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Finding Focus: Photographer Lands Picture-Perfect Gig With Coke

By:  Jay Moye Oct 11, 2013
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Joel Robison was looking for a way to parlay his passion for photography into a career when a call from Coca-Cola brought things into focus.

The offer? To tag along, camera in tow, to 89 countries with the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour.

“It was pretty good timing,” the soft-spoken 29-year-old says of the call, which he took in May during a lunch break at his job teaching special-needs kids in Cranbrook, British Columbia. “I was looking for a sign from the universe saying ‘this is what you’re supposed to do.’ I’d been freelancing, doing commission work and licensing some of my images… and had it in my head that I wanted to do photography full time.”

And now he's doing just that. I met Robison inside what will double as his home and office over the next nine months: the Trophy Tour’s official plane. We chatted during the aircraft’s inaugural flight from Atlanta to San José, Costa Rica, where more than 17,000 fans turned out to see world football’s most iconic prize in the days that followed.

As the tour's official “blogtographer,” Robison’s job is to document the action in real time by telling the story of each country through photos and tweets from the @TrophyTour handle. In addition to shooting the fan experiences and other scheduled events, he ventures out into each community to soak up the local culture.

“We’re celebrating the idea of this being the World’s Cup by telling personal stories that convey how each community interprets football,” he explains.

His creative brief varies slightly from stop to stop. On some days, he’ll go from meeting a head of state to photographing people in extremely poor neighborhoods within a few hours.

Joel Robison

Joel Robison on the famous Escadaria Selarón steps in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“The experience has been both amazing and eye-opening,” he says. “Some of my favorite images so far were taken in places of extreme poverty, where you wouldn’t expect people to be so happy and lead such rich lives. In Rio, for example, we surprised a young boy with the opportunity to see the trophy at the launch event at the Christ the Redeemer statue. It was the poorest place I’d ever been to, but the happiness he showed was incredible.”

During his rare moments of down time on the tour, Robison has set a few personal goals for himself. An avid runner who has completed five marathons, he hopes to log at least a mile in every country along the route. He also plans to shoot and edit a fine art piece in every stop.

“So far, so good,” he says.

While he admits to not being a huge soccer fan, he says he’s falling for the sport more and more with each photo he takes. Plus, chronicling the tour from an outsider’s perspective will yield even more authentic photographs, he insists.

“I'm watching and capturing people’s reactions differently than if I was a huge fan of the sport,” he adds. “I think if I was a long-time fan, I’d see things in a different light.”

The FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour is not Robison’s first time working with Coke. Back in 2007, when photography was still a relatively new hobby for him, he opened a Flickr account. A photo he posted of Coke bottles in the snow caught the attention of brand manager AJ Brustein.  

“Every day, he was posting these photos that seemed like they took weeks to create,” recalls Brustein, a prolific photographer in his own right. “Joel has such a creative vision, and he knows how to craft it through his photography and editing skills.”

Robison agreed to let Coke use a few of his photos on Twitter. And months later, when the brand was preparing to re-launch its Flickr account with a focus on user-generated content, his name came up once again.

“We wanted to recruit a photographer from the community to moderate the page – and immediately thought of Joel,” Brustein explains. “He had tons of Flickr followers by that time, his images were happy and optimistic, and he was a fan of the brand.”

Over the next year, Robison posted his own photos on themes linked to Coke’s “Open Happiness” campaign, and inspired other photographers to do the same. “I’ve always associated Coke with happy times with my family,” he says. “And as a visual person with an interest in art and photography, their campaigns and strong visual identity continue to draw me in.”

Robison flew to Atlanta to meet the Coke team in March, hinting that he’d like to have a more hands-on role with the company’s social media efforts. What he didn’t know was that the team already had the guy they'd nicknamed "Superfan Joel" in mind for the Trophy Tour project.

He accepted on the spot, but had to keep the details under wraps until Sept. 12, when the route was revealed. “I shared the news that day on my Facebook page and quickly got 1,000 likes," recalls Robison, who taught a series of photography workshops across the U.S. before the tour started. "Some of my photographer friends were of course a little jealous, but most were really excited for me.”

His former students and coworkers have been equally supportive, and are even following his round-the-world journey on a map at school, marking each stop with a pin.

Robison says he's most looking forward to places he’d never think to visit on his own – including Egypt, Palestine, India and Nepal – and to bringing the trophy to smaller countries that will welcome the iconic prize for the first time.

“I’m part of a team of positive people bringing a positive message to the world,” he concludes. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do with my own work.”

Gear Talk: What’s in Joel’s Camera Bag

Camera: Sony a99

Lens: Sony 24-70mm, Sony 85mm50 and Sony 1.4m, plus a Sony External Flash

Devices: Apple iPhone, Apple iPad, Sony Vaio laptop

At Home: Canon 5d Mark ii with a 50mm 1.8 lens