I logged on to the video call a few minutes early, with my camera off. STADE co-founders Matthew Stith and Ethan White were already in the meeting, exchanging a bit of banter about a project they’re working on. Stith cracked a joke and the partners erupted into boisterous, briefly uncontrollable laughter. My face eventually appeared on screen and their attention immediately turned to me: «Bobby!»; «Brother, welcome!». Though their internal meeting had now shifted into an external interview, the energy remained joyful. The bond between them self-evident.
Per their website, «STADE is rooted in football, but our vision extends beyond any single sport or label… a creative agency dedicated to immortalizing moments in and around global sport». When I asked the former athletes about the root of their love for soccer, they both waxed poetic about the all-consuming, euphoric energy of the feeling they get from playing the game:
«It’s shared escapism. For 90 minutes, nothing else matters», White gushed.
«The first time I saw Ethan, he was playing in an MLS game that I was contracted to shoot. The next week he was on the sidelines of the same stadium with a camera. I was intrigued, and also just excited to see another Black photographer on the pitch», recalled Matthew.
In the months and years following, Stith and White continued crossing paths while navigating the avenues of the American and European Football media industry. As each began experimenting with new mediums, styles, subjects, and clients – their complementary features started bubbling to the surface, pointing to the potential of a formal partnership.
«I remember admiring Matt’s passion. At first I noticed the fire in him when he would talk about footy or photography. Pretty soon though, I realized that his enthusiasm isn’t reserved to those areas only. If he cares about something he’ll take it to level ten, level fifteen», explained White.
«Ethan is more reserved than I am. He exudes confidence and people respect him in the game. When I’m with E, I stand my ground firmer. We lift each other up», said Stith.
Watching STADE emerge onto the scene from afar, I noticed that the agency’s work was different – but I couldn’t tell you how. After this conversation and a review of some unreleased work, I’ve concluded that the esoteric sheen on the creative house’s output isn’t thanks to a signature aesthetic or the repetition of a successful template – but a desire to capture a truth in their subjects. In staking out this space in the game, Stith and White are setting out to stretch the boundaries placed on art by the conventions of commercial media.
Each photographer had experienced success in the soccer world as well as in New York City’s fashion scene; but both kept finding themselves stifled by managers – often, white men with no experience in sports or the arts – dictating artistic restrictions and dismissing innovative ideas.
«Brands want safe, they want predictable. They’re laying out their budget so it makes sense – but when that fear of failure permeates through the project, creatives are forced to shrink their ideas or aren’t free to express them at all», said White.
«Under that pressure, it’s easy for artists to lose the ambition to take risks. It becomes a transaction where we’re expected to deliver the content a brand has ordered with a pre-ordained style, instead of crafting work that connects as compelling or truthful or artful», added Stith.
The long-time collaborators, fed up with reproducing viral tropes on demand, began the construction of an agency. As the co-founders tell it, they're building a platform that will make space for artists to transmit their individual taste in service to the production of impactful, effective work for clients.
In studying the agency’s most recent work I’ve been struck by how portraiture of fans, players, and stadium staff are interwoven with grand frames of arenas or moments of split-second chaos. It’s clear that in addition to capturing the inherent drama of competition, they appear just as (if not more) interested in documenting raw human emotion and inexplicable moments of serenity – on the field and in the stands. Even when the project appears soccer-oriented, the subject of the art is the people of the game.
«We want to narrate the game of football and the humanity that surrounds it, in the most truthful way», Stith told me.
«We want our work to be striking, to turn heads. To do that, artists we work with need to be free to express themselves», said Ethan.
I get the impression that when they began their respective artistic journeys, Stith and White were hoping to find more of the exhilaration and presence of mind that football had brought them in their young lives. In that light, it makes sense that enduring years of pressure to rapidly deliver fleeting-content-slated-to-be-consumed-and-discarded-with-the-scroll-of-a-thumb would feel like a violation of that emotional purity at the center of their art.
En francais, «stade», translates to «stadium». A fitting name for the Stith, White, and their community as they construct this theater for joy, for expression, for sport, for art.