They are our pioneers, our leaders, our titans, our artists and our icons. They are the 100 most influential people of the year. And when five of them – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kanye West, Bradley Cooper, Misty Copeland and Jorge Ramos – were selected for the covers of this special issue, TIME turned to fashion and portrait photographer Sebastian Kim.
“His genuine interest for the people who sit for him allows Sebastian to quickly develop a strong rapport with his subjects,” says Natalie Matutschovsky, a senior photo editor at TIME. “In preparation for each shoot Sebastian did a tremendous amount of research both photographic and biographical on each subject. People immediately feel safe with him and that allows for a collaborative and creative atmosphere.”
The challenge facing Kim, who once worked as an assistant to Richard Avedon, was to create visual consistency on five different sets across the country — from Washington to Los Angeles, Miami to New York City “The consistency comes from the decision to strip out the fluff,” he tells TIME. “Keeping it minimal, keeping it raw, keeping it about them.”
The approach came about naturally. While he started shooting the ballerina Misty Copeland in a very stylized way, Kim quickly reverted back to the most simple set-up, selecting, with TIME’s photo editors, a photo and an outfit that didn’t overpower the subject’s persona. “This approach came from the subjects themselves: Kanye wanted to wear a simple t-shirt, Bradley didn’t want to be glammed up, and Justice Ginsburg wanted to be herself,” says Kim. Even Jorge Ramos chose to be photographed in the suit he often wears to work. “It was really about themselves — the raw version of themselves,” Kim adds.
This pared-down nature is particularly apparent in Cooper’s portrait. “Bradley is conscious of how he looks and how he’s portrayed,” says Kim. “He knew he didn’t want to be so polished. So, he sort of set the direction, which we rolled with.”
In the end, says Kim, portrait photography is all about connecting with your subject. But that can prove hard in certain situations. “These days, you have so little time to photograph them, it’s very difficult to connect,” he tells TIME. “How much can they give you? That’s the struggle of the modern-day portrait photographer, because the challenge is always to capture something that’s deeper than just the surface.”