Photographer Joe Klamar Explains His Controversial Olympic Portraits

AFP photographer Joe Klamar’s portraits of US Olympic athletes have caused a firestorm of controversy in the past week, with people calling the images “insulting” due to their lighting, angles, and concepts. Klamar has responded to the controversy over on AFP. Rather than being intentionally “bad” for the purpose of making a point, they were simply the result of being unprepared:

“I was under the impression that I was going to be photographing athletes on a stage or during press conference where I would take their headshots for our archives,” [Klamar] explained. “I really had no idea that there would be a possibility for setting up a studio.” It was the first time AFP had been invited to participate in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Media Summit, which was held this year, in May, at a Hilton Hotel in Dallas.

Joe had come armed with two cameras and three lenses (17-35, 70-200 and 300), plus one flash and a 12-inch laptop. To his horror, he saw upon arriving that his colleagues from other news agencies and media organizations had set up studio booths with professional lights, backdrops and prop assistants. “It was very embarrassing to find out that I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of a studio,” Joe told us by email.

Pixels and piety: Photographing Olympic icons (via A Photo Editor)

Image credits: Photographs by Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

  • Aaro Keipi

    This is a very reasonable explanation–it’s a nightmare scenario for any photographer.
    He should take this opportunity to learn an acronym from responsible motorcycle riders: ATGATT: All The Gear, All The Time.

  • Arnaud Le Guennec

    I don’t feel satisfied with that explanation, this shouldn’t happen to a professional photographer. Regardless of whether he had the right gear or a fully prepared studio, he should be able to improvise at the last second, and not do the awful work he did, just the poses the athletes took were horrific.

  • OSAM

    As I said on another site, the best he could have done in this situation is actually to bounce an on-camera speedlight off something and do headshots as he had planned.

  • Renato Murakami

    There there, a proper explanation… I’m just glad this didn’t end with the anti-estabilishment thing.
    Things went wrong when it shouldn’t, he’s sorry about it, lesson learned – let’s move on.
    I think this is way better than trying to come off as something planned.
    In the heat of the moment things can go that way, all photographers will probably understand. There are probably ways to get around situations like these even with the equipment he had, but you know, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.
    I’m shure next time Klamar has some similar work he’ll deliver. Best of luck.

  • jean

    I understand his excuse but I mean, he could have edited these photos in Lightroom or other software to make them more presentable!

  • gautch

    He still allowed the photos to be published. If they are that bad why did he let them out of the camera?

  • Antonio Carrasco

    A GOOD photographer can take quality photos with an expensive camera, all the proper lighting and ideal conditions.

    A GREAT photographer can still take GREAT photos when he/she is thrown a curveball like this.

  • tonster

    i just find this ironic. there are people out there who could only wish they had such a subject, those models, willing to pose for them and even that kind of equipment! those 3 lenses and a flashgun! And still with the little they have, they give passion, imagination and take their gear to their limits to get a decent shot!
    Maybe if i where a pro i’d see it differently, but from where i stand, i just don’t see passion or love for photography into this set of pictures… and its a pity.

  • JosephRT

    I say we give the guy a break and stop being so critical. Being overly critical is easy to do on the internet, even though we had no idea of the circumstances leading up to the shot. Imagine if you were in that same position, would you’re shots really be THAT much better?

  • checkmate

    Petapixel, please retract John-Paul Danko’s ridiculous assertion that the photos were anything to do with an “anti-establishment” sentiment. There’s no reason this man should be able to perpetuate such ill thought trash.

  • Michael Zhang

    We’ve updated that article with a note at the top. Thanks

  • gabe sturdevant

    Obviously has never seen Zacks one light workshop or dvd. He had other photographers in the area, and he couldnt ask for a light stand and umbrella?

    If this guy is good enough to have Olympic access, he darn well better be good enough to think on his feet and be able to use “two cameras and three lenses (17-35, 70-200 and 300), plus one flash and a 12-inch laptop.” well enough to get some half decent images.

  • bob

    absolutely no excuse.

  • James

    I’ve seen some amazing photography done with one light (like the OneLight Workshop by Zack Arias). One light placed at the right angle can really show muscle definition and create nice shots. Also some good post work could have gone a long ways in at least ‘salvaging’ some of the shots. ….. It’s more about the photographer’s skills & talent than the gear he or she uses. It’s unfortunate these photos got out at all.

  • Melo

    His biggest mistake was letting them out. His second mistake was not at least doing some post on them. I took one of the photos and did about 2 minutes worth of Lightroom adjusting on a lo-res web jpg. You mean to tell me he couldn’t do better with the originals?

    See here:

  • Lets get more pretentious

    I wish I could get to a point in my carrer that idiots would write massive excuses for my bad/unprepped photo work and over analyze it to the point where it’s “actually powerful art”

  • JJ

    Okay. I want to see your professional one light setup in a studio.

  • Melo

    Yes. I can guarantee you I and many others would do much better, or at the very least, clean them up. Nothing against the photog personally, I know nothing about him, but these as pro photos being published… no way.

  • Tam Nguyen Photography

    I dont think they allow a lot of PP on the images. Remember, this is more of a journalistic gig than an editorial one.

  • comeon

    Cause he was still getting paid to take them and he needs to deliver a product to get paid

  • BCP

    It remains from the start that it’s a f*ckup by the editor, and a royal one at that. I know a bunch of people who shoot for AFP, and all of them could shoot something usable with a cellphone and a roll of gaff-tape, so the editor f-ed up when he picked a sub-par guy to send to a shoot.

    Secondly, they both f-ed up in not knowing what was the shoot going to be like, since it’s tog’s job to be prepared, and assignment editor’s job to make sure the tog is prepared, especially when it’s the bloody US olympic team, not a car crash off the I-56, just west of Akron.

    And finally, that shit just doesn’t get published, plain and simple. Eat your pride as the editor, pay up to use somebody else’s images or send an e-mail to the subscribers that due to technical difficulties, the pics won’t be available, don’t embarrass yourself and the wire just so you don’t have to admit you didn’t do your job properly.

    Man, as an editor myself, if I published that under any circumstances other than “there are PED needle marks visible in the image, and a bottle of HGH sticking out of a guy’s pocket”, not only would I get fired in a second, I’d also not get another job for the next 15 years.

    Oh yeah, and if you did f-up so many times in a row, write a press release that the pics are under the agency standard, and shouldn’t have been used, don’t let the poor sod you hired, sent unprepared and published pick up all the flak.

    Man, this industry is getting more f-ed up by the day…

  • Nick Fancher

    Being under prepared in gear doesn’t explain awkward expressions and awful posing.

  • Chung Dha Lam

    Kinda funny he said he only had one flash but bottom left photo I definitely can see 2 different light sources from 2 directions. Plus he has a paper backdrop. So he is lying about not having enough gear. Plus its not about the gear, the execution is not even good not good concept angles, directing the poses of the athletes and more.

  • Kamo

    Hopefully that doesn’t mean all your gear, because you might need a chiropractor pretty soon if you carried all your gear all the time. Better to at least have the minimal equipment to get the job done, so you don’t get caught out like this.

  • BCP

    First of all, that looks even worse. Second of all, it breaches every standard for editorial wire use out there…

  • Mark Z.

    “they were simply the result of being unprepared.”

    That seems pretty reductionist to me. As many have pointed out, any competent photographer could have done simple, bounced, one-light headshots that would have been perfectly acceptable. He clearly made the decision to try shots that were something a bit…different. They were the shots he chose to take given the situation he was in; they were a product of his own photographic sensibility. If they’re bad, it’s because his gambit failed, and enforcing his sensibility on the circumstances was a mistake—not because he was “unprepared”.

    Personally, I love these shots. My favorites are the ones with the ripped backgrounds, or the low, wide angle shot of the runner that shows the background tapering off above him. To me, there’s not an ounce of “anti-establishment”-ness in it, it’s just a touch of verite, pulling the lens back a bit to reveal the stage they’re on. Some of them have an endearing sort of “outtake” quality to them.

    Sports is a drama, but with real people, not characters. When I watch it, I’m not looking for just heroism, I’m looking for humanity, which encompasses the former. Human triumph and human defeat, yes. But also human grace, human nature. These photos, in some way, get at the latter and make them feel real and tangible, not actors.

    As an aside: It strikes me in the same way that Radiolab edits snippets of their interviewees’ asides and mic level tests into their show—it makes their subjects a bit more human. And their subjects are often from a group of people who have a one-note media presence—scientists.

  • Haas Colby

    It looks to me like he had more than one light (judging by all the cross-lighting in many of these photos) and a blue gel for some reason. He had all he needed to take some decent portraits… the only thing he didn’t bring was talent and inspiration.

  • Dave Freakazoid Kooper

    Amazing, you made a bad picture even worse. The face looks fake, the white is overpowering and distracting, the image looks totally washed out and yes looks far worse then the original image. Then again, its hard to do a post process on a jpeg but still.

  • Haas Colby

    I don’t think AP really supports much retouching… Can’t really get too down on him though. He’s a red carpet photog… meaning he shows up outside events with a camera and takes a thousand photos of people who already look good. It doesn’t really require one to be studied in lighting, composition, color theory, or retouching.

  • Mansgame

    Seems like an honest answer…I’ll lower my pitchfork and torches for now.

  • checkmate

    Sorry, Michael. Didn’t mean to sound harsh there. Thanks for the reply. Respect.

  • Mehhh

    You know what I do like about the images. They show real people, as they are. I would imagine that once the broohah fades away people will appreciate these photos with a differant eye.

  • MatthieuPinsonneault

    I like to look at comment and how every people who read this article, are better photographer than Joe Klamar. Is photographer mean idio?

  • Pete Charlesworth

    Pretty much all of the shots are shot with more than one flash…. and with two flashes you can get way better results than this. Not to mention the complete lack of post processing many obvious problems. Having said that, this shoot is drawing way more attention than most.

  • steve

    and it’s IMPOSSIBLE that he was lent another flash for 1 shot right? don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions

  • Melo

    Boosting contrast and adjusting exposure breaches every standard? Guess I know why I’m not a photojournalist.

  • branden rio

    This, so much exactly this

  • Andrew

    I actually like these photos…why does everything have to be “perfect” for the photo to be good? Oh my god, they don’t look like every other photograph ever! The paper is torn! The lighting is off! They look…unique, and natural, and I like that.

  • Mark

    That’s not a great explanation. I’m sorry, if you’re professional, you should be able to roll with the punches, improvise, or come better prepared for various possibilities, known and unknown. You can’t be ready for everything, but you can sure as heck adapt.

  • Kathleen Grace

    Well, sorry, but that still doesn’t excuse the bad poses unless he was just so flummoxed he stopped functioning. And decent photographer would have just found a spot, asked to borrow a few things and work on the fly. It sounds like he just caved.

  • Kathleen Grace

    Oh, I’m not a pro, but these are poses that are just so awkward and in some cases juvenile. Just the photo of Michael Phelps, he looks like a skinny weakling and he’s a tall, giant powerhouse – the photos make them look like less. Natural is one thing, but now that we know the story, these show how freaked out he was, that he wasn’t focusing on what he was doing but was probably doing a song and dance number trying to make up for his lack of equipment.

  • gautch

    Good point.

  • Leo Cavallini

    No excuses lol, there is no need of a circus setup to make good photos. The guy is a bad photographer indeed. Period.

  • Vladimir Byazrov

    There is a saying “bad dancer blames his balls”

  • Barry Noack

    Ok, I could understand and possibly even halfway accept this “explanation”. But could someone please note one rather important detail with me. Ummmm…if the described equipment was all he had, then where did the backdrops, props (a U.S. Flag), sports gear, etc. come from? And if he was allowed to borrow those items from fellow photographers, then why did he not at least attempt to also borrow another lens and some lights as well?
    I’m a photographer and in my experience, we are always quick to help each other out in a bind, so you can’t tell me that no one there afforded him these apparent necessities for him. Especially if they allowed him the use of other items like the aforementioned props….No excuse!


    “I was under the impression that I was going to be photographing athletes on a stage or during press conference where I would take their headshots for our archives,”
    That was his whole problem. He should have asked, and if he had asked, he would have been able to be prepared.
    I was recently asked to put together a proposal for a USMC Birthday Ball. In the process of gathering the data I needed to properly price it, I discovered that I’ll have a 20×30 foot room to set up and take the portraits.
    Ask, it’s the sign of a professional.

  • Tobias Roybal

    He stated that he was under the impression that he would be taking headshots, so why did he not just take headshots with his 70-200 and the one flash?

  • alvintoro

    Homeboy is definitely not the sharpest lens in the bag if you know what I mean. I’m no Ansel Adams but I would’ve at least phoned a friend before turning in something like that.

  • Aaron Codling

    I shoot with a single speedlight daily. I (we) am smart enough to cary more than one to a gig. PLUS tare off a chunk of that paper and make a reflector. You can create a studio lighting look with an amazing amount of junk that may be laying around take 15 seconds and look around.

  • Been there done that,

    You are forgetting he had less than 3 minutes with each athlete. These are not professional models. It is like pulling teeth to get them to relax in the best situations.