‘Opportunity knocks’ for women photographers at Sports Journalism Awards, says Catherine Ivill

Her football category win last year was described as “a huge moment” and Catherine Ivill hopes to see greater female representation on Photography shortlists this time; “everyone should have a go” and enter the Awards, says Catherine – and she’s encouraged by a new scheme helping more women get in the game…

By Jon Holmes

Catherine Ivill says collecting an SJA Awards trophy for her football photography was a career high

When Catherine Ivill collected her Football Portfolio trophy at last year’s SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, she knew she was making history.

“I might be the first woman to win this but I certainly won’t be the last!” the Getty Sports staff photographer told her industry peers and others gathered from across the industry for the gala evening.

There has been a dedicated football category in the Canon-sponsored Photography section of the Awards since 2015. It started as Picture, but within two years, it had expanded to Portfolio.

Kirsty Wigglesworth was highly commended in that first year, but the only women to be shortlisted in the category in the intervening period had been Ivill (runner-up in 2019) and Chloe Knott (2021).

Getty Images director Emma Newell described Ivill’s triumph as not just a breakthrough in sports photography but “a huge moment for women in sport” full stop. The ambition now is to capitalise on that at this year’s British Sports Journalism Awards.

Ivill started learning her trade in the mid-2000s after a career change and at the 2009 Awards, she was shortlisted for the first time, in the Picture category.

Over the years, visibility for women behind the lens has been limited compared to other parts of the sports media industry. There have been signs of progress at the Awards in recent years, albeit not enough.

Above, selected images from Catherine’s winning entry in the Football Portfolio category

In our latest SJA Q&A, Ivill encourages other female photographers to back themselves before Wednesday night’s entry deadline, especially now that a new scheme is in operation to assist those from under-represented groups with their submissions.

She also tells us about her industry journey, how sports photography has become more inclusive, and why she loves awards night…

Hi Cath! Thanks for joining us for this Q&A. Congratulations on your win in the Football Portfolio category last year. What are your reflections on that success?

Thank you! It was really meaningful to me. That was the third time I’d been shortlisted at the SJA Awards in the last 15 years and for us sports photographers, it’s the main competition that we all work towards.

As I said in my Instagram post afterwards, I knew it was meaningful too in terms of representation. Going back to when I started in the business, I would often go to shoot events and be the only woman.

Now it’s rare that I turn up and there isn’t another woman there, so it’s changed hugely which is lovely. There are still not enough of us women, but the dynamics have changed within the industry.

The more out there we are, the more people can see that and know it’s possible to go right to the top. So the win was not just important for me but for the whole industry, I think.

You were working as a freelancer when you were first shortlisted, which was for Picture of the Year back in 2009. How much do you look forward to Awards night now?

I love it! This time of the year, we’re all sat pitchside at games in our coats and hoodies, in the freezing cold, trying to get the best shots we can.

To then get to put our gladrags on and see each other on neutral ground, so to speak, all supporting each other and the whole sports media industry… it’s a lot of fun.

More than anything, we get to catch up with friends and just talk normally while not being ‘at work’! So yes, whether I’m shortlisted or not, I’ll always try to get to the Awards at any given opportunity.

You have a really interesting career story because you switched professions to get into sports photography. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes, I was a senior nurse in emergency medicine until I was 30. It’s a story that follows me because it is quite unusual! Although it all feels like a long time ago now.

I was just at a point in my life where I needed a break, having been in such a high-pressure environment. And I was lucky in that I picked up a camera and I had a close friend of mine, Matthew Ashton, who encouraged me.

I learned so much from him, He set up AMA, and I just went through every door that opened for me.

But it’s taken a long time for me to get to where I am, and I’m so grateful to Matthew – he’s not been very well recently, so particularly at the moment, my thoughts are with him.

I just hope my story shows that it doesn’t matter what you did before, or even how old you are. Doors are opening that can lead you into the industry.

I’m also one of those people that believes your path is there waiting for you. You just have to find your way along it.

Photography Awards judge Victoria Haydn with Catherine after her success last year

Looking back through the Awards, it was in 2016 when Myriam Cawston won Picture of the Year – she was the first woman to win that particular category. How much of a breakthrough moment was that?

I remember that was an extraordinary picture from figure skating and as well as that, there was certainly that feeling of, ‘finally – a woman sports photographer has won something!’

When I started, there were only a couple of female photographers that I knew of, in different parts of the country.

I certainly didn’t have many role models to look up to – all my peers were men.

Fast forward to now and I’m very proud to work for a company who are so proactive with diversity and inclusion.

When I left AMA, it was only ever going to be for Getty.

What challenges did you face personally as a woman in such a male-dominated part of the industry?

When I started, I was less aware of what I should and shouldn’t put up with, so to speak.

Conversations would happen in wire rooms that don’t happen now. I look back and think, ‘yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have been in that situation.’

But I honestly feel we’re very lucky in this country in that everyone is very welcoming. I haven’t met too many challenges, which is good.

I’ve just allowed my work take me where it needs to, and as long as you’re getting on with everybody, which most people do anyway, you should be fine.

There’s already a network where we can reach out to each other but anybody is welcome to ask us for advice at any time.

And I’ll always be sure to say hello when I see another woman shooting a match that I’m working at. For years, it’d just be me trying to fit in with all the guys so it’s nice to have this more ‘normal’ environment at games.

Now you’re a role model for women in the industry, even more so following your category win last year. You said in your Instagram post that you’re looking forward to seeing more women achieve recognition in the future. How hopeful are you of that happening consistently now?

It’s a tough industry but there are certainly more women coming through. Canon and Jakki Moores in particular have been so supportive of young talent.

Overall, the standard is very high for everyone but I would say that the more visibility we have on Awards shortlists, the better it will be for representation.

For the Awards this year, there is an assisted-entry scheme in operation for people from under-represented groups, on top of the reduced entry fees already on offer for SJA members and for freelancers entering more than one category. How helpful are those initiatives?

There are a lot of women photographers working freelance, so hopefully this will encourage more entries.

If you’ve got a great picture that’s well composed, it doesn’t matter where it’s from – whether it’s a non-league ground, the Premier League or a World Cup Final, it’s still a great picture. And the judges will acknowledge that.

So for those women who are perhaps shooting pictures at a lower level and are trying to work their way up, this gives them another incentive to put their pictures out there and get them under the noses of influential people.

I remember my first shortlist from when I was freelance, and just thinking that the judges would see my name. It’s an opportunity in itself.

An image from Catherine’s winning Football Portfolio entry, taken at Holyport vs Binfield in the FA Cup first qualifying round in September 2022 (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Our previous interviewees, Summaya Mughal and Molly McElwee, talked about finding the confidence to enter if you haven’t before. How do we help to empower new people?

I sometimes still get that ‘imposter syndrome’ feeling even now, so don’t worry! You have to have the mindset of getting past it and entering anyway, just to see what happens.

There was the odd year when I was freelance that I didn’t enter, thinking it wasn’t worth paying not to get shortlisted, but the new scheme should mean that you don’t have to feel that way any more.

With that in mind, what would be your message to anyone who’s still thinking about applying?

Just enter! I know you’re all out there – I’ve seen lots of great Instagram posts in the last year from some brilliant, talented female photographers.

The opportunity is there now, you just have to take it. Everyone should have a go!

Our thanks to Catherine for the Q&A! To see more of her work, visit her website here.

To read more about the SJA British Sports Journalism Awards and how to enter one or more of the 30+ categories before Wednesday night’s deadline (17 January), click here.

You can also read our Q&A with broadcaster Summaya Mughal, who won Podcast of the Year last time out for her ‘Brown Gal Can’t Swim’ series for BBC Radio Leicester, and with three-time shortlisted sportswriter Molly McElwee.

The SJA is interested in your sports media industry news and views. Keen to reach an engaged audience, including over 70,000 followers across social media? We welcome your enquiries – contact us here. We also offer advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

For information on how to apply as a Full or Associate Member of the SJA, plus details of our free-to-enter SJA Academy, click here.