How The Vest Was Won

 

Photographers

I recall this photo being taken in Malaga, but sadly, not who took it.

(I usually write a blog after returning from a big event, like a World Masters Athletics Championships. Not competing in the latest one meant I needed to write about something slightly different to usual. I’ve chosen to share a few thoughts about what it’s like to be a photographer at an event like this. Please excuse the pun in the title, though I’m sure there were times when we felt like calling in John Wayne as reinforcement.)

The “we”, in the context if this blog, are myself and the finest group of trackside photographers you could ever want to work with at an event like a World Masters Athletics Championships. Two Brits, two Yanks, and a Canadian with dreadlocks. We’re proud to be amongst the most experienced in the business, with a body of work between us that really shows that experience counts for a great deal. (End of press release.)

The World Masters Athletics Championships is huge. The event in Malaga, Spain, over the first two weeks of September this year, underlined every day just how big. There were over 8,000 entrants, aged between 35 and 101 years of age, competing in five year age bands. 14 age bands, men + women = up to 28 versions of each track and field event. Multiply that by the need to hold qualifying heats and/or semi-finals in most events, and you have one massive programme. I do find it a very life-affirming thing, however, when, say, the men entrants in the 80 to 85 age group are so numerous that even they need heats and semifinals, to whittle the numbers down to the eight finalists.

The organisers had decided to spread the Championships over four stadium venues, and a separate cross-country venue. This was always going to make it very hard for photographers to cover it properly. Oh, and all medal presentations were held at an entirely separate sixth location, which I never found, and as yet, ten days after the end of the Championships, I have yet to see a single podium photograph posted by anyone. Bad decision, that. On one day of the fortnight, a whole unbroken day from 10am to 9pm was needed in one stadium solely to accommodate the heats of the 100 metres. The steeplechase events also occupied one stadium for a full day. Ditto the 200 metres semifinals/finals a few days later.

The more regular daily programme usually began at all of the stadiums around 9am and frequently ended close to 8pm. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later. However, on most afternoons, events simply ceased for up to five hours! I’m sure part of the theory was that this allowed, say, a semifinal to be held in the morning session, and a final in the evening. However, this benevolence broke down a little in practice, because many athletes (and this photographer) had hotels etc that were some long distance away. To return there in the afternoon would have then meant setting out back to the stadium after only about an hour of rest. However, none of the stadiums had anywhere competitors could realistically rest up during this afternoon “siesta”. Two of them also had no facilities for a meal, or even a snack. One of these was the main Malaga stadium, whose catering was limited to an occasional coffee bar. Whose idea was that?

Three of the stadiums were linked by the excellent Malaga Metro service. However, the organisers’ promise to provide free transport proved in reality to be a much more limited offer. And we event photographers didn’t qualify for any free travel at all.

Successive organisers of the biennial World Masters Athletics Championships (the organisers actually being a local organising committee (LOC), as contractors to World Masters Athletics themselves) have never got a proper handle on how to manage trackside photographers. Almost every LOC has subcontracted the high volume, on-site photography, and local print sales service in the stadium, to a local company. Over the years, several of these appear to have been selected without ever submitting a portfolio of track and field work. Some have been sports photography generalists, but at the World Masters Indoors in France in 2008, for example, the chosen photographers were wedding specialists. Their photographers simply didn’t have a clue what they were doing when races etc were taking place, but they made a good job of of the post-race group shots!

There has always been a small group of photographers, eg those working for specialist magazines, national athletics bodies, or freelancing to service the needs of the sport, who have worked alongside the LOC’s sub-contractors. That’s usually been a mutually satisfactory arrangement, unless, as has happened a few times, the contractors or the LOC adopt the view that somehow the freelancers are “stealing” “their” business. Resolving this was occasionally a real muddle. In the USA in 2011 I was twice threatened in emails with being taken to court by one particular contractor, despite me being an officially accredited photographer by the LOC. It wasn’t until five or six years ago that World Masters Athletics (WMA) itself realised the need to harness and encourage the expertise of the best of the non-LOC photographers. Eventually, having a small group who were working under a WMA flag, alongside those working to the LOC, became a workable compromise. That was the basis that we believed had been agreed when we set off for Malaga.

As has been observed in many areas of reportage, the rise of digital photography seems to have encouraged almost anyone owning a camera to think they are a suitably qualified photographer. Thankfully, WMA has recognised a small, well-experienced group as meeting its needs, but the arrangements for accreditation of photographers by LOCs has usually remained inconsistent and unsatisfactory. Broadly speaking, the main need nowadays, aside from the obvious one of getting a good photographic record of an event, is a) to manage the numbers who are competent to work trackside, and who can also shoot field events such as hammer throw, discus and javelin safely and well, and b) keep the rest away.

Successive LOCs have tried various ways to respond to the number of photographers who ask them for accreditation. Their solutions have varied from the one extreme of trying to exclude any photographers except their own subcontractors, to the other of time-limiting accredited access to the event arena for photography to, say, a day, a morning, or even just an hour. The chosen evidence of that accreditation being awarded has usually been a brightly-coloured lightweight vest. Managed properly, this works well. Stadium security and officials can distinguish accredited photographers from other wannabe snappers by their vest, and act accordingly.

For reasons now probably lost to bureaucratic time, the LOC for the recent World Masters Championships tinkered with the mechanism of accreditation. They asked each national governing body for Masters Athletics to name any photographers they intended to send with their team. This had the effect of encouraging many governing bodies to nominate at least one photographer when they previously would not have done so. Thus, instead of needing to deal with little more than the small expert WMA group plus their own subcontractor’s team of photographers, there were suddenly also more than seventy others who had been led to believe that they would be allowed to work at the Championships! And most of those understandably believed that this meant working trackside in the stadium.

The key need was realistic control of the numbers wanting to work on the track and infield. There was no need to impose much in the way of restrictions on photographers happy to shoot from the stands or perimeter fences of stadiums. The latter could have an accreditation vest of one colour, and the small group for whom track access had been agreed would have one of a different colour. The recent Championships initially settled on yellow vests for those not permitted on the track, and white for those who had permission. So far, so good.

And so, we reached the start of the event. Nominated photographers presented themselves on the first day at the media office, to collect their accreditation card – and were automatically given a white vest, regardless of where they would actually be working! So many white vests were given out that day, that most of those for whom the white vests had originally been intended arrived to find there was not one available for them to wear. This significant error led to some unpleasantness and confusion, which, to the LOC’s credit was fairly well handled, once the scale of the problem they had created was understood. Retrieving the white bibs that had been given out in error was a different matter, however. Sadly, a few photographers who ought to have received them still had not done so, even  by the start of the second week of the Championships.

The error also revealed that a few people, at least one of whom had no prior connection at all to the sport, had discovered the Championships were happening, and simply written to the LOC asking for trackside access, which had been granted, along with a white vest. This completely circumvented all other prior accreditation processes, and by-passed any nomination by individual national Masters Athletics governing bodies. I hope it is something that does not happen at future Championships.

By five or six days into the Championships, an uneasy equilibrium had been reached. Most (but not all) who were intended to have white vests had obtained them from the LOC. Unfortunately, amongst the photographers who had received them in error were a few whose inexperience of working in a busy athletics venue quickly became apparent and required some monitoring by venue safety officers. Equally unfortunately, it also occasionally became clear that some stadium officials were inexperienced at working with photographers.

[As a complete aside, unconnected with anything else in this blog, I was occasionally quite amused by the event organiser’s choice of stadium music between events. On the evening of the 100 metres finals, this included the theme from “War of the Worlds”, “A Fistful of Dollars” (as if, eh?) and various other “spaghetti Western” movies. For the steeplechase finals the following evening, the choices of the theme from “Jaws”, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” were hilarious. Anything was better than the regular performer at one of the stadiums: a guy who was presumably a beach DJ in real life, who ran up and down in front of the spectators (“crowd” would be overstating it), endlessly calling into his over-loud microphone for “Claps, claps, claps! More claps, people!” After a couple of hours, this became irritating and very wearing on the nerves.]

Then, without prior warning early one morning, the WMA group of photographers were amongst those to be sent an email from the media office announcing that they needed to present themselves at the main Championships stadium to collect a new, blue, distinguishing vest. Only one of the WMA group had been scheduled to be at the main stadium that day, but the media office helpfully delivered these blue vests to those at at least one other stadium. Why other photographers than the WMA group were included in this new arrangement was never made clear.

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Photo courtesy of Fiona de Mauny

I felt it was worth turning some of these experiences, and those gathered from earlier championships into a few specific recommendations, in addition to those implicit in what I have already written.

No photographer or contractor will ever get rich photographing Masters Athletics. However, the sport itself is very reliant on presenting proficient, accurate and informative images of itself to the wider world and the sports media. The sport also needs to have access to a properly managed photo archive to track its fascinating history, and to help promote the benefits of an active lifestyle, help counter stereotypes about older people, etc. In addition, a good photo archive also fulfils the basic need of helping Masters Athletics celebrate its participants, champions and heroes. Allowing accreditation to competent, connected photographers helps ensure these outcomes. It also helps contribute to the safety of events, by reducing the risk that inexperienced, unwary people will be permitted into areas of the stadium where they might put themselves, athletes and officials at risk of harm.

Press photographers, for news media local to where the Championships are being held, for example, are another demand on access to some major masters events. Their interest in local athletes is understandable, but quite often, the interest they have is just a fascination to see the very oldest athletes compete.

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Photo courtesy of Andy Gannaway. It can be a lonely job sometimes!

A good media office working for the LOC might occasionally be able to meet local media needs via accredited photographers already working at the event, and not need to stretch accreditation arrangements to press and tv crews. However, where that cannot be achieved, those with press access should not be given priority and access privileges over other accredited photographers.

Furthermore, I believe it would be reasonable, for at very least the health and safety reasons sketched out earlier in the piece, to stipulate that short-term press accreditation will only be given to photographers/journalists who are already familiar with the environment of an athletics stadium during competition – particularly an understanding of the “no go” areas created by electronic timing systems and throwing events. There is a general etiquette to non-participant presence on an athletics track that needs to be understood and respected.

Anyway, we survived this Championships, and, ever the optimists, want to believe that the next organisers we have to deal with will have learned something from what has gone before.

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One Response to “How The Vest Was Won”

  1. The Colours of the Rainbow | A Blog on a Landscape Says:

    […] wasn’t quite the visit I’d intended. The story is told in two blogs on my other site, here and here. The good news is that my leg is recovering well. My feet seem to be taking a bit longer. Malaga […]

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