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|| News Item: Posted 2006-10-04

Original Ideas in Sports Photography? Avoiding the Ordinary or Rip Off
By Tim Clayton, The Sydney Morning Herald

Photo by David Burnett

Photo by David Burnett

David Burnett's photographs from the Athens Olympics like this one, shot on 4x5, are a clear example of going out on a limb to be different.
noun 1
. the appropriation or imitation of another's ideas and manner of expressing them, as in art, literature, etc. , to be passed off as one's own. 2. something appropriated and passed off as one's own in this manner.

For the last few months the Sydney sports photographic fraternity has been gripped by a raging debate over the subject of plagiarism in particular the belief that it is rife within our profession.

The interesting aspect of the debate has not been to point the finger and chastise. On the contrary, it has prompted a desire for greater understanding of the workings of our profession; to look at our ethics and philosophies and attempt to work out the reasoning within a sports photographers' mind of the step-by-step process of capturing an image. The aim is to come up with a way of avoiding the traps and the temptation to plagiarize. No one is immune.

Breaking down the reasoning is the easy step. If you consider that photography is a language, then, in learning any language, our instinct and natural reaction is to mimic. That is human nature. Gradually, through mimicking, we begin to grasp the language. From there, we are able to converse in our own unique way, stringing sentences and paragraphs together in a manner that makes each individual different. It is through our eyes, our viewpoint and our thought processes that we finally begin to speak with our own "voice", that of our images.

As we start out in our profession, we tend to copy constantly. After all, that is part of the learning process. We gain ideas from other peoples' imagery, from our peers and contemporaries. Our styles are molded by the profession itself; from what is considered to be a "safe" picture and acceptable for the type of product we are working for, to what is considered to be good or bad, straight and artistic.

When I started out in sports photography, I was hugely influenced by renowned British photographers Eamonn McCabe and Chris Smith. I readily admit that my photographic "accent" was derived from their work and to a certain extent a combination of their styles has - and still can be - seen in much of my work. If anything, that is my homage to them; they were that good.

But, once the fundamentals were in place, there came a point in time when my work evolved into its own uniqueness, developing its own voice so to speak, in part thanks to many other outside influences but also as result of my personal experiences and growing maturity.

Harsh as it may seem, there are many photographers today who have no desire to be their own photographer. Point-and-shoot technology means that any sheep with a few grand can buy the latest Canon body, a 400mm lens and go out and "machine gun" any sport. Smarter photographers are now simply checking out the world's image sites and either choosing the same angle as a picture already taken or recreating (in other words, contriving, stage managing setting up) a shot and calling it their own.

This year's Winter Olympics were a great example. If a really good shot appeared on an international website of, say, the ski jumping, you could guarantee the next day there would be a posse of photographers recreating the shot seen the day before.

To be fair, it is often hard to be a sports photographer with a fresh eye because of the restrictions imposed on us, usually by the sport governing bodies themselves, where we are penned in, five deep and unable to move. Shooting "fresh" under those conditions is therefore virtually impossible.

But it can be done. Dave Burnett's portfolio from the Athens Olympics, shot on 4x5, is a clear example of going out on a limb to be different. His World Press winning portfolio sent shivers up my spine in delight at seeing a new approach to a well-documented subject. Meanwhile, no doubt, sales of 4x5 cameras have increased as many try and emulate him. Mine's on order!

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

Photo by Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune

On a foggy night in Pragelato, Austria's Andreas Widhoelzl sails down the hill during the 1st round of the Men's Long Hill Team Ski Jumping Competition. Austria would go on to win the gold medal.
Scott Strazzante's "Foggy Night in Pragelato" is a great example of a photographer trudging into the woods looking for a unique angle while the rest of us - me included - were working the subject from the side of the hill. Again, the freshness inspires, not with the intention to copy, but to push the boundaries of the 'norm', to produce a unique image that will arrest the viewer and show an angle of an event previously unseen. Scott's shot has probably been done before in Norway or Lapland, or some other winter sports wonderland.

It is difficult to argue that real images of real events are plagiarism. There are only so many angles of anything one can shoot in sport due to the boundaries I mentioned above. A golfer chipping out of a sand bunker for example, we have seen a million times, but it has to be shot. It can be a good-on-the-day picture and very occasionally, something amazing will happen with the sand, the light and the subject to make the images stand out from the rest. Ditto with double play, a slam dunk, the touch down, at the finish line etc. The benefit of the doubt has to go with the photographer on single images of real events. However, a photographer's work ethic is very easy to recognize in a body of work when it is very clear to the more knowledgeable of the profession if the photographer is shooting with his own eye or simply copying what's gone before.

Where the profession is at fault is those competitions that reward photographers copying images and constructing portfolios by mimicking other photographers' work, then calling it their own. More often or not, we are judged by picture editors or photographers who have no knowledge of the profession of sports photography so consequently they tend to view everything as 'new' and unique, when quite often it isn't. If a photographer is rewarded for 'copying' he or she will continue to copy believing it is ok and therefore human nature.

This is completely the wrong message that we are sending out to up-and-coming photographers. Yes, we should be rewarding great images, but we should also be encouraging unique storytelling which is new and shot with a fresh eye, teaching photographers to see for themselves, not to see what somebody else has seen and then recreate it.

Sadly, many of the world's top sports photographers have not matured into great photographers, simply because they haven't learned to see for themselves. The potential is there but until they evolve and go past the mimicking stage their work will always be viewed as a copy of somebody else's work. And is that what you really want to be remembered for?

(Tim Clayton is a sports photographer for The Sydney Morning Herald. He is occasional contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter. You can contact him via email at:

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