As a documentary photographer, Eve Edelheit prefers the quiet camouflage of natural light to the affront of direct flash. "I don't want to draw attention to myself every time," she said in an interview.
But when she traveled from her home in Tampa, Florida, to Orlando to check out a basketball wunderkind in 2014, the vulnerability of the flash seemed fitting. "The flash gives the vibe of his life," she said. "This is what it's like to be in the spotlight for Julian Newman."
Sixth grader Julian Newman looks up to make a shot while warming up before the basketball game between University High School and Downey Christian High School on Feb. 13, 2014, in Orlando, Florida. | (Eve Edelheit/Tampa Bay Times)
In 2013, 11-year-old Julian Newman was everywhere. As a starter for his high school varsity basketball team, the diminutive fifth grader first caught the attention of basketball recruiting and niche sports websites before exploding onto the national scene, in print, online, and on TV.
But when that wave of media attention reached Edelheit, she was skeptical. "You know that gut feeling, like something is off? It was like that," she said. The photojournalist, who has a knack for finding emotional sports stories, wanted to investigate further and, though new to the position as photographer at the Tampa Bay Times, pitched the story to her editors.
"It was an important moment," she said. "As a young staffer I wanted to show that I was willing to take risks and I could rise to the challenge."
Downey Christian varsity coach Jamie Newman watches his son Julian handle the basketball during a game at Downey Christian on Feb. 4, 2014, in Orlando. | (Eve Edelheit/Tampa Bay Times)
Edelheit and writer Michael Kruse, who has a background in scouting high school basketball players (he watched LeBron James play as a high school sophomore), traveled to Orlando more than half a dozen times in January and February 2014. They watched Julian's games, sat in on a workout, hung out at his house, tagged along on a photoshoot with People Magazine, and even traveled with the Newman family to a TV show appearance.
"We had incredible access," Edelheit said. "[The parents] were so open to the media, so media hungry, it was almost too much access."
Edelheit and Kruse's story, which was published in the Tampa Bay Times in February 2014, blew the cover off of the media hype machine. "We went in being like, 'this kid could be amazing!' We didn't realize how overmarketed these kids were," she said of Julian and his little sister Jaden who is also a promising young basketball player.
Jamie shaves his son's head before a People magazine shoot at Downey Christian School in Orlando on Feb. 3, 2014. | (Eve Edelheit/Tampa Bay Times)
The Julian Newman phenomenon started after his father Jamie Newman — who is also his basketball coach — pitched his son's talent to a sports website. The story was published along with a video that Jamie provided. After The New York Times picked up on the news, writing a 1,500-word feature after visiting Orlando for a day and watching a scrimmage game, Julian was catapulted into internet fame, being labeled a phenomenon and "the next big thing!"
Edelheit and Kruse's article called out the media for basing their stories on what amounted to a home video. "We are in a culture where we circulate information without investigating it further," Edelheit said. "It's not to say that he's not an excellent 12-year-old basketball player, but [his parents] were putting these expectations on him that weren't realistic for his age."
Julian puts his head in his hands in the locker room after losing to University High School 77-41 in Orlando on Jan. 31, 2014. | (Eve Edelheit/Tampa Bay Times)
Vivian Newman consoles her daughter Jaden as she experiences pain from a stomach virus before their appearance on Daytime, a Tampa-based television show on Feb. 3, 2014. Jaden, Julian, and Jamie still went on the show, despite Jaden's stomach pain. | (Eve Edelheit/Tampa Bay Times)
Edelheit's photos for the Tampa Bay Times story delicately reveal the often heartbreaking shadows that can lurk behind the spotlight of child stars — the grind of attention, the pressure of performance, the dynamic of a family business.
"One of the most trying moments as a photographer is when you see something really bad happening and there's nothing you can do because you can't interfere with the story," she said.
But Edelheit thoughtfully balances those adult-sized expectations with the levity of youth. No matter Julian's talent or future, for now, he's still just a kid.
Julian jokes around with his teammates before a basketball game at Downey Christian School in Orlando on Feb. 4, 2014. | (Eve Edelheit/Tampa Bay Times)
Julian falls asleep in Jaden's bed as he watches her play Guitar Hero after playing his final regulation game of the 2013-2014 basketball season in Orlando on Feb. 4, 2014. | (Eve Edelheit/Tampa Bay Times)