Swimming is quite possibly one of the most photogenic sports, especially given its frequent inclusion throughout the history of the World Press Photo contest.
The combination of water, light, and movement provide photographers with the perfect challenge to display their visual and technical skills and explore the boundaries of creativity. As award-winning sports photographer Al Bello once wrote: “Swimming events offer photographers unique opportunities to capture striking images of athletes in an unusual environment.” His colleague Adam Pretty put it even more strongly when he described the interplay between water, light, and athletic bodies as a ‘photographic nirvana’.
Assessing the area outside and inside the pool, exploring vantage points and light sources, preparing underwater cameras, climbing on the catwalk far above the pool, arranging special request with the photo marshal: more than any other sports event, swimming requires a lot of preparation from the photographer. Something Co Rentmeester would be able to confirm. His portrait of the legendary swimmer Mark Spitz training for the 1972 Munich Olympics was published on the cover of Life magazine, and was the first swimming picture to be awarded at World Press Photo. To make this action photo, Rentmeester had created a makeshift camera dolly from a wheelchair he had rented for this purpose. While his assistant pushed the chair along the pool, Rentmeester, sitting in the chair, could keep his camera focused on the swimmer’s face. By using a 180 mm lens and a relative slow shutter speed, he realized a sharp, close-up of Spitz’s face without blurring the water too much.
Especially, during the late 1980s and the early 1990s, spectacular swimming photographs started to arrive at World Press Photo, due to the continuous improvement of photographic technology. Tim Clayton, a staff photographer at the Sydney Morning Herald, who won eight World Press Photo awards, was the first in the contest whose swimming pictures made a mark for their ingenuity. In 1994, he placed first with a close-up of Matthew Dunn’s head about to break the water’s surface tension, causing a ‘glassy’ effect. Clayton, originally from the UK, found a fruitful climate for sports photography in Australia, with noted colleagues such Craig Golding, Steve Christo, Adam Pretty, Chris McGrath, and Quinn Rooney, all award winners at World Press Photo, looking beyond the stereotypical sports photograph.
Diving gear is indispensable for sports photographers at an aquatics event, like a remote controlled camera and, often, a fish-eye lens. Fear of heights, though, is better left at home, as the catwalk above the pool provides an excellent angle with a nice background—the pool itself—on top of that. In 2004, Adam Pretty made optimal use of the lighting conditions when he photographed the launch of the men’s 200m freestyle heats.
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Vincent Laforet climbed the catwalk, defying heat and humidity, to make remarkable portraits of the divers competing in the men’s semi-finals 10m platform diving. His pictures of their contorted faces and bodies against the bright blue of the pool earned him a first prize. “When you look at the images,” Laforet wrote on his blog, “it’s like looking at fighter pilots in their G-suits, training to fight the effects of the high velocity moves they perform in their jets, which put incredible gravity forces on their bodies.” Third prize in the sports action category also went to images of the Olympics’ 10m platform diving competition, made by Julian Abram Wainwright from the side. By using a lens with a long focus and a large aperture he isolated and froze the athletes’ bodies in mid-air accentuating their grace and strength.
The launch of a race is the ideal moment to capture the athletes’ sheer physical strength. All built-up tension is released in one forceful move, pictured above water by Michael Kunkel, Nicolas Gouhier, and Tim Clayton, and below the surface by Donald Miralle and Al Bello. But most of the time, aquatic sports create chaos in the water, and at those moments—a training session of the synchronized swim teams, swimmers and fish mingling during the Ironman World Championship, or athletes passing a buoy during a Triathlon—interesting pictures can arise as well.