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Mar 20, 2024 by Marc Peruzzi

In the Field: How They Got The Shot

Photographer Boone Speed on How he captured one of his most compelling images.

The Leap of Faith

Of the millions of frames that photographer Boone Speed has closed the shutter on in his life, he keeps a running list of 50 images that he “gives a fuck about.” The list is a metaphor for the times. In an age when five billion images are captured every day, what separates quality photography from those snaps, and what separates artwork from good photography? Here is Boone discussing that and more in the context of one of his most powerful images—Leap of Faith.

The Leap of Faith. Athlete: Shrikanta Barefoot

“A special photo needs a little something extra, something that not just anyone with a phone can stand there and capture. So for me, there has to be an element of privileged access—it can be access to a location or to a subject that makes a moment special enough to actually matter.

An example helps. Imagine you’re at a concert in 2024. Back before smartphones, professional photographers would get access to the front row to capture images of the live performance. But today, anything shot from the audience, whether it’s shot with a nice camera or a phone, delivers that same image. You can draw an analogy to the written word. Anyone, including generative AI, can take existing content and slightly reskin it, but it’s not original work. You have to have unique access and unique perspective to create, not derive.

Chris Sharma (right) and Shrikanta Barefoot in Yangshuo, China, 2009.

For this shoot in Yangshuo, China in 2009, I had unique access, and not just to the location, which was actually a popular destination among climbers at the time. I had access to the climber Chris Sharma, who was perhaps the only person capable of climbing at that level in 2009. And it also happened that Sharma’s childhood friend, Shrikanta Barefoot, was in Macau at the time, performing as an acrobat and more for Cirque du Soleil. When he found out that Chris was in China, he joined us to climb with his old friend. The access to location and talent was both engineered—we put ourselves there—and organic—we were friends who climbed.

There was a connection between us. I grew up as an artist’s son with a strange name in conservative Salt Lake City, Utah. Sharma grew up with a strange name in an ashram outside of Santa Cruz, California. Shrikanta grew up in that same ashram. I’m fairly certain that Shrikanta Barefoot is his given name. I’m 16 years older than Chris, but we connected when he was a 15 year old prodigy and remained friends, and I connected with Shrikanta in China for similar reasons. At that time, climbing was part of the counterculture, as I’m sure fire dancing at Cirque du Soleil was to Shrikanta. At a certain level, we were all misfits.

The Yangshuo rock is limestone karst. It's been an inspiration to artists for millennia. This shot won PDN's Grand Prize.

We went to Yangshuo to climb on these beautiful karst formations because we wanted to. The business side of it was secondary, but Chris was an athlete for Prana so I knew that would be an outlet for still images. My friend and collaborator Mike Call came to shoot video. It was just one of those special moments in my life, which I’m sure I didn’t even recognize while it was happening. But looking back, those moments are super special to me.


This image appeared on the cover of Rock & Ice magazine.

The Leap of Faith photograph was not planned. You could not art direct that if you tried.

I was on the wall shooting Chris climbing during the golden light of dusk. And just as we were losing the light, I looked down to see Shrikanta in this field running through his dance and tumbling moves in an almost meditative state.

I didn’t know if the subject and the scene would make for some great artwork, but I recognized I had to try. I quickly rappelled off the wall and ran—I was literally running—to my camera bag to swap out for a lens that would help me sculpt the images I wanted to capture. And then I ran into the tall grass to lie down and shoot.

The sun was setting towards the lens. Shrikanta was backlit. There was no direct light on him. But luckily he was wearing light khaki pants and there was just enough ambient light to capture his skin tone. The fading light made the image more dramatic. I didn’t plan that.

I didn’t say anything to Shrikanta. I didn’t want to alter the moment. But Shrikanta was a friend and a performer so he continued.


“If I'd been planning to shoot Shrikanta, I would have scheduled the shoot according to the light, but the dusk brought more drama.” —Boone Speed

I don’t think the images were ever published outside of fine art exhibitions. Maybe something ran in a Prana catalog. I seem to remember that those were Prana pants. There was nothing in the magazines. The main image, which I named Leap of Faith, was featured in art installations.

At one installation we blew it up to 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide. It holds up at that scale. It’s just as beautiful large as it is small. It has a painterly quality to it that works as you scale up. If you’re shooting for Instagram the ability to scale doesn’t matter. But if you’re shooting an image that matters you want it to work at the largest scale possible. If you see an image on a large scale that isn’t done correctly, the image essentially breaks. The edges get rough and the subject is pixelated.

The lens I shot with blurs the edges. I wanted that specific look. I wanted to sculpt an image with the lens so that as you scale it up it becomes more dynamic, and that sense increases in intensity as the image gets larger. It becomes more alive and immersive.

In my 50 favorite images collection, this one has a heavy rotation. You can see that it has my brush stroke on it. But it also required this rare access that verges on happenstance but isn’t. There’s an exquisite nature to it. And there was a lot of luck involved too. AI will never recreate that moment.”

On reflection, a photographer is lucky to take a personal “desert island” image, an image that matters, once a month—let alone capture three shots you give a fuck about in an hour. Special things happen when you put yourself in the world with good people.