ANTON RIPPON interviews one of the world’s top sports photographers about prejudice, press facilities and the digitally equipped amateurs who are undermining the business
In 1980, Eileen Langsley had to make a career choice: remain as head of PE at King Edward VII School in Sheffield, or become a full-time sports photographer. She chose photography and she chose wisely: Langsley can now look back on a distinguished career in photo-journalism – and at the age of 71 she is still working full-time.
“I started sports photography in 1976, firstly as a way of obtaining action images of sportswomen to use in my teaching and coaching, and also as a record of the achievements of some of my girls and teams,” the SJA member said. “I had no background in any aspect of photography but a lot of knowledge and experience in sport. It was a case of learning on the job and quickly.
“I started supplying local newspapers to get exposure and coverage of the achievements of the girls and then was asked to take on assignments for them. I branched out to supplying international sports magazines and was then asked to supply images for a variety of magazines and sports books.
“As I had some very talented gymnasts it was natural for me to start to work in that sport – my first World Gymnastics Championships was in 1978 – but very early on I was asked to cover figure skating, athletics, hockey, netball, lacrosse, tennis and so on, and I also worked for many years for a magazine covering all aspects of sport in British schools, acquiring a unique record over that period.”
Langsley was 37 when she realised that she could not sustain two jobs: “I became a full-time sports photographer, aiming to develop the areas in which I had become established. I had hoped to work for a newspaper or agency initially, to learn the ropes, but in 1980 I couldn’t get anyone to take on a woman. So I decided the only way was to go it alone and I set up Supersport Photographs, supplying mostly specialist magazines and books and also working with and for various other small agencies around the world.
“I found it difficult to get clients in the UK but less so from overseas; from my early days I was taking assignments in Europe and the USA in particular so travel became an unexpected part of my life.”
In 1983, Langsley was invited to become the official photographer for Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG), which entailed a lot of worldwide travel covering all their events and also serving as an event liaison to organise working conditions for photographers at their competitions and championships.
“I was a founder member of the Women’s Sports Foundation in the UK, was their photographer for a number of years and also ran their Press and PR side. One of the most satisfying things I have done was to raise £250,000 in sponsorship for an award scheme for young sportswomen – and then to photograph some of them competing in Olympic Games in following years.
“It did also give me some satisfaction when I was elected chairman of the Professional Sports Photographers Association and was asked to be a member of the BOA press committee, as it felt as if I had finally been accepted and recognised within this male-dominated profession.”
What did – still does – give particular satisfaction? “That’s difficult to answer as there are a number for varying reasons – but my favourites are always from the days of film photography and I remember well the satisfaction of seeing what I had captured on film, when everything – focus, exposure, etc – was done manually. I know that digital photography has extended my career but even so I get less satisfaction from my results knowing that the camera has done so much of it for me.”
The most memorable sporting event that she has covered?
“There are so many – and all for different reasons – some memorable for surviving them, like Sarajevo and Atlanta, some for being outstanding events such as Lillehammer, Barcelona, Sydney, Vancouver and London.
“And some for performances – Torvill and Dean in 1984, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah in 2012 – and some for achievements of the competitors. I would cite the success of the British men’s gymnastics team, Louis Smith, and Beth Tweddle at the London 2012 Games as a marvellous achievement and ones that gave me huge pleasure. It was great to feel that I had captured some of my best images of them at that event.
“All 13 Olympic Games that I’ve covered stick in my memory for one reason or another – getting spreads in the Sunday Times Magazine after two Olympics was a thrill – but I saw all of them as real high points of my career, even the ones that were tough to cover, and the ones – like Atlanta – where I struggled to see any of the Olympic values in operation.
“Obviously London 2012 will always hold special memories for me; I’d had reservations about whether the UK should take on the event in the face of the recession but knew we were capable of staging an outstanding Games and I wasn’t mistaken.”
Langsley finds it challenging and satisfying to shoot “any sport that is unpredictable and where the patterns of play and performance constantly change. Sports where the action stays the same, and the difference is down to the personalities involved, interest me less.”
Langsley’s own accolades are impressive. She is an Honorary Life Member of FIG, an Honorary Life Member of British Gymnastics, and has received the International Order of Merit from the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, the Alex Strachan Trophy for services to gymnastics, and the Nik Stuart Award.
“The WSF Award Scheme for young sportswomen gave me huge satisfaction, especially at the first award ceremony in a glitzy London hotel when the community activity prize went to a group of inner city girls whose leader told me that this award had ‘made their day – no, made their lives…’.”
Like every sports photographer, though, she has had her down times: “The main difficulties I faced were early in my career when it was hard to break through the barriers of prejudice in certain areas.
“Having come from a job where gender was irrelevant I found it difficult to adjust to some environments where there was disbelief that a woman would know what she was doing – sometimes from colleagues and often from event officials. My husband often cites the time I went to the National cross-country and he came along to carry my bag. He he was let in to the finish line pen and I was excluded. This sort of experience was all too common during my early days – and sad to say, even later on in my career.
“I’ve been disappointed that at the end of my long career, I’ve failed to get accreditation for some major events in spite of my experience, but on the other hand have been encouraged to see more women in the job and more exposure for their work. I don’t believe in positive discrimination and always worked from the standpoint of wanting to be judged for my work and results and for being a good colleague.
“While I was out of action from 2003 to 2009, the digital revolution happened and when I finally got back, it was a whole new world and consequently I seem to have been playing catch up ever since.”
Is there anything that she would do to improve relations between her profession and the sports she covers? “Throughout my career I’ve tried to encourage sports organisations to understand the value of creating good working conditions for the media – and especially for photographers. Sometimes it’s been an uphill struggle and a lot depends on the personality and experience of the event press officers.
“There is a lack of understanding of how tough it is for photographers if positions are poor and angles not thought-out. TV is always taken care of and for the most part, journalists get the desks and facilities they need with a decent view of the action.
“There is a lack of understanding that photographers can’t ‘magic’ pictures out of nothing and that positions, access and angles are crucial to our work.
“What worked so well in London 2012 was that a very experienced photographer – Bob Martin – was in charge and gathered around him a team of experienced and knowledgeable people to act as photo managers. The positions were excellent and there was always enough room to work even if a photographer arrived late at an event.
“I do feel that the various sports press associations, especially AIPS, could do more to recognise the importance of photographers and do more to support us. We all have an equally important role to play in getting the message out. Some of the media associations are too preoccupied with their relationships with sports federations and the IOC and have lost sight of the fact that they are there to represent the working media and fight for their rights.
“A negative change that has happened in sports photography – and especially for photographers – is the onslaught of amateurs who are regularly gaining access to major events and to what should be professional working areas. It is too easy for them to obtain AIPS and national Press cards so event organisers can hardly exclude them.
“This is another knock-on effect of digital photography and the fact that it is now relatively easy to obtain decent action pictures. Many magazines are happy to accept free images from these photographers and freelancers are finding our work and earnings seriously undermined. On the one hand we’re battling the major agencies and their global domination and on the other, the amateurs who do not need to make a living from their work. It’s no surprise that so many freelancers have gone under and it’s hard for those left to maintain a foothold.”
Far from retiring, though, Langsley is looking to the future: “A few years ago it became blindingly obvious that my traditional market of sport specialist magazines and books was becoming the domain of amateurs, bloggers and fans who had digital cameras and enjoyed access to events, so I have looked to create other sources of revenue and am working in the area of self-published books. It has been a steep learning curve but it is very satisfying to work this way and it brings in a small but steady income plus gives me the chance to use images from my extensive archives. During my career I’ve often been asked to write as well as photograph so that has also been a great help.
“Most of all, though, I’d like to express my gratitude and appreciation to those male colleagues who have supported and believed in me throughout my career and to my husband who has supported me throughout.”
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