Michael Phelps of the US Olympic Swimming team poses for pictures during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit on May 13, 2012 in Dallas,Texas.
(AFP Photos/Joe Klamar)

Pixels and piety: Photographing Olympic icons

by Marlowe Hood

When I first saw Joe Klamar’s pictures of US Olympic athletes, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. As far as I could see, Joe had done what he does best: bring an original, insightful vision onto whatever he trains his camera-ready eye, as often as not a sports-related story. 

But I’m an American, even if I have been living abroad half my life, and a little voice inside said at the same time: “sacrilege.” 

I thought immediately of a potent symbol of American nationalism born even before the United States was a nation, created by Benjamin Franklin himself. It began with what may be the first American political cartoon, and ended with an emblem of red-blooded patriotism: a rattlesnake against the backdrop of a flag with the legend “Don’t Tread on Me.”  Joe’s photos, I sensed, had crossed an invisible red line, and the snake had somehow been provoked. [Full disclosure: Joe is a colleague, though I have never met him; I think the photos in question are terrific, and if I thought otherwise I’d say so.] 

don't tread on me!

Most of the vitriol that is still pouring onto comment feeds and Twitter lambasts Joe’s professionalism.  “I could do better with my cell phone,” Carrie Wenzel huffed indignantly in a post on a photography website. 

The controversy simmered mainly among professionals until a few days ago, when a thread started on reddit.com. That’s when the shots hit the fan. “Wow... he's trying something new for press shots, concealing some details in shadows, using FOV [field of view] and perspective to distort subjects in a not-so appealing way. Wow, they're getting worse... These are terrible," said one post.

Decathete Trey Hardee of the US Track and Field Olympic team poses for pictures during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit on May 13, 2012 in Dallas,Texas.

“The photographer was in over his head here. These are major photographs to represent our best athletes,” intoned a clearly outraged Joy V. “There are at least a few shots where Klamar just totally cuts off a hand, or foot etc., which, regardless of lighting/studio experience, should never be done,” added someone signing as “strontgorrth”.  “No photo editor would want to use said cut off pic, it's just inexcusable.”

That last assertion, at least, is demonstrably false. Joe’s photos were picked up by dozens of AFP’s major media clients, including CBS.com, where 27 or the 34 pictures in a montage of US Olympic athletes were taken by Joe.  Obviously they thought he was doing something right.

As did his own editors. "Joe was sent to this assignment to do exactly this kind of pictures," explained Mladen Antonov, AFP's photo director for North America. "We chose him because of his ability to see the world through different eyes, unconventional and more original. We wanted something different and we got it!"

Auto-portrait of the culprit (Joe Klamar)
(Joe Klamar by Joe Klamar)

The way Joe tells the story, there’s also a dose of serendipity in the how the photos came out.

“I was under the impression that I was going to be photographing athletes on a stage or during press conference where I would take their headshots for our archives,” he explained. “I really had no idea that there would be a possibility for setting up a studio.” It was the first time AFP had been invited to participate in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Media Summit, which was held this year, in May, at a Hilton Hotel in Dallas. 

Joe had come armed with two cameras and three lenses (17-35, 70-200 and 300), plus one flash and a 12-inch laptop. To his horror, he saw upon arriving that his colleagues from other news agencies and media organizations had set up studio booths with professional lights, backdrops and prop assistants. “It was very embarrassing to find out that I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of a studio,” Joe told us by email.

A press officer from the U.S. Olympic Committee took pity on Joe, and helped him convince another photographer to share booth space. “He of course had the priority, but he was really very kind, and let me take pictures. We slowly learned how to coexist and work side-by-side,” Joe recalled. 

Siblings Diana Lopez and Steven Lopez of the US Taekwondo Olympic team pose for pictures during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit on May 13, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

Most sessions with the athletes – who were also a bit confused by the arrangements – lasted only a minute or two, so Joe had to be very inventive, and to think on his feet.  “I had no particular concept prepared beforehand, so I had to jump into the water and swim. But it’s not really a disadvantage, because in our job we have to improvise to conditions about 50 percent of the time.”

Joe brushes off most of the criticism, but wanted to make clear that he had no intention of casting the athletes – for whom he had the highest regard – in a negative light. “My only goal was to show them as interesting, as special people who deserve their fame because they are the best as what they do. And for the little time we had together, they were willing to work with my concepts.”

He also points out that photo editors (AFP’s clients) had a wide selection of pictures to choose from – “serious, funky, official” – and that not all of them were offbeat. Nor does he make any apologies: “I work for a news agency and I wasn’t taking pictures for a Nike ad.”

Some people posting comments on the Web seemed to get it. “I am not a professional photographer,” ‘jhydrazi’, began somewhat apologetically on reddit.com. “But these images are not bad… In fact, they have a quality that makes them feel real. REAL.”

“This is a whole other millennium,” said another comment, rather dramatically. “We don’t have to accept the airbrushed, Photoshopped concept of beauty any more. Photographers and art directors have done that forever, and lots of us would rather see what actually happened in front of the lens.”

Amen to that.

Joshua Richmond of the US Olympic Shooting team poses for pictures during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit on May 14, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

Whatever the merits of Joe’s work, the often virulent reactions they provoke suggest to this displaced American that he touched a raw nerve. U.S. Olympic athletes are wrapped in the American flag, sometimes literally, and have become national icons.  Otherwise tolerant folk can suddenly lose their sense of humor if they think someone is ‘disrespecting’ the values they hold dear. That obviously was not Joe’s intention, but some people seemed to take it that way.

“Awful,” noted a professional photographer who signed as Kirra. “Next time hire me. This is an embarrassment to our country and my profession.”


When one particularly truculent critic hammered away at Joe’s work in a series of long posts, another commentator had the nerve to ask: well, how would YOU pose these guys? The answer that came back from – note the name – “to_serve_and_protect” was a link to the work of another photographer that wrapped the athletes in red-white-&-blue, and golden halos of adoring light. (To each his own.)

“They’re photographing some of the world’s most elite athletes, they’ve spent years of dedicated training and perhaps their entire lives to the sport,” fumed thang1thang2 on reddit.com. “Countless hours, sweat, grit, determination into their craft. The picture is supposed to represent them in all their glory.”

Point well taken. But then again, perhaps that is precisely what Joe's work has done.