The Visibility of Women in Sports Photography

It’s safe to say that sport is full of iconic photographs.

Think of Colin Kaepernick’s first demonstration against racial injustice, Prisca Jeptoo’s moment of reflection after finishing second in the 2012 Olympics, or Brandi Chastain’s celebration after slotting home the winning penalty in the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final in the United States – for the United States.

Just as iconic as these moments is what captures them. Before, during and after a competition, they’re very easy to spot: the distinctive machine-gun chatter, lenses longer than some people’s wingspan, a camera wandering up and down a touch line precariously attached to a man. Had it not been for the camera obscura and subsequently the Kodak #1, there might never have been a visual record of these events: there would be no slow-motion replay of Carli Lloyd’s frankly obscene World Cup Final goal in 2015; there would be no snapshot of the winning dart cementing Fallon Sherrock’s place in darts history; there would be no evidence of Naomi Osaka’s display of sportsmanship towards her opponent, Coco Gauff.

📸: Priscah Jeptoo - 2012 Olympics

Despite the growing popularity of women’s sport and female athletes, the people that capture their talents, their perseverance and their story at 1/1000th of a second are usually men. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and indeed to see so many photographers covering women’s sport is a reflection of its growing stature, there is a distinct lack of opportunities for women to get involved. As with a great many issues regarding women being held back, this issue goes beyond just sports photography.

In the world of photojournalism, Women Photograph in their 2020 examination of the publication of women photographers, world-renowned newspapers the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published only 26 and 42 lead photo bylines, respectively, that were taken by women. This represents, in overall lead photo bylines, a mere 8.3% for the Guardian and 11.1% for the WSJ. It should also be noted that neither the Guardian nor WSJ credited their photographers.

Within sports, it appears that this is even more prominent. Three clubs out of twenty in the Premier League currently have women as their club or senior photographers: Emma Simpson of Everton, Victoria Haydn at Manchester City and Newcastle United’s Serena Taylor. During the 2-2 draw between Manchester City and Chelsea in the Women’s Super League, a lone female Chelsea photographer could be seen on the sidelines snapping away. None of these photographers were tagged or credited in social media posts.

In Formula 1, one of the most watched and image driven sports around, no team currently has a woman as their principal photographer, or do not disclose who their photographer is. Unlike football, where the number of photographers is limited by stadium size and media policy, there are potentially more freelance female photographers, however neither the BBC nor Sky Sports News credit the photographers in their articles.

Many of the male photographers in sport are at the top of their game, and all credit to them. However, like any art form, each picture is shaped by a person’s understanding of the topic, informed by their background. Sport is no different. If women’s sport is to continue its upward trajectory (and reach the fabled £1billion and greater a year in annual revenue by 2030 according to The Women’s Sport Trust), more needs to be done to give young girls and women opportunities in the mediums that cover it, that portray the iconic sights of the sports we love. If no opportunities are available to young girls to take part in sports photography, then the likes of Victoria Haydn, Serena Taylor and Emma Simpson will forever remain outliers in the statistics.

📸: 2012 Olympic sport photographers - Mostly male

Like many other issues there is no immediate fix for this, especially during a pandemic where photographers’ numbers are reduced at any given sporting event. What can be done, however, is to make those female photographers more visible than ever before. Marketing of sports-centric cameras should start using working female photographers as part of their campaigns; clubs/teams/organisations can include credits to their photographers so that young girls can see their portfolios and hear their stories. Photographic agencies could carve out accessibility programmes to help girls and women realise their passions for sport and photography.

There is some good news when it comes to the recognition of female photographers in sport. In the 2021 Sports Photographer of the Year Awards shortlist, three women and their images have been recognised; in 2020, four women altogether were shortlisted. The awards must also be commended for their judging panel which includes 16 women from across sport and the world of journalism, including: Bayern Munich’s senior head of marketing and communications, Dee Kundera, current Harlequins’ centre Rachael Burford and eleven-time Paralympic gold medallist Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. The nomination numbers, while still painfully low, represent a good first step in the right direction. Of course, unless you know of this award and the sport photography world as a whole, these inspiring photographers go otherwise unnoticed.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Inspiring a generation of women sport photographers is worth everything.

- James Whitehead

Thanks for reading 💚

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