Bad Olympic Athlete Photography

The latest controversy to hit the photographic world is Joe Klamar’s really quite horrible photos of this summer’s Olympic athletes as posted on the CBS new website. In case you haven’t seen any, here’s one of the images for reference.

First, I think it’s fair to give the photos a little context. This wasn’t an Annie Leibovitz style shoot where there was plenty of time for prep, styling and posing. Instead, this was a massive assembly line production with nearly a dozen photographers all having small setups in a hotel ball room. Each of 100 athletes spent a few minutes with each photographer before going onto the next. Talk about a grind for both photographer and athlete.

To read more about how it went down and see some photos, check out this blog post from Dallas News Photographer Vernon Bryant.

Now, we can have a debate on whether these images are the worst ever or a sign of ironic genius, but I’m not going to go down that road. Instead, I’m going to focus on what we can learn from this experience. I’m guessing that the last thing any of us wants is to screw up any assignment, let alone a high-profile one that will be viewed by millions of people.

1. Keep it simple. The more simple the setting, the less to go wrong. Bringing in props and  prompting a bunch of poses just made a mess of everything. Had he just kept it simple, he not only wouldn’t have made a fool of himself, he’d probably have created more powerful images. The gold standard in keep it simple is Richard Avedon with his “In the American West” series. Just a subject, a white seamless and a body of work that ranks among the best ever created.

2. Ditch the zoom lens. That zoom lens got him in trouble as he switched from tele to wide. If he’s stuck with a 50mm or something constant, he wouldn’t have caught the edge of the seamless or been tempted to go with all kinds of whacky poses. Zooming in and out is one more thing to deal with in tight time situations; it’s too easy to forget what’s in the background as you zoom out to 24mm.

3. Be prepared. The fact that you have no time and an assembly line is no excuse. You need to have your gear ready and know in your head what you’re going to create. When Platon took on the assignment to photograph most of the world’s leaders at a United Nations conference, he knew that he’d have at most seconds, not minutes with many of them. He nailed every single image because he was ready and he knew what he wanted.

4. There are consequences to taking an assignment you’re not ready for. If you botch an assignment for a local company or mess up at a wedding, you’re not likely to make national news, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be dealing with the aftermath. If you’re handed an assignment for which you think you might be in over your head, consider what will happen if you screw it up.

I just heard an interview with comedian Drew Carey where he talked about missing an opportunity to be on the Tonight Show early in his career. He was thankful that he didn’t appear on the show because when he finally did, his work was so much stronger – which led to more opportunities. Had he gone on earlier in his career, his career would have likely gone nowhere because clients only give us one shot. Mess it up and the next opportunity will disappear.

5. Know your lighting. If you’re going to accept an assignment that involves lighting your subject, bring something interesting to the table. There’s no excuse here. He had plenty of time to set up whatever lighting he wanted. Instead, it was amateur hour. Assignments of any sort are always fast paced and take place in real time, with real pressure. Don’t think you’ll figure it out once you’re on set.

6. If you’re going to screw things up, allow time and opportunity for post processing. Some of these images could have been salvaged had they been retouched. Torn seamless could have been patched up and paper edges cloned over. But you’ve got to have the time and resources to make that happen. If you don’t have that, (or even if you do), plan on nailing it in camera.

One other thing I’ll add to this discussion is that this whole debacle is the result of cheap clients not willing to spend the money to send an experienced pro out to get the job done. Although we’d like to think that companies will learn from this mess, most won’t. Instead, many jobs will continue to go to photographers without relevant experience. For example, a wedding photographer may be asked to shoot corporate head shots. Now this person may well be you – so you best be prepared to succeed when the time comes. If this episode teaches us nothing else, screwing up, whether in public or private, really sucks.

John Mireles

About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
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5 Responses to Bad Olympic Athlete Photography

  1. berto says:

    The reality of our chosen profession John is that we are sometimes really only known for our worst picture, and this sucks, so always know what your job entails and be prepared to deliver!
    Its just to bad the media is killing this guy! Rookie mistake that may ruin his future?

  2. Susan R says:

    John, thanks for not joining the “bashing” wagon. I appreciate you trying to point out the learning opportunities here. I just feel saddened, in so many ways, really for the photographer (for failing to stand up and acknowledge that he was not the right person for the job) and the organization for not taking care in selecting a top professional to document images of our best athletes. Overall, this is surely a reminder to us all to be honest with ourselves and to work every day, to hone our skills and be prepared for anything.

  3. I really feel for Joe. He was in over his head and didn’t pull it off. However, your list of lessons to be learned is spot on. Be over-prepared, never assume anything, and when your in the pressure cooker just make sure to get the basic shot.

  4. johnmireles says:

    I too feel sorry for the guy. To receive this much negative attention must really suck. I’d be crushed if I were in his shoes. But if you’re gonna play in the big leagues, there’s pressure and consequences that comes along with. I hope that as more of these opportunities come up, media companies and their agencies will realize that they need to send out photographers who can handle the assignment. You can’t just throw someone to the wolves and expect to not see them come back in tatters.

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