Special Guest Post by Brian Dilg, NYFA, Photograph School Chair
It may surprise a lot of people to know that sports photography is not among the categories of reporting for which Pulitzer Prizes are awarded.
This seems an oversight. The drama, significance and visual power of all kinds of sports, amateur and professional, consume not just the American public but that of the world at large. Our impressions of the world’s greatest athletes and most exciting contests likely include an image of a moment in time (think for a moment about Muhammad Ali, Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Brandi Chastain, Michael Jordan, Vince Lombardi and the triumphal 1980 U.S. hockey team). We know from archeological finds that artists were compelled to record the imagery of the original Olympic games (776 BC). And we know from doping scandals, serious worries about permanent damage from concussions, and transgressions of the athletes outside of sports, that athletics has a way of being interwoven with the broader human condition. The Pulitzers seem to overlook this, unfortunately.
Sports photography has its own awards competitions, of course (although, few if any are in the consciousness of the general public). And, there certainly is a commercial market for still and moving images taken from athletic competition the world over, every day. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in sports photography are on a growth path due to the prevalence and popularity of sports news websites, and that the average sports photographer earns $41,900.
Interest in sports photography remains keen among photojournalism students, in all likelihood due to the popularity of the subject itself. The New York Film Academy (NYFA) photography school sponsors an exceptionally popular one-year sports photography program that includes a semester of working onsite with the New York Jets. Depending the semester in which this class takes place, students hone their craft at practices, media events, training camp, draft events, Official Team Activities (OTAs) and live games. It’s a learning lab that few schools of photography offer.
The NYFA photography school structures its program to accommodate this real world learning for several reasons that relate to the craft and professionalism of sports photography. They include:
- Deal with the pressure – The high-stakes, high-pressure, adrenalin-driven world of sports is no territory for shrinking violets. Photographers are by nature observers, and they must remain so even at the highest level of the profession. But they have to develop an awareness of their role in the enterprise and how to provide what they are called upon to deliver. They not only jostle for position around working coaches and players, they have to compete with other photographers as well.
- Capture the physical achievement – Sports thrill us because accomplished athletes push the envelope of human strength, speed, power and skill. The sports photographer will excel when he or she finds unforgettable images of such human achievement on a grand scale, and gets the image that conveys it to those who weren’t there.
- Timing is everything – Tactics for being at the right place at the right time, anticipating what’s about to happen, are a big part of the developed skill set of the sports photographer. To do this, the photographer has to be a type of athlete as well.
- Call an audible – The sports photographer has to be technically prepared to get an iconic shot under wildly unpredictable conditions. For that reason, there may be moments – whether covering football, baseball, tennis, decathlon or luge – when making split-second decisions about what to do, where and how, will make the difference between post-event headshots (yawn) and mid-event, spectacular competition. When the shot shows the receiver catching the pigskin in the end zone, a smile inside the helmet while both feet are airborne, the photographer’s day was a success.
Not every sports photographer gets a dream job working for Sports Illustrated, ESPN or USA Today. And a Pulitzer Prize, even if the photographer grabs the photo that tells the most moving story, may be beyond her grasp. But if they love what they do, if they get the image that captures why people love the game, they should have as much fun covering a minor baseball league team in Peoria as they would the Super Bowl.
Brian Dilg is Chair of Photography at the Photography School at the New York Film Academy. In addition to 25 years of professional teaching experience around the world, his work has been published in The New York Times, Time Out, Village Voice and covers of books published by Simon and Schuster, Random House and Hyperion. He has also worked in post-production for major fashion houses, consumer products manufacturers and media organizations. He also has won awards as a filmmaker and worked as a director, cinematographer and editor of narrative, documentary, music video and commercial films.