The young boy knows what’s coming. Head down, gloved hands protecting his face, all he can do is brace his body as the older boy’s fist hurtles towards his rib cage. The bigger fighter’s expression is one of placid concentration, but in the background the crowd are having a whale of a time. “There’s so much fun there,” says Luca Sage, the photographer who took the image. “To stand there by those fights, it’s not just the passion you experience but the joy. It’s what they love. So it’s multi-faceted and I’m trying to get everything in the pictures but there are things that make you recoil because you can hear the hits and they’re only young lads.”
Street Fight is an extraordinary series of photographs. They were taken in Jamestown, Ghana, a poor town next to one of the country’s biggest slums which has a remarkable record of producing professional fighters. In our image-saturated culture we are bombarded with photographs, and sports pictures are big business. The mainstream media fixates on what Jonny Weeks, sports picture editor of The Guardian, calls the “two-man-and-a-ball-action-here-it-is-straight-up-in-your-face-dynamism-action-bang” shots. But there’s a whole world of much more engaging and alternative sports photography out there. What makes an interesting sports picture? And what draws so many photographers to these subjects?
For Luca, part of the attraction is the actual process involved. “Usually I shoot very slow, formal portraits and it was almost like that was only one side of my character coming out. I love sport and when I’m shooting it I don’t feel like I’m just a bystander; to move around with them, you feel very involved in it. If you can dance you can shoot boxing; if you can’t, you’re going to get hacked.”
But over and above the physical thrill of this kind of work, he finds that sport is a perfect prism through which to capture human nature. “The thing about boxers is that when you’re around them they’re very calm people. You’ve got to be very controlled otherwise you’re not going to make it in boxing. So you’ve almost got the dichotomy of human nature in one. You’ve got this sense of having to train and dedicate everything to boxing and then in those moments when you’re in the ring you’ve got to unleash the tiger, unleash that dark side.”
Luca studied social anthropology at university and as a photographer was originally drawn to post-conflict countries like Serbia and Northern Ireland. He admits that war both “saddens and fascinates” him, but through sport he’s found he can pursue these interests in a less harrowing context. “The boxing shifted the conflict from a community or society level onto more of a personal, individual one. Take football; we are divided because of who we support but on a level that is quite human. That hatred is fascinating to me. It shows human nature but on a very controlled stage.”
Like Luca, Spencer Murphy uses a military analogy when discussing sports photography. He has shot projects featuring cross country runners, BMX riders, surfers and jockeys (one of which won this year’s Taylor Wessing prize). His approach is usually to avoid the action altogether.
“Sport is often a tough, extreme and emotional environment, particularly when you get into the professional realms; people who’ve pushed themselves to the limits of their fitness. It’s almost like our modern equivalent of pulling people off the battlefield; they’ve given so much of themselves, the control has gone and that’s what I’m looking for. Something when their guard is dropped and they’re not conscious of how they are presenting themselves.
“Generally I like setting up a studio in a space where I can grab them off the finish line or straight after their event. You get people who are exhausted and either elated or downtrodden and there’s something genuine about that you can’t manipulate.”
Although his sporting projects have usually been portraiture, Spencer shot a series featuring parkour runners performing in his studio, his own take on a familiar photographic conundrum and one that perhaps explains the attraction of sport; how do you convey movement in a medium that is still?
“It goes as far back as Eadweard Muybridge when he was taking fast cameras and multiple frames to explore that idea. It’s the dilemma you are faced with. It’s easy enough to take an image of someone doing a very show-offy move and freeze-frame it in mid-air but it’s the before and after; how you give that a sense of fluidity, which is what I was interested in with the Parkour Generations series.
“It was about exploring the art of movement; trying to show traces of where they had been. There was no digital manipulation, it was all done in-camera; so it’s a combination of traces of light and flashed image to get that crisp motion.”
But the parkour series was the exception rather than the rule. Usually he is interested in portraits of the participants, whether he understands the particular sport or not. During his early commissions for skateboarding magazines like Huck and Adrenaline he could bring his own passions into play, but his recent Taylor Wessing success came in a completely new context.
“I don’t have any relationship with horse riding and I don’t know anything about jockeys,” he laughs. “Sometimes I find that being an outsider is more helpful than being an insider. Certainly that was the case with the surfing work. Quite often when you go on the press trips everyone’s a surfer, everyone knows one another and coming at it as an outsider gives you that different perspective.
“On the flip side having an understanding of sport and what it means to push yourself to that level can help. Certainly with skateboarding, to be able to appreciate what it takes to do the kind of things that they do is an advantage.”
This question of whether you have to understand a sport to photograph it well splits opinion. Luca was almost a professional footballer and admits his sporting pictures are a way of “playing out” his dashed dreams. Jane Stockdale on the other hand is a complete sporting novice; albeit an enthusiastic one. “I skived off PE all through school and am totally rubbish at sports. I don’t know any of the rules but that’s what I like about it. When I play tennis for example we don’t keep score; it’s just about hitting the ball as hard and fast and far as we can. I still don’t have a clue about the offside rule and I never will. But I love the simplicity, guts and power of sport. I love the challenge of capturing unpredictability, energy and action.”
Sometimes this means throwing herself into the action, as she did when a friend of hers told her about the Tough Guy races. “It sounded amazing so I really wanted to find out more. Obviously I got totally soaked and covered in mud but it’s like a shot of adrenaline.”
It’s perhaps this outsider status that leads her to approach sporting subjects in different and unusual ways. Her Crowds series for example – which was part of her degree show at the Edinburgh College of Art – ignored the action all together.
“The idea was not to document the stars but to turn the camera 180 degrees and capture the crowd instead. They might not know each other, may have never met or spoken before, but they’re sharing every little moment.”
On the other end of the spectrum to Jane, American photographer Emily Maye has spent time as the ultimate insider. She has specialised in wonderfully evocative cycling photography over recent years, embedded with both the RadioShack, Leopard Trek and Bontrager Pro cycling teams.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for the type of work that interests me to be inside the team because it allows me to observe the complete lifestyle of the sport. You’re there for the more candid moments and as the guys trust you, you’re able to move freely to document their lives and you can get some special shots.
“You also learn a lot about the sport and what goes into it, and you can make a more educated representation of the thing you wish to document. The disadvantages can be that you no longer see the peculiar subtleties that someone outside might pick up on because you become so accustomed to it all. That’s when it’s nice to step out of it a bit and look afresh; actively seeking out a story versus finding one where you are is a different creative experience.”
Emily studied screenwriting before turning to photography and is drawn to sport because of its “heightened drama.” She likes cycling for several reasons; the ever-changing backdrops of an itinerant, outdoor sport, the riders’ rituals and routines, the unpredictability and the physicality. “I like the simplicity of man and bike and the different forms of the body while they ride. I spent a lot of time photographing dancers and I feel that there are similarities between the way their bodies move.”
But she was also motivated by trying to produce something different. “I felt like so much of the sports photography that I would see was too much about the action, and I wanted to photograph the tone and the people involved.
“More often than not I photograph anything other than the rider crossing the finish line. Sometimes the moment just after tells you more, and oftentimes the reaction of someone else is more interesting.
Spencer Murphy, Peter Crouch
Spencer Murphy, Katie Walsh
“So I like to look around at what else is going on, away from the obvious central focus. I generally find better moments there and there’s usually 20 other photographers shooting the main action. I don’t really think of it as photographing the sport so much as the spectacle that is unfolding around me.”
That’s exactly the kind of approach Jonny Weeks admires. He namechecks Timm Kölln who recently went to photograph a cycle race in the Arctic Circle for Rouleur magazine. “He goes to shoot cycling along with the pack but he shoots everything the pack isn’t shooting, not just to be different but because he’s intrigued by all the other details.
“One of the best photos in the piece is a guy bathing in a lake with his bicycle propped on a rock nearby. The peloton was nowhere to be seen; this was just an incidental detail on the sideline. It captured this sense of a community in love with cycling that had finally got a big cycle race and it was perfect. Anyone else would have been on the back of a motorbike following the pack but he took the opportunity to look elsewhere.”
With 8,000 sports pictures a day to wade through, Jonny has honed his eye to pick out the right kind of images. “We like a more creative approach to our photography than some other newspapers. We like something more subtle, something that engages you but you have to think a little more about the picture; maybe it doesn’t explode with the story straight away but there are little details in it that intrigue you. I think sometimes you can get lost in key moments with sports photography and actually you miss all these beautiful details that happen in a game.”
He likes to see photographers taking risks and he wants to see pictures where the photographer has thought differently from the massed ranks all lusting after the same “hero” image; Usain Bolt crossing the finishing line, or the captain lifting the cup above his head. It’s a quality he loves in The Guardian’s in-house sports photographer Tom Jenkins, or Getty’s horse-racing specialist Alan Crowhurst.
“Alan’s so forward-thinking, so creative in his approach. 99% of the time he absolutely nails these beautiful pictures, seeing things in a way that nobody else is seeing them. Once in a while he’ll send something over and I think, ‘Fucking hell Alan you’ve pushed that too far!’ But it’s great to have people who are willing to take those risks.
“There’s a great picture of Evander Holyfield when he got his ear bitten off by Tyson. One photographer Jed Jacobsen used a long lens and got the detail of the bit of ear and it’s the image you remember. Just because in that moment he thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do something a little offbeat here.’
“There’s a degree of anticipation I am looking for in a photographer. I think that’s one of the great skills; to see how a story might develop. Things move so fast and there’s seldom an opportunity to go back. It’s not like portraiture where you can say ‘Ah fuck we blew that, let’s do it again.’ You miss it, it’s gone.”
Like Jonny, Luca believes that good sports photography is about the unusual and the unexpected. “You can always find something new, even with sport where you broadly know what’s going to happen. It’s kind of amazing because you think everything has been done but it always depends on you and how you shoot it.”
One of his favourite sports images (which he has on his wall at home in Brighton) is from Nick Ballon’s series of Bolivian wrestlers, Viva Las Luchadoras! It shows a female wrestler in a bowler hat looking away from the lens. “It’s a sports photograph but it’s got no dynamism in it, no movement at all. There are so many different ways to photograph sport.”
For Emily, sport seems to be a means to an end; a great sports photograph is actually just a great photograph. “I often wonder about captioning photos and if a sports photo is better when you know the context of the match. But I think that if you can look at a sports photo and not need any information in order to see some story or emotion in it, then it’s more interesting.”
Spencer agrees. “It’s such an over-saturated genre. If it’s a photograph that transcends the sport and you can appreciate it whether you’re a football fan or not, that makes a really strong sports image.”
About the Author
Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including itsnicethat.com, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.