Interviewed by: Cabanne Howard
This week, before the Day 2 rounds of Rapid & Blitz began, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a few minutes with Lennart Ootes, a very talented, jet-setting photographer of the chess stars.
Birthplace: Hoorn*, the Netherlands
What did you study in school?
I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Physics. I went on to start my master’s but realized that it was not for me… too analytical.
How did you become a Photographer?
Photography is both technical and artistic, which is I think part of why I like it. When I stopped pursuing my master’s, I got an internship at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It was such a great experience that I stayed for 14 months. I loved it and learned so much. I bought my first photo camera — with video functionality — in 2012 and my first job was for a Dutch chess website. They asked me to make video reports for youth chess events.
How did you connect with the Saint Louis Chess Campus?
A Dutch arbiter whom I knew introduced me to Tony & I was invited to my first U.S. Championship in Saint Louis in 2014.
Do you play chess?
Are you good?
My rating is 2100. I played chess until 22 at tournaments. My brother and I traveled to play chess — he’s an IM now. But in chess I am very competitive so when I don’t train, I feel less confident. So now I don’t play as much. It’s like anything; when you don’t practice, you become less interested. It’s a cycle. I only play about 5 classical games per year which is not a lot at all.
Does the fact that you play chess inform your photography?
Yes. It helps that I know how to play the game. I know when the games get interesting and I can understand what the players feel. I know when emotions are high. For example, last year at the U.S. Championships… Tatev was leading by half a point and Nazi was chasing her. Tatev lost in a dramatic game and Nazi won unexpectedly. So much emotion. The photo of them looking at each other is full of emotion and one of my favorite photos.
What photographers do you admire?
David Llada, from Spain, the current “Grandmaster of Chess Photography”
Alina l’Ami, from Romania
They inspire me because of the quality of their work and they have angles that I don’t have.
What is the most fun part of the job?
Traveling. I travel to 15-20 countries per year. Many for chess and also for pleasure. Traveling is awesome. Iceland, Grand Chess Tour in Paris, China for the Asian Chess Championships. Chess photography takes me places I wouldn’t normally go.
Another great travel opportunity: Turkmenistan. I am going to prepare the DGT boards for the Asian Indoor Games. It is unlikely I would otherwise travel to Turkmenistan so this is a wonderful opportunity.
What is the most difficult aspect of the job?
I think there are two things that stand out: Not to strive for perfection. Sometimes I don’t feel satisfied with the results… but I’m still learning.
Also, I take many photos of champions. Sometimes I photograph a player in a couple of events in a row and I work hard to find new angles and subject matter but it can be challenging.
What’s the favorite place you’ve been?
What is your impression of the Saint Louis Chess Campus?
It is such a flexible chess club. By this I mean that it appeals to everyone. They host tournaments for club members, programs for the general public, beginner lessons, classes for women interested in the game... All in the same building. I love this.
The fact that Garry Kasparov plays here is so significant and yet anyone is welcome.
What’s your drink of choice?
Belgian beer; this made Leuven really fun :)
Who is your dream subject?
I would love to follow a contender in the World Championship while he is playing. Wesley So would make for a very interesting subject. I’d like to study how he prepares for the match.
Similar to how Harry Benson followed Bobby Fischer.
How is social media changing the way you photograph?
Before social media, taking photos for newspapers and media was a big thing. But now, when something big happens, I can post it immediately on Twitter and get such a huge response that I’m happier to post on social media than I am to get it published in a journal or newspaper.
Oh, one last question… what’s the story behind your ever changing hair color?
The true story is that during my physics studies I saw so many guys becoming bald at a young age....I was sure it would happen to me as well and I started to enjoy my hair as long as it would last. The other fun story is that a Grandmaster who was born in the same city as me used to dye his hair a lot. He even played Kasparov with red hair!
*Interviewer’s note: Lennart, a vegetarian, claims that his hometown of Hoorn is the vegetarian chess capital of the world. He knows at least 10 strong chess players who are born there and are vegetarian. Go figure.