Behind the Cover: Photographing Super Mario

Image: Mario Balotelli by Levon Biss for TIME
Levon Biss for TIME
Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, Oct. 18, 2012.

Like many famous athletes, Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli has developed a reputation for outlandish behavior. But photographer Levon Biss was not worried during his recent TIME International cover shoot with the star, who is currently playing for the British football club Manchester City.

(Read More: Mario Balotelli: The Infamously Mercurial Brilliance of the Soccer Star)

“His personality is very shy, actually,” said Biss. “He wears outrageous clothes and sometimes on the football pitch he does outrageous things, but as a person he is not outrageous, he is very, very shy.”

The shoot did get off to a slightly rocky start when Balotelli arrived at the studio Biss had set up at Manchester City’s training grounds. “He walked in and there were 12 or 13 people in there,” Biss explained. “I think he got quite nervous and walked straight back out again. We had to wait another half-hour for him to come back.”

Despite the delay, the shoot eventually went off without a hitch. To compensate for Balotelli’s discomfort, Biss focused on stylized portraits, rather than action shots. “He looks quite interesting, so you don’t need to do much with him,” said Biss. “He’s got quite a brooding character, so we tried to enhance that with a bit of red lighting and keep the images quite graphic.”

This is not an unusual approach when photographing athletes, who unlike actors and other celebrities, said Biss, are not used to performing for the camera. “These are sports people,” he said. “You have to hinge on what you can do photographically instead of relying on them to come through with a shining personality.”

Biss makes sure to work fast and use a straightforward, no nonsense approach, similar to what his subjects would encounter on the field. Most importantly, Biss, said is keeping the sessions short and sweet.

“They want to be out of there,” said Biss. “If you can get on their side by saying ‘look we’ve got an hour but we can do this in half an hour,’ you are automatically their friend and they will give you what you want straight away.”

Levon Biss is a London-based photographer and regular contributor to TIME.

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