NMU Grad Shoots Groundbreaking Magazine Cover Photo

James Farrell Photo
James Farrell PhotoMario Andretti by James Farrell
Mario Andretti by James FarrellJames Farrell Photo
James Farrell PhotoJames Farrell Photo
James Farrell PhotoSelf-portrait

Women’s Running reports it is the first U.S. fitness magazine to feature a woman wearing a hijab on its cover and Northern Michigan University art and design graduate James Farrell (’07) photographed the subject. Farrell is based in New York City and specializes in action, sports and fitness photography. He traveled to Detroit to complete the cover shoot of Rahaf Khatib, a six-time marathoner and mother of three from Farmington Hills. Farrell captured images of her running near Comerica Park, the River Walk and other city landmarks.

A number of news sites and blogs have featured stories on the significance of the magazine’s October issue. Much of the coverage includes photos from the spread credited to Farrell.

“I’m definitely flattered by all of the attention it’s receiving, but I didn’t know it was the first of its kind until after I had finished the shoot,” Farrell said. “The magazine didn’t pitch the assignment to me that way. To be honest, I was shocked that this had never been done nationally until now. But Women’s Running has pushed the boundaries with other covers. I shot one that featured a plus-size model, which was also a first and gained a lot of traction. The magazine is always expanding the realm of running by showing the diverse women who are out there doing it. They don’t all conform to one type.”

Farrell’s action photography and athlete portraits have been featured in other publications, including Sports Illustrated, Shape and Forbes. His interest in the craft was sparked in his hometown of Petoskey, where he held a part-time job at his stepfather’s one-hour photo business. At NMU, he focused his lens on students active in snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking and other outdoor pursuits.

“Northern gave me my first real chance to go out on my own, learn new techniques and figure out what I wanted to do,” Farrell said. “My professors challenged me on a regular basis to make stronger and better work. And when I was tempted to shoot other things or try a different style, they told me to stick with what I was doing and perfect my craft. That’s the big thing with so much competition in the field: finding a niche and staying true to it.”

After graduating from NMU, Farrell spent a short time in Chicago before moving to New York, where he met an agent who represents fitness models. That connection helped him to secure assignments that demonstrated his skills. He built an impressive portfolio and solidified his reputation for high-quality work in his chosen specialty. But Farrell said the final product that appears in print is often dictated by his rapport with subjects during a shoot.

“Photography is about making sure the subjects are comfortable at all times, no matter what they’re wearing, what they’re doing and what the issue is. If they’re comfortable, they’ll open up more and you’ll create memorable images. When I’m done with a shoot, people typically say it was easier than they expected.

“The other side of photography is technology. It’s hard because that’s always changing in the photo field. There’s also a big emphasis now on creating more content. Clients want to incorporate video with the photography, so I’ve been branching off into that. You need to adapt to how the industry has evolved to stay relevant and successful. The challenge I face on a daily basis is making more and stronger content that is lasting, while also maintaining a value for my business.”

Only one person pushes the shutter button to capture an image, but Farrell said professional photography requires teamwork. A minimum of two assistants accompany him to shoots to help carry gear, set up and adjust lighting and keep an eye on the computer monitor, if necessary, to make sure focus and exposure are ideal.

Farrell returns to his home state fairly often, but not typically for business. The groundbreaking Women’s Running cover story was his first high-profile shoot in the state and his first return to Detroit since he was a child.

“The downtown has changed for the better; it’s such a different place than I remember,” he said. “My wife was with me on the shoot and we had a blast there.”

To see one of the media reports on the cover’s significance, click here. To see more of Farrell's work, click here


Prepared By
Kristi Evans
News Director