Behind the Cover: Luis Alberto Rodriguez on shooting Naomi Campbell for i-D

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 A late Covid-19 test and missed flight later, the photographer found himself spending Christmas on a Kenyan beach with an iconic supermodel

“I had very little information to start with,” says Luis Alberto Rodriguez, the photographer behind i-D’s March 2021 cover shoot. When Carlos Nazario, fashion director at i-D, first reached out to Rodriguez at the end of the last year, he did so through text message, casually asking whether he was interested in photographing the world-renowned supermodel, Naomi Campbell. A few weeks later, Rodriguez was on a flight to Kenya.

This, of course, is a simplified account. Rodriguez already had a working relationship with Nazario and Campbell too, when he shot the icon for the Hood By Air campaign a month before. Perhaps this played a factor in the relaxed run-up to the week on set. “I was told we’d be shooting on the beach, in the sun,” he says of the extent of the instructions given. Rather than being presented with a strict brief, Rodriguez benefitted from a handful of open conversations with the creative team, brainstorming moods, angles and ideas. 

A week before Christmas (2020) Rodriguez arrived at the airport in Berlin. Those who have travelled overseas during the pandemic will be aware of the choreography that is required before every journey: a Covid-19 test with proof of negative result in the last 24 hours, and extensive admin. Three hours before his flight was due to take off, Rodriguez was still waiting. The test result never came, the check-in closed, and the flight left without him. “I took a taxi back home and as soon as I arrived, I got my Covid-19 results,” he sighs.

“I didn’t want the picture to feel static. It was important for me to feel like I was capturing real moments, particularly with someone who is so iconic”

Luckily, Rodriguez was able to book onto another flight the next day. However, the timing meant he needed to drive straight to the shoot after the 13-hour journey. He was greeted by Nazario and his two assistants; hair stylist Jawara; the make-up artist; and of course, Naomi Campbell. The photographer normally travels with an assistant, but this time he was on his own. “It was pretty intense,” he recalls. “I didn’t take any extra equipment with me, [to make digital back-ups, for example] … because it would be more stuff that I would need to carry. With a project like this, not having an assistant or assistance can be very stressful.” The team worked for two and a half days; “It was supposed to be two days but I asked if we can do another, because I wanted to have more options,” he recalls. “There are a lot of variables when you’re shooting with film.”

Though the experience didn’t begin as planned, Rodriguez was able to find his flow directing and shooting along the Kenyan beach. They moved from location to location; Campbell draped in Issey Miyake, Loewe, Lanvin, Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent, among others. For the cover, however, she is almost nude – wearing nothing but a pair of simple Same Swim briefs, and a carnivalesque headpiece by Nasir Mazhar for Maximilian. 

“I wanted to shoot Naomi, not a representation of Naomi,” says Rodriguez. “I wanted to capture her humanity. She represents so much to so many people, especially in the fashion world, she is a queen. But I didn’t want the picture to feel static. It was important for me to feel like I was capturing real moments, particularly with someone who is so iconic.”

Rodriguez’s career has been anything but linear. Born and raised in New York by Dominican parents, he is a professionally trained dancer – a career he thrived in for 20 years. Now an emerging artist in the photo industry – he was one of BJP’s Ones to Watch in 2019 – his unique background feeds into his process. “I go with what I feel looks good to me, and what looks good to me is based on what I’ve experienced in life, everything in life that has brought me to this moment in time and what I find beautiful. It might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but this all goes back to honesty. You try to navigate your life by listening to your instincts, which is very difficult to do when there’s so much noise,” he says.

Asking Rodriguez whether he sees himself working more in fashion, he answers: “My book [People of the Mud, published by Loose Joints] for me was the most real representation of my interest in photography. Working with a community, with real people and creating this blend of documentary and fantasy. Fashion for me has become a platform to try ideas.  The clothes can create a character, and I really enjoy that aspect of it.”

“I felt proud, humbled and happy to be part of a shoot with young creatives that are all my skin colour, and that I’m getting to work with them after so many years of being in the fashion industry”

Naomi Campbell, in an interview with i-D

Rodriquez admits that at times he feels a little naive when it comes to walking into “big deal” situations, particularly in the fashion world. This is not for his lack of professionalism, but because he doesn’t always have the in-depth industry knowledge of individuals or status symbols. “My interests are less about the fashion story, but more about the people,” he explains. “I love shooting portraits. With Naomi, the fashion [story] was a given… I didn’t feel that I had to accentuate that more. My personal challenge was to make sure there was a comfort between us.” Rodriguez shares that he is only the third photographer of colour who has photographed Campbell in her entire career. 

Speaking to i-D about the shoot, Cambell said: “It was just very real, very organic. And I felt proud, humbled and happy to be part of a shoot with young creatives that are all my skin colour, and that I’m getting to work with them after so many years of being in the fashion industry. It’s very rare that this has happened to me… When you see these images, I hope you see that Kenya is beautiful, that Africa is beautiful. I think people now are going to really open their minds and start to understand that real beauty is in Africa. There are so many gems, so many hidden secrets.”

“It was an unforgettable experience,” says Rodriguez.

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.