‘Dramatic finish’ photo puts Barnes on AIPS Awards podium, with prize money bonus

Dublin-based photographer Sam Barnes, originally from Reading, was runner-up in the Action category at the AIPS Sport Media Awards; he tells us why it’s a competition that’s well worth entering, the story behind his great shot, and how his part of the industry can open up more to diverse talent… 

By Jon Holmes

Sam Barnes with his AIPS Sport Media Award at the ceremony in Santa Susanna, Spain

The expression on Femke Bol’s face feels like an extra chapter in the story told within Sam Barnes’ acclaimed photo from last year’s World Athletics Championships.

The Dutch sprinter is seen not only falling at speed but also looking crestfallen, perhaps due to the first flash of emotional impact before she even hits the ground.

Bol was also carrying the hopes of her teammates on the last leg of that 4x400m mixed relay final in Budapest – but with the finish line so close, she took a calamitous tumble and crashed out. 

Femke Bol falls on the home straight as Alexis Holmes anchors USA to victory – Sam Barnes, for Sportsfile

The image of that moment has been very successful for Barnes, however. It was a finalist for World Athletics Photograph of the Year 2023 and on Monday, it was the runner-up in the Photography Sport Action category at the AIPS Sport Media Awards. Alongside that honour, Barnes also collected a prize of US $3,000.

The snapper from Reading was one of three entries representing the UK on AIPS Awards night, although for nearly a decade he has lived and worked in Ireland for Dublin-based agency Sportsfile.

Late last year, Barnes won a prestigious Siena International Photo Award for another of his athletics images, showing the USA’s Grant Holloway leading the field in the men’s 60m hurdles at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade in March 2022. That picture was a finalist for World Athletics Photograph of the Year 2022.

We caught up with Sam for a Q&A to find out more about his ‘Falling Femke’ photo, what he made of the AIPS Awards process, and his thoughts on how to inspire the next generation into his part of the industry…

Hi Sam, and congratulations! It’s great to see more success for British photographers at the AIPS Sport Media Awards, following on from last year in Seoul. What did you make of the process?

Thanks! From what I remember, the AIPS process was very straightforward and it’s also one of the very few free-to-enter sports photography competitions that offers generous prize money!

The categories are clearly defined on their website, so as long as the entrant is a working professional photographer and conforms to editorial standards in terms of post production and editing, then they really have nothing to lose by entering.

The AIPS competition is known for its high standards across all categories, and it’s quite exciting as each judging announcement passes and you find out if you have made it through to the next round.

However, you only get one entry and you can only enter an image once in either category, so for those looking to have a go next time, be sure to pick carefully!

Watch the announcement of the Photography Sport Action category, from 15:00 on the YouTube replay

The ‘Falling Femke’ photo has been widely acclaimed. What should people know about the story behind the shot?

In sports photography, you are always looking for defining moments – and that is exactly what this image depicts.

It’s the exact moment the mixed 4x400m relay final was won and lost, as Femke Bol of the Netherlands, who had led for the bulk of the final lap, dramatically lost her footing and fell merely meters from the finish line, allowing the USA to take the gold medal.

I was covering the World Athletics Championships for Sportsfile at the time of the picture, and was in position at the finish line to cover the Irish team who were also competing in the final.

I had arrived early to the head-on photo position as spaces were limited and I knew I wanted to be directly in line with lanes 1 and 2 as this is usually where the winning athlete will cross the line.

But as Bol and the USA’s Alexis Holmes rounded the final bend, you knew it was going to be a dramatic finish. I began photographing them as they were neck and neck, expecting a winning celebration as they dipped for the line but I got more than I bargained for.

As a photographer, you know when you’ve taken a good image. I remember reviewing the images in the camera and being very excited as I saw the images through the electronic view finder. Of course, there were a lot of photographers either side of me, and I’ve seen a lot of variations of that moment, but I was the one who was track level and head on.

I guess it was a case of right place, right time. I knew right then that I had probably taken my best photograph of the entire championship on the first day and that I would be hard to beat it!

It was also interesting as Bol was not the only athlete to fall on the opening day. Sifan Hassan, also of the Netherlands, fell at almost the same spot in the women’s 10,000m final – although for me at least, that moment was not as dramatic or photogenic.

We’re always trying to encourage more people to get into sports photography and it’s been great to see more diversity on awards shortlists too. For example, three of the six SJA Young Sports Photographer award winners have been women. How do you feel the industry is faring when it comes to attracting new talent?

Sports photography at the top level is by its very nature an antisocial job. It requires working evenings, weekends, long days and travel as this is when sports events take place. Anyone wanting to pursue a career in the industry really must have a passion for the job.

My employer Sportsfile has a great record of identifying and nurturing young talent. I joined at 23 only a year after graduating from Falmouth University – but I was not the youngest member of the photography team.

We’ve had photographers work for us as young as 16 on our roster, and they receive a lot of mentoring and guidance from senior staff. You learn more on the job and from experience than you can in a classroom. 

I think all agencies should try and capitalise on this where they can, through work experience opportunities and scholarships, and perhaps even target those at under-represented demographics.

It’s a great way to give real-world work experience so the hopefuls can see what the job entails, which ultimately will inform their decision as to whether it’s a career they want to pursue.

Thanks to Sam and congratulations again from all of us at the SJA!

Read about Jack Bantock’s win at the AIPS Sport Media Awards 2023 in the Young Reporters Writing category

AIPS Sport Media Awards news index (AIPS Media)

Sam and his partner Chantal celebrate in Santa Susanna, Spain

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