Photographing the Olympics is a uniquely challenging experience. The variety of sports, venues, athletes and shooting positions compels photographers to dig deep into their metaphorical toolboxes to create impactful images.
Witnessing humans experience their greatest highs or deepest disappointments multiple times a day ratchets up the intensity of our shooting sessions. Capturing such a moment effectively in a single image is my job. And, spoiler alert, it’s fun!
Without going into the minutiae of shuttle buses, crowded sidelines, television camera operators blocking our views of the athletes, the Tokyo Olympics was like none of the others I have covered. No fans in the stands, the unseen threat of the coronavirus cast a heavy pall over the competition.
But the competitive spirit of the athletes and the determination of the local staff and volunteers won out. This collection of photos represents my visual journey. Whereas I usually plan thoughtfully before each event, I came into these Games open-minded and let the moments come to me: a sort of search for predicted outcomes and styled images.
I hunted for peak moments. If they happened with a clean background, all the better. Simone Biles embraced by her coach, Cecile Landi, after an intense week of fear, disappointment and scrutiny is my favorite image of the Games. Given the backstory, it’s equal to 1,000 words and yet still an intimate moment.
The relief on Biles’ face, the warm embrace of her coach, Landi’s face mask, the American flag. The image notwithstanding, this is one moment I’ll remember a long time.
On the lighter side, I found myself on the field of play during an off day at the skate park as Tony Hawk put the first-time Olympic sport to the test. Photographing a legend up close — so cool, right?
Other images resulted in being in the right place at the right time. Men spinning on their heads as they compete in a judo final. Carli Lloyd dealing with the apparent end of a Hall of Fame career inside an immense, empty soccer stadium. Basketball player Breanna Stewart missing the ball and smacking the face of Australia’s Marianna Tolo.
There were hundreds of photographers at these events. Quite often, the same moment captured by all of us looked strikingly different. This was the case with unexpected surprises, as when U.S. swimmer Regan Smith reacted to her silver-medal win in the butterfly with a look of pure amazement.
Even contrived photos can become visual surprises. During a break at the swimming venue, I noticed divers practicing nearby. While I was packing my gear on the swim deck I noticed my line of site for the springboard offered a chance at a clean, striking image. A dozen attempts later, the image below popped up on the screen of my camera. I didn’t know what it would look like, but the result was satisfying.
More than satisfying to a photographer at the Olympics is capturing “the agony and the ecstasy” of a particular sport. New to the Olympics, speed climbing is a blast to watch but a challenge to shoot. I realized I was covering a bunch of athletes staring at a wall. Thanks to the intensity of French climber Mickael Mawem and U.S. climber Nathaniel Coleman, the story was told as they rappelled down the wall — after the race.
Heart, focus and grit.
Providing another unique angle on the Olympics are the rings. Some won’t value a shooting position unless the action can be framed by five circles, stacked horizontally — a clever framing device and one I exploited at the freestyle BMX competition. U.S. rider Justin Dowell flips and spins his handlebars. He’s lined up nicely, but what about that middle ring? No worries, his front tire will fill in nicely.
The same goes for U.S. gymnast Sunisa Lee on the parallel bars. Her eyes are focused on the task of spinning and flying. In a split second, it all lines up.
I like the two images shown below for much the same reason: Despite their disparate nature, I feel they convey the same message — heart, focus and grit.
Takuya Kai is Team Japan’s catcher. He’s outgoing, expressive and a true hustler. When he scored the go-ahead run against Korea, he raised up on his knees and screamed out in victory. When I look at this image, I see a uniform caked in sweat and dirt, clenched fists providing the force he needs to scream after an exhausting game.
I hunt for peak moments.
U.S. beach volleyball star April Ross has won silver and bronze Olympic medals in the past, and her pursuit of gold was well reported this year. On an oppressively hot day, Ross, along with partner Alix Klineman, battled Switzerland in a semifinal match. Ignoring the heat, humidity and constant flow of sweat, Ross showed her heart, and I photographed it. Like I said all along: This is fun!
Go beyond the scoreboard
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