Sports Photography. Shiny Happy People?

This is something of a departure from the main theme of my blog. I originally posted this onto my Facebook photography page earlier this year. But after chatting to someone about it this weekend I have decided to post it here as well.

I wrote on a similar subject last year. But I have been prompted to write this following some photography I did last weekend.

I think for everybody who takes part in a sport at a reasonable level and most people who go to watch sport at any level it is very much about the drama and passion involved. But what does that drama involve? Certainly winning but to get to the point of winning it involves blood, sweat and tears; quite literally. And, of course, for every winner there is a loser. If you take part in sport you are inevitably, from time to time going to get an injury of some sort. At many of the sports events I photograph, the public are not just invited to watch they need to pay in order to watch. So very much a public event at which they expect to see a dramatic event.

Sports photography is essentially photojournalism. So, do we want to see an honest, full version of the drama and passion of a sports event, or just a sanitised version where achievement looks easy and we only see the happy faces of the winners. I don’t think so. If you make winning look easy, if you make it appear that there are no blood sweat and tears then you take away most of the drama. Furthermore, you do a disservice to the athletes and the sheer grit and determination it takes to be a winner.

What prompted me to think about this and write this note is something that happened at a match I was photographing. An athlete got injured and was clearly distressed by both the pain of the injury and the disappointment. I took a few shots of her being helped off and then a few of her showing her distress and pain. This was happening very close to the (large) crowd and was clearly being watched by the crowd. The shots I took featured the athlete with her head in her hands and the pain and disappointment is more implied by body language than anything else. I took these shots from a distance of about 10 yards. I don’t feel this was particularly intrusive bearing in mind that I was further away than many people in the crowd. I was also using a wide-angle lens as I actually thought the concern of the people around her was more interesting. Certainly not as intrusive as TV cameras being literally shoved in a person’s face, which you frequently see. (For some reason, any antics of moving picture cameramen seem to be more acceptable and rarely challenegd.) Anyway I was asked to stop photographing and was verbally abused by one person. Interestingly, the TV camera man standing virtually next to me and filming exactly the same thing was not spoken to at all. I find this quite interesting really.

This is not a one off. For, instance, a couple of years ago I was photographing a women’s rugby international, featuring arguably the best two teams in the world. I took a couple of shots of a player with a blood injury leaving the field with the physio actually covering most of the blood with an ice pack. I was forcefully told to stop photographing (by somebody who had no authority to do so as it happens). The reason I was given was that it might deter other women from taking up rugby. This is basically selling a lie. If you play rugby you will almost inevitably end up having a blood injury or several. Why pretend that isn’t the case. (As an aside to this, if Tom Williams had not been photographed and filmed during the infamous “bloodgate” incident, on the grounds that we can’t photograph injuries or blood, then Quins would not have been found out.)

People who know me well are aware that I delete any photograph taken at sports events where I feel that somebody’s dignity or privacy has accidentally been compromised. I also frequently ask people whether they think it’s ok to use photographs that I have doubts about. But I don’t think this extends to people displaying normal emotions (good or bad) associated with the effort that goes into being an elite athlete.

Many of you will remember Derek Redmond.

Link to video

I can remember watching this at the time and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What a massive hero and true Olympian. I know people who weren’t even alive at the time who are inspired by this. But if we weren’t allowed to record images of athletes because they are showing pain or distress, or because they are injured, we wouldn’t have witnessed this. It wouldn’t be around to inspire people now.

I’d like to add a personal note here. A few years ago I was photographed at what was regarded as a major incident. It wasn’t a sports event; people were killed and maimed. This event had a profound effect on my life and my future health. Suffice to say I wasn’t looking my best in this photograph which appeared in newspapers, magazines and on the cover of a Sunday supplement and a couple of other magazines. Despite the fact it wasn’t a great experience for me I think the taking and using of the picture was perfectly acceptable. I mention this only to illustrate that I don’t have double standards on this.

Just a few thoughts.


4 responses to “Sports Photography. Shiny Happy People?

  1. Interesting thoughts and an excellent blog as always Guy, with many good points you raise in this article. I would like to share a few thoughts of my own, regarding my sport of choice; football. In football the little boys have cried wolf far too often. So when a player is taken off the field on a stretcher, the general attitude from fans is ‘Oh he will be back on the field in a minute’ So in this case the ‘ethical’ cameraman has to make a conscious decision on what is pain and what is feign.

    It is also fair to point out, a lot of the bad taste in sport is not what is done or what has happened, but what is said and what is heard. My point here is that this is a two way street. The paying public have as much of a right to be protected by the media as the competitors. For instance racist or abusive chants at a football match should always be dubbed out by the sound man, but instead this cacophony of human misery is broadcast live into our homes.

    A team that gets beat 10-0 is ridiculed. Their drained expressions when walking off the field of play is all to be seen under the media glare. Press the red button for this angle, that angle. This is misery of a kind? Pictures of their faces plastered all over the tabloids the next day. Contact sports like football will always have plenty of injuries. I guess this is why they are paid the same salary as 20 cameramen.


    • Michael, many thanks for your interesting comment. I certainly agree that things like racist chanting should be taken out (although I imagine some people would argue it should be left in as an illustration.)
      I agree that there is a world of difference between ridicule and recording. But I am adamant that there is a duty to record the pain of defeat as well as the exhilaration of victory. For the reason that I gave; which is that to ignore it does a disservice to the hard work an athlete puts in. One of, the more repeatable, comments that was made to me and on Twitter was “show some respect”. This completely misses the point for me. Showing the pain isn’t a lack of respect. Quite the opposite. People who know me well will know I have an elite athlete in my household. I know the pain and disappointment involved some of the time.

  2. I’ve pondered my response to this for a while as I can see both sides of this ‘debate’. As you know Guy I am involved with elite sport and elite athletes and have been for a number of years now and as part of that have been there sideline at times of triumph, jubilation and also utter devastation. I have had occasion (not often I have to say) to ask both photographers and video cameramen (one instance of trying to video me treating an female athletes groin injury at close quarters crossed a line for me) to give an athlete some space, it’s not that on these occasions I have objected to the taking of an image itself but more that I have felt that they have been there for such a period of time that it then becomes intrusive – what is my time frame for this I can hear you ask? No answer I am afraid. And is it the same when they photograph our success – probably not. Be aware too that not all photographers have your professionalism and respect for their subjects, getting too close, not considering the appropriateness of a shot before publishing etc. Remember too that for myself I am not just involved with the athletes for that game/event/tournament, they are people that I have worked with, lived with, travelled with, and I know exactly what they have been through to get to where they are, so the instinct to protect is also there, maybe that is where someone in my position may run foul of photo and video journalists – rightly or wrongly. I agree that all emotions of sport should be recorded, I know for a fact that one athlete I deal with uses a photo of herself distraught at the end of a hard fought race that she lost as inspiration to train that bit harder. Blood, sweat and tears – that’s what it takes to succeed, and so are all part of the whole story to be told, but maybe sometimes forgive the likes of me and where my emotions and loyalties may be at the time.
    PS and of course as you are well aware keep the lens on the athlete not the support staff and we will all be happier!!

  3. Hi Fiona. Thanks, another thought provoking reply. Obviously I’ve touched a nerve with people with this one.
    Maybe I am a bit naive some times and forget that some photographers do misbehave which leads to a tendency for people to be defensive. I totally agree with you that recording someone treating a groin injury crosses a line. That is not journalism but voyeurism.
    I totally understand, as well, the instinct for team mates and support staff to feel protective towards people who are probably also their friends. The thing is that on the occasion that prompted me to write this piece it went well beyond that. Not only were people very abusive at the time (some of that from people who had no real connection with the athlete concerned) but the abuse went on for days afterwards on Twitter and Facebook. Most of it guided by ignorance. The other feature was the fact that the TV cameraman filming right next to me was ignored. It’s like TV is some sort of magic land where anything goes. The recording of the match was shown on a major sports channel, including these pictures, and some of the same people who abused me were saying what great coverage it was! I think it was the combination of these things that pissed me off on this occasion.
    As I said, I will edit out shots that I feel are too intrusive. But the only option is to take the shot and then edit if it’s wrong. Except for the occasions when it’s clear in the first place that taking the shot would be wrong. This wasn’t one of those occasions I feel.

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