Known for his work with the AFL, Michael Willson was appointed Commonwealth Games Australia Team Photographer at Gold Coast 2018. Here he reflects on the opportunity of shooting a different sporting environment.
Late last year I was approached by Commonwealth Games Australia (CGA) to be the official Team Photographer for Team Australia at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. I was honoured to be asked and happily accepted the 3 week position after I had cleared it with the AFL. The AFL was fantastic in seeing this as a great opportunity for my photography development, so I took three weeks leave and I was on my way.
The scope of the role was to capture as much of the action as possible, along with team photos, athlete portraits, official functions, press conferences, training sessions, village life and a host of other things.
To say I was a little nervous about the experience would be an understatement. Having predominantly shot AFL for the last 10 years, being exposed to more than 20 different sports I’d never seen before, let alone photographed, had me a little anxious. I knew all of the Getty Images photographers that were shooting the Games and sought advice from them on shooting particular sports. This was invaluable but part of me also wanted to keep an open mind and a ‘fresh eye’ when shooting, I didn’t necessarily want to ‘play by the rules’ as far as the traditional way of shooting a particular sport.
One of my first jobs was shooting the boxing team training. I also took some quick portraits at the end
The portrait session I had with the Australian Swim team in the first week had its challenges. Working in a very confined space with another snapper along with the athletes being on a very strict timetable meant a lot of pressure. There was also the fact I’d never even met the team members before.
Usually when I’m shooting an AFL player we have either previously met or we have time to chat a little before the shoot so they are more relaxed in front of the camera. Not the case here. Preparation was key. I arrived hours earlier to set up two stations, and tested them methodically with stand-ins. Then when the athletes arrived it was an extremely quick meet-n-greet and down to business. Chalmers, Horton, the Campbell sisters et.al… some of the biggest names in Australian sport were in front of my lens, there literally wasn’t time to be star struck – my instincts just kicked in, firing away, trying to extract their personalities and intensity as best I could in the short time we had. It was an exhilarating whirlwind, but I was happy with the results
(L-R) Kyle Chalmers, Mack Horton and Cate Campbell pose during the Dolphins media session
The Opening Ceremony was an eye-opener as well. Security was extreme, airport-like scanning at each entry, drones and helicopters circling the sky. Not that you would expect anything less with HRH Prince Charles in attendance.
Photo positions were also something I envisaged differently as well. Very little freedom as each photographer was allocated set positions, and only pool photographers were allowed field access (not me). This made it difficult as far as trying to be creative with angles and such as you were pretty much stuck where you were.
Still, with an arsenal of different focal length lenses at my disposal, I was able to capture some of the colour and atmosphere that the ceremony provided
All the colour and excitement of the opening ceremony
Finally the time came to shoot some of the action. The first event I shot was the Triathlon. A logistical nightmare on paper with so much distance covered, but made all the easier by the venue photo managers who provided briefings before each event as to the best vantage points. They also escorted you to positions and kept you safely out of the way of crowds and television cameras. I also shot swimming, lawn bowls, cycling, weightlifting, boxing, badminton and beach volleyball the first week.
Each sport was different to shoot. Some easier than others and each with its challenges. Lawn Bowls, for example, was excruciatingly difficult to make look interesting, whereas beach volleyball was dynamic and fast-paced, lots of diving, sand flying and passion from the players. It was all a learning curve and I tried my best to put my creative twist on events where possible.
Swimming was also surprisingly tough to get a decent picture from. Unless you can plant an underwater camera (only pool photographers are permitted to do this), the actual pictures of the swimmers in the water were very bland from the position I was allocated, you didn’t see much of their faces. The money shots were when they celebrated, but there are so many variables that can come into play. For example, they might face the wrong way, or a TV camera may obstruct your shot.
Some of the action from week one
My images were being used primarily by the CGA digital team on the Games social media channels. Many of the individual sports were also using the pictures on their channels too.
I was filing my pictures through Photo Mechanic and onto a password protected digital portal that was powered by SmugMug. At some of the big events I was filing pictures from my phone directly to the online portal, allowing the digital team access to the imagery minutes after it had been captured.
Photo Mechanic was my filing tool (left) and an Instagram application of one of my photographs (right)
A lot of people have asked me what my favourite event was to photograph. I have narrowed it down to two.
The diving was something to behold in the flesh. The courage, precision, athleticism and sheer skill involved… These athletes are jumping off 10 metre platforms! Backwards. Rotating their bodies three times then ploughing head first into something that is as hard as concrete when met on the wrong angle. It is amazing to witness and to photograph. Capturing the velocity made the photos.
The pole vault as well, was an experience to shoot. Again, extreme athleticism and courage to vault 5 metres in the air, but it was the jubilation as they were coming down that was extraordinary. It was next level excitement.
The diving and pole vault, two of my favourite events
The second week saw me shooting athletics, netball, basketball, hockey, table tennis and the marathons.
The picture of Kurt Fearnley after his victory in the marathon is a powerful portrait, a picture of a man who had given everything. I was actually lucky enough to receive a message from Kurt not long after thanking me for this picture. To him it summed up his games experience – an image of exhaustion, yet relief and a permanent pictorial record knowing he had nothing left to give.
The men’s hockey gold medal match was also memorable, with some emotional scenes post-match after flag bearer and Kookaburras skipper Mark Knowles said goodbye, going out on a high with a gold medal.
Some of the action from week two
Looking back now the Commonwealth Games was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career.
A lot of long nights and early starts, editing thousands of pictures, 7,464 to be exact. But I learnt so much, worked with an amazing group of people at CGA and came away with some pictures that rate highly in my folio of work.
Kurt Fearnley at the Closing Ceremony (left), sadly a sight nobody saw on the broadcast, perhaps making this photograph even more poignant. And a nice way to finish, scoring the front page of the Sunday Mail (right)