Living in Fear of the “Pool” Guy

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK 

 

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 

Sometimes you just have to wait, sit and pray that the “pool guy” won’t come steal your spot. No, I’m not talking about anything that has to do with swimming pools. I’m talking about the word most photographers fear and sometimes loathe at the Olympics: The Pool Photographer.

Pool photographers work all of the venues, not just the aquatic ones, and generally are members of the numerous wire services that cover the Olympic Games. Since these wire photographers service numerous clients, they have successfully argued that they should get prime positions reserved for them at all venues–and they often (of course) pick the very best spots in each and every venue. I have no problem with this (I’ve never liked it of course given that I’ve never been part of said pool) and it does make some sense to give these organizations preferential treatment given the number of clients they serve.

The problem is, over the years the pool has gotten more powerful, and in Beijing, some of the rights that they’ve been given are just ludicrous. For example, if you want to shoot from the underwater window from which the image above was made, you need to make a request 24 hours in advance in writing. Once approved, you are escorted down to that position an hour before the event and get set up. Yet if at any point a pool photographer decides to show up, they have the right to bump you out of the position without warning. And given the small size of these windows, you’re basically left with nothing to shoot.  So you can see why every time I’d hear the door open to this position, my heart would momentarily stop…   

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 At one point a pool photographer did show up. Luckily he was a friend and decided not to pull rank–he graciously decided to let the peasant photographer (me) be, and went to the other window on the opposite side of the pool.  It helps that I once worked with him as a stringer for the same wire agency. Getting through the Olympics is all about who you know and the friends you make over the years, but pool positions are becoming more and more prevalent each year, and access to great shooting positions is dramatically diminishing.

As far as these photographs are concerned, they were made from one of the four windows that coaches use to observe their swimmers. It’s really cool to be down there, but you feel completely isolated from the rest of the world, and have zero warning as to where or when a diver will break through the surface. Have no idea where to focus your wide open 135mm lens (set to the aperture f2.)  Eventually you learn to follow the bubble trails coming from below as reference marks if you will, and that helps you decide where to pre-focus. There is not time for auto focus of course; the action is simply too fast. 

All you can hear are the muffled sounds from above. Miraculously I had a cell signal down there and called someone shooting the action from above. I’d get  a count down as to when the next pair of divers would leap off from the 10 meter board and do my best to time the rest. The picture above was of Annett Gamm and Nora Subschinski of Germany, who just missed their chance at a bronze metal and took 4th place in the 10 M Synchronized diving competition.

Speaking of bronze, the big surprise of the day of course was the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Team coming in third behind China and Japan, something that few of us expected would happen.

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Alexander Artemev, of the United States, completed a near flawless pommel horse routine to eke out the win. The quote of the day for me came from Smiley Pool, a great friend and photographer (and Gymnastics specialist) for the Houston Chronicle, as Alexander walked up to perform the final routine of the competition for the U.S.

“This is the field goal for the win” he said. This instantly clarified to all of us non-gymnastic-experts what exactly what was going on… if he nailed this routine, the U.S. would win Bronze.  Any mistake and the medal would instantly vanish. Given that Alexander has a tendency to fall off of the pommel horse due to the higher than average complexity of his routines, we were are looking for the decisive moment…  needless to say, he nailed it.

But he wasn’t alone, Xiaopeng Li and most of his teammates from China nailed their routines. 

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Here is a shot of the U.S. seconds after they found out they had earned the Bronze.

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 This happened seconds after Kai Zou of China sealed the deal for China on the horizontal bar.

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

It was great to see the U.S. Team with their medals – they seemed as surprised as we were.

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

While seeing the U.S. team win bronze was an unexpected treat, it was also very special to witness the Chinese Gymnastic Olympic team perform in the sport that is so strongly tied to China’s national identity. We’ve all seen so many photographs of young Chinese boys and girls training at a young age in the hopes of someday ending up on this very stage. To see them win today was to witness 6 young men realize a dream of a lifetime–and of a nation.