The photography of women’s sport- A Master class in optical illusion

Elizabeth Michael (kwinlizzy)
8 min readMay 24, 2019

Growing up in the 90s was either absolutely terrific or incredibly horrific and it mostly depends on who you are talking to and where their growing up happened. One thing that we can agree on about the 90s is the fact that it was a gift that is still giving.

The 90s was the decade that blew everything up and had (almost) zero apologies. From classic sitcoms to unforgettable girl power music,football and World Cups, rap music, everything teen related, fashion, MTV and for the big gun, 90s was the era that gave sports photography a distinct definition. How we watch it, perceived the players and how it was photographed changed.

Back then, it was not easy to see how much impact visualization would have or how much sports photography influences the players we watch and love but with the hindsight of a decades, it is pretty much clear and if experts are right, there is still so much to explore. Your poison could be football, basketball, wrestling or even boxing.

There was a fix for everyone, although not easily accessible, it was one thing that made the relief oh-so beautiful. The glorious moment when you finally beat other fans to the picture of your dreams, unrolling it and with the aid of some glue, let it find a home on your wall to serve as evidence of your love and loyalty and a reason for some kind of inspiration.

We are often swayed by what we hear and see and the visual representation of a subject. For decades, advert executives have rolled out billions in creating a visual story and in return, they’ve earned trillions.

Images has always depicted where we are in history and what we are. Before the 17th century images existed, from carving on a wall, to paintings of royals and anyone with a deep pocket to afford it and eventually the genius of the camera obscura came to life.

Camera obcsura invented in the 17th century by Ibn al-Haytham. Source: Wikipedia

The photography of women’s sport hasn’t always been a visual representation of athletic prowess or abilities, it started off as symbol of defiance. From the era when women involved in a public display of sports activities were considered improper to the scientific propaganda of how it caused infertility, to outright ban and more recently objectification.

Women sports took on more than just being a game, it was a movement, it was a battle cry that called for freedom, expression and the unapologetic right to be whoever and whatever. To dare to live in the moment, to dream, to aspire, to build and create. To succeed as a woman, being human or talented was simply not enough, you needed an extra dose of tenacity graciously sprinkled with perseverance and wrapped in sacrifice.

Curling in the 1800s. Source: curlinhistory.blogspot.com
Lily Parr. Source: Wikipedia

“Lily Parr was a winger and one of the first female professional players.

She played for the Dick Kerr’s Ladies team which got its name from the munitions factory in Preston where most of the team worked during World War One. They were the first women’s team to play wearing shorts and the first to go on an overseas tour.

Lily was also a smoker and her wages were supplemented by packets of Woodbine cigarettes.”

Source: BBC

The approach to photographing women’s sports over time and in studying history has always been marred with connotations. First, they did not deserve to play sports so, they had no attention-then, they needed to be made as examples. The images were unflattering and the descriptions were even worse. The parameters built around it made it hard for the athletes to thrive. At the start, a few percentage ever got coverage and as the decades rolled by, it became fewer which was ironic because more women were involved in sports as their only source of income.

The photography and documentation of women’s sports became more about the struggle and less about the sports.

Olympics women. Source: Wikipedia.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin the father of modern Olympics and a firm believer in sports education as a tool for development and a healthier, thriving society strongly believed that “contact with women’s athletics is bad [for male athletes].”

However, in the year 1896, at the first modern Olympics, Stamata Revithi fought for her right to run in the Olympics, she was denied the opportunity but, she gathered some witnesses did it anyway and completed her race in 5 and a half hours but was denied crossing the finish line in the Panathinko Stadium where only a day before thousands sat down to witness a race that gave birth to the hero Spyridon Louis.

For the sake of Optical illusions, below is an imagery visualization of that historic Olympics in 1896.

Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin was a French educator and historian, and founder of the International Olympic Committee, and its second President. He is considered one of the fathers of the modern Olympic Games.

Famous quote: “A female Olympian would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect. The Olympic Games should be reserved for men. A woman’s role should above all be to crown the champions”

Spyridon Louis, commonly Spyros Louis, was a Greek water-carrier who won the first modern-day Olympic marathon at the 1896 Summer Olympics. Following his victory, he was celebrated as a national hero. A former soldier, Louis was encouraged to try out for the Olympics by his former commanding officer.

Source: Wikipedia

Stamata Revithi was a Greek woman who ran the 40-kilometre marathon during the 1896 Summer Olympics. The Games excluded women from competition, but Revithi insisted that she be allowed to run.

Source: Wikipedia

There is no actual photographic image of Stamata and no record of her life after the race.

The legend of Stamata in its entirety tells a tale of intrigue, wit, drama and one woman’s desire to fully live her life and dreams as a result which I’ll say was born out of a frustration from constantly being told what to do or not do and who to be.

According to an article on runningheroes.com Stamata was known for saying;

“I can finish the marathon in 3 hours. I have dreamt of wearing a golden robe, my hands filled to the brim with golden almonds. I will not eat the day before the race. Countless are the times I have been forced to survive on an empty stomach, my child in my arms. I am tough”.

https://uk.runningheroes.com/en/blog/marathon-woman

A drawing of Stamata. Source: Wikipedia
  • “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
    Elliott Erwitt

There is a 1.2 trillion dollars industry that thrives on looks and aesthetics, the ability take what is and transform it into what it is not. What makes sports different, is capturing very real moments and memories. In live action, there are no double takes, you can’t say;

Hey, I like the way you moved your feet and how it ended up in propelling that ball, could you do that real quick again and continue the match?’’

You either get it or you don’t. That understanding of the adrenaline, the hours in training that accumulates in few moments, is what truly guides every real sports photography you’ll ever look at.

The only illusions that exists in sports is watching talents so good you question gravity and every law of physics you’ve heard about. That kind of illusion is not orchestrated it is near impossible to predict but unfortunately, women’s sports is an island of illusions.

“Here, we’ll take a world class champion with a decent trophy chest and focus the camera on the left side of her chin and watch the way the sun hits it and have a five-page conversation on her morning routine. After all, what else could be responsible for that glow?” or “We could be at a marathon and take loads of pictures and focus on the ones with the brightest smiles. Nobody real want to see all that glory sweat. See! she is so cute.”

“ We could also, turn the attention away from her real achievement and slip her the address of the plastic surgeon in Turkey. You see, it is important to look in a way that is media worthy because your entire career will almost always boil down to how you can pull off a red carpet look and your actual achievement will be mentioned in passing just at the very end.

Photographs are always a reminder. That could be reason why female athletes are pictured from angles and spots that should always serve as a reminder that they are really just “women” and despite the achievements and hard work to perform extraordinary feats, it truly doesn’t matter. Which in itself is an illusion because that is exactly what it is not.

The good thing about photographs- they can be changed and altered and lens can absolutely be thrown out and replaced with a new ones.

There has been much conversations about the objectification of women in sports and fortunately, those conversations gave birth to some changes but, it is still really slow. I do not believe any female athlete need be a renegade to truly get respect and proper visual coverage.

Visual imagery is so important and with pictures unlike videos, one look is all it takes to see it.

Let that one look truly be the right representation. The world is full of a lot things that appears to be and are not. Ask any magician or poker player and they’ll thrill you with stories unending.

But, in sports, a field that calls for the best of your physical and mental abilities, a field where women constantly fight for everything that they’ve ever gotten, let us keep it free from illusions.

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