When Pari Dukovic entered the studio to photograph subjects for the covers of the 2019 TIME 100 issue, he had done his research. He knew that forging a connection with each of the six honorees gracing the April 29 cover was the way to capture each subject’s essence in a portrait.
Dukovic learned that actor Sandra Oh loves ballet, so he made sure to bring up the discipline with her before they began shooting in Los Angeles, Calif. He also prepared to photograph Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in Washington, D.C.; at the shoot, he spoke with her about the environmental work of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
This is one piece of how the award-winning photographer makes his art. “I want to find a visual approach that celebrates [the subject] and captures their energy,” Dukovic tells TIME.
It’s that energy, Dukovic says, that allowed him to capture the essence of the TIME 100, the annual list of artists, activists, leaders and visionaries who have impacted the world. This year’s edition has six covers, featuring Oh, Pelosi, Mohamed Salah, Taylor Swift, Gayle King and Dwayne Johnson.
To photograph soccer player Salah in Liverpool, England, Dukovic incorporated the athlete’s physicality into the shoot. Against a terra cotta backdrop, Dukovic worked to figure out the most efficient way to capture Salah kicking a soccer ball. “There’s a lot to think about in terms of the framing and how you really prepare the shot before you get him to do it,” he says.
Some connections Dukovic made with his subjects, like King, were completely coincidental. King, born in Maryland, spent part of her childhood in Turkey, Dukovic’s home country. Connecting over that during the New York shoot was “pretty fantastic,” Dukovic says.
Dukovic collaborated with TIME photo editor Dilys Ng to plan the photo shoots, which were all based on colorful mood boards. Using examples from previous shoots, Ng and Dukovic chose a color family for each subject, while connecting the covers with the same gradient effect.
Although the color schemes, outfits, makeup and hair were all researched and planned in advance, much of each shoot was dependent on what happened in the moment. “Anything that’s pre-planned might change on set,” Ng explains.
But during these shoots, Dukovic says, the honorees really wanted to be a part of the creative process. “I was trying to find ways to connect with them, but they were very much trying to connect with me as well,” he says. “I find that beautiful. It has a lot to do with the flow of how I do a portrait.”
Still, there were certain characteristics of each person that Dukovic tried to capture in his photos. “I wanted the lighting and the approach to have something a lot softer and poetic about it,” Dukovic explains. With an artist like Swift, who was photographed in Los Angeles, he didn’t want to only focus on her “electric blue eyes.” During his shoot with Swift, Dukovic says he was touched by the way the musician complimented his work. “I think it shows how collaborative she wants to be during a creative process,” he explains.
He wanted to celebrate each subject for who they are on the inside — and why they’re on the TIME 100. “I was trying to find qualities about them that I was really drawn to as well,” he says.
For Johnson, the wrestler-turned-megastar, Dukovic sought to celebrate the actor’s long resumé with a single photograph. “I really wanted this portrait to mark his career,” he says, “So that it becomes a timeless portrait of his life at this moment.”
Prior to the Los Angeles shoot, Johnson shared on his Instagram page that he was headed to one of the most important photo shoots of his life. Dukovic says it was humbling to see someone “at that level in his career” be open about how special the project was for him.
Dukovic, who was raised in Istanbul, says he discovered photography through street photography while growing up in Istanbul, before coming to the U.S. to study the art. “It truly is a dream come true for me,” he says, “to work on a project at this caliber.”