Mar 2, 2010 How we did it
Or – the Two Weeks in Atlanta only felt like a year
If you are looking for work that is really demanding with extremely long hours, mediocre pay, and security searches that will drive one to drink, then shooting the Olympics is for you. On the bright side, it is very challenging and a huge amount of fun. Where else does one get to see world-class athletes from the front row?
Olympic passes are relatively hard to come by. In Atlanta, there were about 1200 photo credentials in total so I was in pretty good company. My job description for these games was to shoot all aquatic events , located at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center Complex.
There are a number of striking differences between shooting the Olympics and other international events. The biggest difference is the time commitment. Typically an international swim meet is six or 8 days – the Olympics requires a minimum of 15 days on site.
Daily transportation to venues was another major difference from other events and seems always to be the major bugaboo of any Olympic games. There were plenty of rental cars to be had, but a bare minimum of parking places with official passes – so one could drive to a venue, but one could not park there. Unless one was lucky enough to have staff assistants whose job was to manage your logistics, one was stuck with the bus transportation system provided by the local organizing committee. I will admit that while it was trying, some of my best (funniest) stories from the Olympics involve the transportation system and the stories are legion. Busses were donated for the games from cities and school systems from all over the country – with the promise that repairs would be made to make them road worthy. You can use your imagination as to the condition of the busses when they arrived in Atlanta and you can imagine the chaos created by frequent breakdowns.
Bus drivers had very prescribed routes and stops – so even if you were driving right by the place you needed to be, if it was not a prescribed stop for that bus, you were stuck. This led to some very innovative solutions. Smoking was not allowed on the busses, and one journalist who was late for a broadcast was desperate to get off at an unapproved stop (at a stop light no less). The bus driver refused to open the door, the journalist lit up and the driver threw him off the bus for smoking – no kidding. As word spread, this became a more widespread solution. I considered taking up smoking.
Security has become an ever-increasing necessity at any public event. The Olympics are a prime target for terrorism and even in 1996 security was tight. You may remember that there was a bombing in Centennial Park in the heart of Atlanta about mid-way through the games. My writer colleague from the magazine and I were there a few hours before the bombing (right at the spot where it happened). After the bomb went off, security was increased dramatically. Even those guards who knew you (after screening you and your bags many times a day for more than a week) were forced to require that every piece of equipment go through X-ray and then be taken out, lenses uncovered to see through, cameras opened, etc.
Imagine three cameras, four or five lenses and a bag with miscellaneous stuff being emptied, every time you went through a check point. In addition, all external clothing (vests, fanny packs, etc.) had to be removed and put through the X-ray machine as well. It increased the time required to travel to a venue and clear security by a huge amount. While these security measures are a necessity in this day and age, I will admit that they are a huge annoyance. Every day had four or five of these checks for me. Even today, those security checks make current airport security look like a simple walkthrough.
The system for “staking out your claim” for a spot at the venue was the biggest surprise to me. Spots in the venue were awarded on a first come first serve basis with no favoritism to any organization – so Sports Illustrated photographers, wire service photographers and all others were treated equally. The way one secured one’s spot was by getting in line early – first in =first choice of location in the venue. This generally involved being at the venue at least two hours before start time.
What surprised me most about this system was that an empty camera bag was considered a legitimate stand-in – so once you arrived and put your bag down in line you could leave for the media room or the men’s room and your place would be secure. Perhaps there is honor among thieves and photographers. Once in the venue, you were pretty much stuck in your spot. In the case of dire emergency, one could leave a bag, a camera and a new friend (the photographer next to you) to hold the spot.
While transportation was the worst I have ever seen, I must admit the actual running of the events was as professional and well done as at any event I have photographed. Officials managed the unruly and demanding crew of pushy photographers well and with good cheer.
I have no memory of any official being rude, biased or in any way unprofessional – an observation that I cannot make for almost any other major event that I have covered. When territorial disputes arose (they did often) generally we were advised to work it out among ourselves before enlisting the help of officials. If their help was needed, they performed their role diplomatically and well.
Shooting the competition was generally trouble free. You took your spot at the beginning of an event and it was your spot for the day. However, for awards ceremonies, we had to mover to the end of the venue to get our shots – also on a first come first serve basis.
There were a few short, dark-haired photographers from one country who had the nasty habit of stepping in front of you just before the awards were given, putting the top of their heads just at camera level. Polite did not work with these guys, but firmly grasping the shoulders of the offender and moving him back to the side worked surprisingly well. International relations at its finest!
My most unexpected moment came on the first day of diving. I went for a run in the morning before leaving for the venue and badly sprained my ankle on the run. With little time to spare, I limped to my room, put on a sock, taped my ankle with gaffer’s tape, put on another sock over that, filled it ice and taped it also, showered with the foot out of the shower, dressed and limped to the venue to shoot. After the morning event, I went to the medical officer in the venue who took me to the athletes’ medical area where I was treated more properly. On the way out, I went to the men’s room in the restricted area. While standing and going, to my surprise former President Jimmy Carter walked in by himself and took his spot. What does one say in this situation? A simple, “good morning President Carter – great games we are having” was probably it. I had a new friend.
It Atlanta, film was still the predominant medium. When you arrived at the press center for the first time, you were given a liberal allotment of film (from Kodak-the Olympic film sponsor). Every photographer also had a set of preprinted envelopes with his name and press number on it. Periodically during each event, a runner would collect bags of film from every photographer in the photo pit and courier them to the press center.
When you arrived at the press center after your morning or evening events, your film would be ready for you with an equal number of replacement rolls. With a little pre-planning, one was never short of film.
From a practical point of view, digital photography was in its infancy and I can remember seeing only one photographer with a digital camera complete with laptop and a cell-phone connection (see photo).
He was a curiosity. In retrospect, the entire event would have been much easier with the quality of digital cameras and the ease of transmission today. In 1996, we were in the dark ages of digital technology.
Equipment repair and loans: I am a Nikon shooter and it was my good fortune that Nikon was the official camera sponsor of the games. As such, Nikon provided immediate repair of any piece of equipment that malfunctioned and provided a loaner to replace it while the repair was being done. Repairs took one day or less. In addition, as a credentialed photographer, one could borrow really nice equipment on a first come first serve basis. It was available for 24 hours and had to be returned on time. If no one had requested that piece of equipment for the next day you could keep it. If it was not available, you could request another lens instead. I used some very impressive equipment during those two weeks as a supplement to what I brought with me. Nice!
Access to athletes was by request only and had to be prearranged with the press steward. There were few places where photographers were allowed to go and, when in an athletes’ area, time was restricted. I remember shooting Sheila Taormina who was the oldest member of the women’s team and the only masters swimmer to win an Olympic Gold Medal. She was on the winning 800 meter freestyle relay team and the magazine was doing a feature on her. We were escorted to the athletes’ practice pool where she met us wearing a team sweat suit. We had a very good shoot and were escorted out of the area. Only one problem – she had her official “warm-up” sweat suit – but not her official “media” sweat suit as determined by the USOC, so we were not allowed to use the photo. As a result, I had to return a day later to re-shoot. More than a few people were unhappy about this, including Olympic officials, but we could not run with the white sweat suit photo. The second shoot required diplomacy and a fair amount of begging – but we got our shot.
(This is the first time the white sweat suit photo has actually been seen outside my office).
As a free-lance photographer shooting the games, I was on my own and had to fend for myself every step of the way. For an SI photographer who had the might of the magazine and all the amenities that such an organization can offer (drivers, food and their own floor in the press center being the most important examples) it was an altogether different proposition.
Nonetheless, it was memorable, fun and an honor to be in such good and professional company and to witness competition at it very highest level. In short, shooting the Olympics was a real pisser. For those of you who do not know, the definition of a real pisser is something you would not have missed and hope never to do again.
Please check out the following article written by our first uninvited contributor, Jeff Dimond, Press Steward for swimming at the Atlanta Games and long time director of Communications for United States Swimming. It offers his perspective from the other side of the lens – working to coordinate those pushy photographers.
Dealing with Tim Morse and the other Photographers of the World
A view from the press operations side of Olympic photography
by JEFF DIMOND
Let me begin by saying that in more than 15 years of working with various photographers at the Olympics and other sporting events, Tim Morse was one of the easiest and most professional people I ever worked with. He stated his objectives, I stated why I couldn’t give him what he wanted, he whined (a lot) and I eventually capitulated and helped him as much as I could. Tim and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski have a great deal in common when it comes to public temper tantrums.
In all seriousness, there is a challenge associated with press operations and photographers that forces us all to walk a fine line. In order to make the relationship work, the photographer and his or her press operations counterpart must develop a mutual level of trust. Sometimes, as with Tim, it is easy. There are times with other photographers, however, that this level of détente just isn’t going to happen.
Stephen Covey’s first principle of success is to begin with the end in mind. To a photographer, that end is the “perfect” shot. They can see it in their mind and they usually know exactly what it will look like in their view finder. In actuality, to a photographer, the “best” shot is always the “next” shot. In the days of film, there was a limit to how many shots they could take. The digital world, unfortunately, has removed that barrier.
The next thing a photographer needs is access. This includes more than just access to the subject; they want access to places and angles that no other photographer can get. If they were photographing the first man on Mars, they would want to be on their own spacecraft so that they could catch the exact moment of “touchdown.” They would also want a good cell connection so they could wire the photo back to earth and a convenient plane connection so that they could get to their next assignment. Never mind the lack of logic – this is how photographers think.
A real-world example of this mentality can be found at the archery events in the 1996 Olympic Games. To accommodate photographers, we had to dig mid-range pits with three-quarter inch Plexiglas windows so that photographers could safely shoot full frontal pictures of archers as they released their arrows. The same request at the Olympic shooting range was denied. Drat the luck.
At the Olympic swimming venue, where Tim spent most of his days during the hot Atlanta summer, he would dutifully show up early each morning to stake out his position in the covered, non-air conditioned, poolside photo deck and not leave unless it was to answer the call of mother nature. And then it was only if a fellow photog agreed to hold his spot for him. Such is the cut-throat world of photographers that a personal defense pact must be reached before either one of them can so much as take a leak.
Photographers also believe that any venue whose lighting does not include candlepower that can be metered at anything less than four times the power of the sun is deemed inadequate. And, once this extreme level of light is finally achieved, photographers will ask – no DEMAND – that there be some accommodations for reducing the angle of the light and that a backlighting system to reduce shadows be installed.
If this extraordinary level of brightness cannot be achieved, the photographers will insist that they be allowed to use strobes. Strobe lights are powerful lights, usually placed in the upper corners of pools and gymnasiums that are triggered by remote control and timed with the camera’s shutter. Think of those little flashes on your digital camera s at home that blind you just as you are about to blow out the candles on your birthday cake. Now imagine a light that is three or four hundred times more powerful. There have been atomic bomb experiments that haven’t produced a flash as big as the ones produced by these strobes.
Photographers and their strobes go together like gin and tonic – you just can’t separate the two. Television producers, however, detest strobes because the light literally washes out a frame of video every time they flash. I honestly believe that UFC octagons were developed so that photographers and television executives could reach a solution to this dilemma. It’s simple – the last man standing wins. Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner have a better chance of finding common ground than do photographers and television execs when it comes to this matter.
Next, photographers need a clear view of their subjects. Other photographers, officials, TV camera operators and those ubiquitous parabolic microphones should never be allowed to interfere with a photographer’s predetermined angle. In this same vein, things like boundary lines and physical barriers have no purpose when it comes to Olympic photography – they are merely a nuisance to be overcome.
And boy, howdy, how these people can finagle a way around those barriers. Where you and I might see yellow tape signifying a crime scene, a photographer will see a roped off section that has thoughtfully been set aside for them by the criminal. Truly, birds of a feather.
Finally, there is a pack mentality that seems to settle over all of them. It may come from sitting for hours on end next to an empty swimming pool in Atlanta’s summertime heat to keep their spot from being poached. Maybe it comes from sniffing too much development fluid in the darkrooms of their youth – who knows. What is known is that if one photographer starts taking pictures of a subject, a minimum of 15 more will immediately show up and start taking the same picture. When they have satisfied their lust, the collected photographers will all uniformly turn on the press operations person to complain that the subject would not cooperate with their wishes.
So, if you truly desire to be an Olympic photographer, buy the biggest lens you can possible carry. (Freud would have a field day with this group), and get a digital memory card that would rival an elephant. Now practice for your big day by drinking a lot of beer and holding it as long as possible. A minimum three-hour bladder is a prerequisite. Purchase a book of Don Rickles’ Greatest Insults to enhance the invectives you plan to hurl against your friend the press operations person and head to the venue.
You will fit right in.