From the viral delight of UCLA Bruins gymnast Katelyn Ohashi during her perfect 10 floor routine, to the tears of Katharine Johnson-Thompson as she stared at her record breaking scoreboard, or Megan Rapinoe, arms outstretched in perhaps the pose of the year, it has been a good year for powerful imagery of sportswomen.
“We’re seeing the parity between men’s sport and women’s sports being less obvious,” says Getty Images’ head of creative insights Dr Rebecca Swift. “If you take the Women’s World Cup as an example, we’re seeing moments captured that we typically had seen in the men’s game, the very dynamic and a sense of movement and skill which you just expect from great sports photography.
“In addition to that, we saw moments of camaraderie and friendship and togetherness, which I don’t think we have seen so much in the past and we don’t see in men’s sports as much.”
Swift’s team have been tracking the changes in the way women are represented in sports photography since the Rio Olympics in 2016. “The most iconic moments from the last Olympics were women helping each other and that kind of sense of coming together which is very appealing to a female audience,” Swift reflects. “There has been a move from taking pictures of women to make them look beautiful and make look glamorous and to really focus on how they look, to focusing on on their power and skill and all the effort that goes into them at that level.”
That matters. The rise of movements for abortion rights, Open Stadiums in Iran and the USWNT fight for equal pay – not to mention like MeToo – have helped accelerate the pace of change. Where layers of society are reflecting on the role of women and how they are treated and represented, so too is the business which visually documents the workings of society.
“What’s happening across all imagery, in advertising, in fashion, in other kind of media spaces, is this diversification of what beauty is, a diversification of what is attractive,” says Swift. “Women’s sport was seen as unattractive. Women’s rugby players were seen as unfeminine, and so there was this natural aversion to focusing on them as athletes.
“I think back to my childhood, and even in my 20s, the players that you saw a lot of were the leggy, blonde, ponytailed tennis players. Then we had people like Tessa Sanderson coming through, who was always criticised for being too manly, and it’s only more recently that we appreciate athletes bodies are the shape they are because of the work that they put in.
Women can be as equally as inspired and aspire to be that as being this beautiful model with a tennis racket in their hand. With the beauty industry really looking at itself, hopefully we’ll see that as the visualisation industry shifts that sport will get sucked up into it too.”
Though change is happening, it is slow, seen by the fuss and anger caused by two of Swifts 10 images of the year – Megan Rapinoe’s celebration and Alex Morgan’s tea sipping. “There was a lot of commentary around it being not a feminine way to celebrate, somehow it’s arrogant,” says Swift. “But then you look at the way men celebrate, with stupid robot dances and all that kind of stuff. What the controversy has done though is make it an iconic image,” she says. “And we need to create more of those so that the the younger generations, as they go about their lives, have those lodged in their memories so that they think about sport and the power of sport for women as iconic and aspirational.”
Increasingly there is recognition of the power the media can play in building up women’s sport, in particular football, in the same mutually-beneficial way it has men’s sports, and that attitude has filtered into photography. A big part of trying to change things is a drive to bring more women sports photographers to the fore. Getty hired two women photographers on internships who are covering the women’s game around the country. “That’s not to say we’re annexing female photographers in the female game, but it’s giving them the opportunity to grow with a growing game,” adds Swift.
The decision to take on two together felt important, too. “You go to games, you know how much abuse a poor female photographer gets,” Swift adds. “So giving them the power of being able to stick together was very important.“
Some of the biggest barriers faced by women photographers are faced my many other women workers in freelance and casual industries – antisocial hours, tough conditions and prohibitively expensive equipment. “I don’t think there’s a solution that we can all say ‘oh, if we do that, then things will change.’ But it’s it’s those little decisions we make along the way that matter,” says Swift. “It’s a tricky one because that that’s exactly what we get told is that female photographers get to the point where they can’t be bothered with the hassle of it and go on and do something else, and it’s those things have to be looked at in more detail.”
The effects of having female photographers following female athletes is not something very measurable, but Swift is hopeful that a more representative industry will throw up different, closer coverage. “We can’t tell right now what our female sports photographers bring to an image versus our male photographer because they are equally as good, they are all highly skilled photographers. But I suspect over time, we will see a difference in the reactions to a male of a certain age coming in and taking photographs to women coming in.
“I suspect that these female sports photographers are going to be able to get into the locker room and into those spaces that maybe a man couldn’t and and that’s going to then affect the stories that we tell around women’s sport too.”