Photographers' Blog

Swimming in a sea of pictures

August 1, 2011

Several weeks back I was told I would be having a serious case of the blues for a fortnight – processing pictures of the swimmers, divers and water polo players competing in the FINA World Championships in Shanghai. Pictures from the event would be edited by China chief photographer Petar Kujundzic and sent to me and my colleagues Karishma Singh and Allison Ching in Singapore to process and transmit to clients.

For two weeks, I would be looking at a sea of images where the main color was blue. So it made me nervous whenever I saw my least favorite color – green – appear on skin tones. It took constant communication with the on-site photographers and editor as well as the Picture Desk team here in Singapore, not to mention close scrutiny of the histogram in Photoshop, to ensure the athletes didn’t look jaundiced or ill. In fact, correcting the color on pictures taken in the swimming pool in Shanghai was as challenging as it was in Beijing three years ago when I processed aquatics images at the Olympics.

Speaking of challenges, I wonder if processing swimming pictures and physical “hardship” go hand in hand. In Beijing I was at the Water Cube, cut off from my colleagues at the media center and having to make a daily trek up 115 steps to the top of the press tribune area. I worked on a 14-inch laptop with barely an inch of elbow room, often perspiring in the warm environs. Here in Singapore, I was banished to a corner affectionately called Siberia because it is cold, quiet and almost hidden from view from the Picture Desk team. The lighting was rather dark, too. Editing images was done on a 17-inch monitor, which still cannot compare to the 22-inch Macintosh screens that the sub-editors on the Picture Desk work on every day.
But despite my complaints about the Water Cube, it was absolutely thrilling to watch the events unfold live before my eyes. Working on the FINA Championships pictures in a country removed from all the action lacks such excitement, but there still exists an adrenaline rush from subbing and sending them to the wire in the quickest time possible.

Beijing opened my eyes to all the possibilities of making images in a water-based environment. The beauty of water is that it creates almost other-worldly effects in a still image, making it look like a painting or sci-fi scene. It then became easier for me to identify and mark these pictures from Shanghai as top pictures.

In swimming and diving, when the strokes and routines inevitably become repetitive, it’s time to look at shapes and patterns for some variety. These come from the venue, like springboards and steps, or even the athletes’ bodies. It really makes you appreciate the hugely creative eye on the part of the photographers and editor.

In perhaps no other sport is the sheer human effort and endurance better captured than in the faces of divers. You cannot help but admire the concentration etched in their faces and smile at their Fido Dido hair at the same time.

Synchronized swimming provides much of the color outside of the usual blue at an aquatics championships. Plus, the swimmers’ formations in the water provide a myriad of ready-made patterns.

Water polo players thrashing about in the pool are reminiscent of ice hockey and wrestling. It is a perfect contrast to the elegant movements of the synchronized swimmers, the power of the divers and the symmetry in motion of the swimmers.

But at any sports event, the real story lies in the triumphs and losses of the athletes themselves. And what better way to immortalize such moments than in a photograph. At the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps was the undisputed star. Yet despite his haul of eight gold medals, Phelps never quite gave the massive reactions one would expect from a man who had written himself into the history books. I remember my editors grumbling at his rather subdued expressions. It was the same story in Shanghai, where Phelps gave either half-smiles or even scowls. Even his team mate Ryan Lochte, who stole the limelight with his golds, world record and title of best male athlete of the meet, barely smiled wider than a grin.

Nonetheless, there was a Cesar Cielo Filho and Federica Pellegrini to make up for every Phelps and Lochte. Brazilian Filho wept from the pool to the podium after winning the men’s 50m butterfly final, while Italian Pellegrini, winner of the 200m freestyle final, treated photographers to every imaginable view of her tongue. And unknown Congo swimmer Aminata Aboubakar Yakoub was overcome with emotion at winning her 50m freestyle heat.

When you start memorizing last names like Sjoestroem and Kromowidjojo, you know you’re at the tail end of the tournament. As for myself, I was relieved after the championships ended, but I knew that once I went back to subbing pictures of natural disasters, bomb attacks, politicians and protests, I would miss seeing the perfectly sculpted bodies of the world’s finest aquatics athletes.

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Shah, great read and thanks for all the hard work on the colour correction :)

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