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

  • Brent Burzycki

    The ability to connect with a subject is an art in itself – those that are good at it can connect in seconds and reassure the subject they have the ability to do the job. He clearly not only did not connect but was severely unprepared..

    He should have passed the opportunity on to someone who could get better results…

  • Mark

    I’m a photojournalist and I certainly don’t have a studio. And I have had situations like these with national celebrities and working for clients who would take me to court if I didn’t get the shots required of me in the contracts.

    Photographers that don’t have experience usually pass up opportunities like this because of the very reason you mentioned–not being able to rapidly adapt. And I dare say that being a photojournalist is even MORE reason that he should have been able to pull off decent shots. Studio photogs with $4000 flash heads, large light modifiers and an assistant are the ones who would be most likely to fall apart, NOT photojournalists that are accustomed to having little to no control of light or posing.

    Back to my first point, I had such a scenario three weeks ago for a major national awards ceremony. Practically all of the studio equipment I had set-up off-stage failed only minutes before I was to take head shots of participants in a controlled “red-carpet” type scene. I ran to my camera bag, pulled out my speedlight, put it on remote mode, changed my lens to my camera with a pop-up flash, pulled the monolights off the stands, replaced one of them with the speedlight, turned the entire operation to the side so that a wall would bounce some light into the subject’s dark side, cranked my shutter up to completely black out the background, took a test shot of my hand, and produced professional results for the client. I didn’t whine about how unexpected events had ruined the shot I had envisioned in my head, I didn’t complain that my headshots would be a bit more constrasty than I had hoped for and I didn’t have to drive home that night with the terrible thought of having to make a phone call to the director about missing an entire chunk of photographs.

    You know, that’s part of being a photographer and quite frankly, any photographer (with a capital “P”) knows that no matter how much planning you do, you MUST have a contingency in place. Literally 50% or more of my shoots never work the way I had envisioned them, even when I liberally scout the location and set up everything ahead of time. Things will break, flashes will die, triggers will fail, event managers will change their minds, clients will ignore your directions and the skies will rain down buckets of water on your perfectly set-up scene. I was a paramedic for eight years and I guess I learned to keep my cool and slow down the racing thoughts that went through my head when something was going wrong. I don’t know if that can be taught, but of all the professions in the world that require calm and the ability to adapt and change in an instant, photography is high on the list.

    Explain to me how a basic one-light set-up with a stopped-out background and classical portrait poses would not have been just as sufficient here. I’m not accusing the photog of being a liar, but given the outrageously poor choice of poses, gestures and expressions, I suspect some other motive was behind all this.

  • Ghms

    A photography who blogs.

  • Mark

    It’s my understanding that he’s shooting editorial photographs for media/PR purposes, not shooting images for a fashion magazine. I also thought these images were for the consumption of the spectators and the world community, not high-brow art gallery patrons. I know it’s not the latest DIY tilt-shift, retro-hip, pinhole fare that’s oh-so cutting edge, but if the photographer doesn’t understand 1) how to adapt to things not going his way and 2) how to create the “basics”, then he still fails.

  • Mark

    What’s the obsession with “boring sucks, make it like a unique snowflake”. I don’t know what they teach in university studio art courses these days, but you can’t break rules until you master classical forms and aesthetic technique. The art created without mastery of fundamentals = fad trash.

    It’s a shame that even the consumer public doesn’t know the difference anymore and when we call out work like this, we are verbally lambasted and accused of being too old-fashioned and out of touch. Andrew can like the photos to his heart’s content, but the general assessment of this body of work, given the circumstances and what they are meant to represent, still stand.

    Sorry, but art isn’t defined by the artist, it’s defined by the observer, which in this case is millions of Olympic games fans–who have criticized these images in unison.

  • Mark

    Ever worked for a news agency? I couldn’t tell if your post was mocking the photog or not, since everything you listed is expected on almost every assignment you go to as a PJ.

  • Matt

    They were shot for a newswire. You’re not allowed to “clean them up”

  • Mr.Shadow

    1. If these are “artistic/abstract” shots, they still lack the impact, the focus, the “point” of their photos. Unless his statement on his shots are “US athletes, they are not prepared” or ” US athletes, they just woke up.”

    2. Comments saying “these are athletes, they are not seasoned models but I am sure folks like Phelps has done their fair share of posing and being photographed.

    3. About constructive criticism. We can constructively criticize if these were shot by an amateur (and I am not going to mention gear.) However, we should not be wrong to assume a photographer from Getty’s is a seasoned pro. The photos are so poorly composed, poorly lighted and basically “out-of-idea” kind of work, that it leaves no room for “constructive criticism” but condemnation.

    4. So, above is as much as I can constructively give my opinion on this matter (not the photos). As far as the photos concerned, they are just ghastly and horrific.

  • Ryan Ahern

    Mark, not sure the consumer public ever knew the difference between ‘masters’ and ‘fad trash’ when it came to art. In today’s society you can create complete nonsense and just label it as ‘art’ it’s suddenly all ok. Sad.

  • Ya NoYa

    But what about his auto-censure or sense for quality.
    If the picts are intended to be kind of irony about Olympic business, and about desire become the best, in some way beatiful, artificially, etc., in such case, pictures can make sense.
    But if he just did not feel he could make good picts, under given conditions, could not he say “no”? I mean most photographers cannot have enough experience with all genres, as professionals, or those who are realistic and frank better do not make the deal rather than put the deal into too high risk.

  • Ike van Eyck

    Despite his explanation/excuse, I still feel this was poor work and unacceptable. He should’ve just stuck to the head shots if that was all he was prepared for. A “professional” photographer should know what he’s capable of doing with the time and equipment at hand. I’m surprised so many here are commenting in his defense. It kind of makes me think that many of you “pros” are actually not really great photographers at the core, but just have good or a lot of equipment…. o__o

  • yellowdot

    Not good enough for me. We really wont know what kind of pressure or whatever he was feeling then. But I would probably just have taken a “normal” portrait shot, especially since it was just headshots for archives. The poses he had those people do actually looks like it took more time.

  • Melo

    Help me understand. Is posing people, setting up lights in the shittiest of ways and having them hold props ‘photojournalism’? Is this documenting something? If so, forego the whole setup and shoot them where they stand under whatever light is there if the AFP or you purists are so concerned with the integrity of photography.

    Is putting a gel on a strobe acceptable? How so, that is altering the reality is it not?

    Photojournalism is a facade.

  • Adrian Vallarino Chiossi

    I actually like the photos. I’m tired of photos of athletes that always try to make them look like bigger than life demigods. This are photos make them look like regular human beings with feelings, not colored marble statues.

  • Ansel Z. Adams

    I would like tom see a 10 year old with a camera phone beside him. The results could not have been any worse!

  • Ansel Z. Adams

    Because the man is an idiot. No professional would ever come with a gap in his lens range between 35 and 70, vital for a shoot like this, but he did. He is probably more of a paparazzo than a photo journalist.

  • Ansel Z. Adams

    A three year old could have done better. The man has no concept of either lighting, framing or composition. absolutely none.

  • Ansel Z. Adams

    They should not need to . A professional, unlike this clown, would get it right in camera.

  • Ansel Z. Adams

    He did not bring the necessary lenses to do it properly. Then he used that as an excuse. You don’t get any more unprofessional than that. He is not really a photographer, just a paparazzo who once got lucky and got an award for one of his shots.

  • Mike Penney

    The photos were poor. I would die if this was my effort at a job like this….

    But, the guy who is due for a major butt kicking is the assignment editor who a) picked the wrong photographer, b) didn’t tell the guy it was a portrait session for editorial stock use, and c) allowed the stuff to emerge with no effort at retouching.
    And by the way for all you self appointed purists these kinds of publicity portraits are retouched all the time… many times at the direction of the publicists who handle the talent.
    There is no “photojournalism” here this is all a set up shoot around. Regardless, fixing the background of torn paper hardly constitutes a breach of integrity…

  • Tifu Adrere

    again ….. unprepared = unprofessional. not only is there an equipment issue. It almost looks like the subjects posed themselves and he just shot away and kept saying, “Next!” just so he could go home and cry about how unfair life was. maybe next time he’ll read the memo or figure out he needs ALL his tools JUST IN CASE!

  • Tifu Adrere

    ok ……. I have three minutes with this badminton athlete …….. best option to get the money shot is to put the shuttlecock on his head! NEXT!!! …..hmmmm. for this lady (not sure what her sport is) I’ll ask her to give me the moosehead sign! NEXT!! ……. Is that how it works when photographers have a time crunch? Straight up passport photo poses would have been way better than the creativity he didn’t pull off, good lenses he misused and the embarrassing blame he attributes to lack of equipment and being unprepared. NO excuses at that level. Sorry to be blunt!

  • Evance Cannon

    Yes, they really ARE that bad.

  • John Blaine

    Ummm.. I am a top hairstylist whom worked with huge photogs and directors like David Fincher, Ellen von Unwerth, David LaChapelle etc… I have to say this is the worst images on all levels Lighting ( and there were at least 3 lights set up here), angles, composition, I have ever seen.. And your just digging deeper with this BS …. .These pix are God terrible.

  • kim


  • kim

    Yes you can. It’s called being a PROFESSIONAL. If he can’t do his job, fire him and hire someone who can do it.

  • Prince

    Actually he didn’t use that as an excuse. The gear he had was more than capable of taking great shots. This issue was the location. He was forced to shoot in a studio he had no control over after being told he was shooting in a different location. This is why I control every aspect of my shoots. He was unprepared because he prepared for one scenario and it was a completely different than he was told. Mind you, had I shot these images they would NEVER have seen the light of day and at the very least had photoshopped backgrounds. Still, can’t throw him under the bus

  • Charles Unitas

    In the end, these photos have put Joe Klamar on the map. Good or bad, purposely or accidentally, these images are now locked into photographic history. Don’t be surprised if they become examples in a textbook or a chapter about the history of photography. While many of us think (know) we could have done better, none of us (or our work) are the topic of conversation or most likely ever will. Slam all you like, I wish I had a tenth of the exposure Joe has.

  • Andrea

    totally agree. the more i look at them, the more I see this.

  • Joe32

    If a news journalist happened to misspell every single word in an article on some event, would people come to his defense for providing a unique take on said event? No, they would not.

    These pictures are bad. No rationalizing and no excuses. Doing such an utterly shitty job can not be explained by “had a bad day” because literally every single basic rule was broken. The compositions are bad, the light is bad, the cropping is bad, the lenses are wrong.

    The worst part: It could have been so easy: Use a camera phone or do the series through Instagram and be celebrated.

  • joe32

    Actually yes, they would be so much better.

    You simply put the people against a uniform background and take boring passport photos without messing up the light. What you don’t do is let people pose in idiotic ways and photograph athletes like crack addicts or totally worn out and jaded.

    Or, alternatively, you take out your iPhone and pretend that you are doing lo-fi shots on purpose. Then you are celebrated for your awesome, modern approach across the internet.

    This guys work is incredibly bad, and he deserves no sympathy. We are not talking “somewhat suboptimal” or “not great” but we are literally at the “completely, and utterly bad in every single aspect” level. Almost everybody could have done a better job.

  • Katherine Judd

    My first day of photography school, our instructor came in and wrote “PRO” across the board, and asked our class what it stood for. Everyone, naturally, said “professional”. He then proceeded to tell us we were wrong, and wrote “Always Have Backup” underneath, telling us that’s what “PRO” really stood for. Looks like Mr. Klamar could’ve benefitted for some time with that particular instructor.

  • bobbybrown

    I don’t know. I’m trying to put myself in his shoes. What a horrible experience. Yes, he made bad choices. Yes, this could have been an opportunity to have shots like no one else there, being that he didn’t bring the same stuff. Instead he tried to do what everyone else was doing, but with inferior preparation. I feel sad for him that he panicked and failed to find another more creative solution. I’ve done that in life. But still. Maybe he should have deleted them all and said the card malfunctioned or something.

  • Wolfram

    no– it’s not explainable. If your dentist pulled out the wrong tooth, chipped two other while doing it and accidentally punctured your frontal lobe with a syringe of sedatives, then tripped on the way out and landed on your, thereby breaking your right hand’s index finger — would you be like “Sure, okay!” if he explained that by saying “Yeah, kinda had a bad day. Whatevah…” ?

  • Gina

    I think his pictures reflect spontaneity, you can tell the athletes themselves look relaxed and enjoying themselves instead of stiff poses …..They are artistic considering the limitations klamars had…Our athletes are ready for their jobs ahead to represent us…lets not make them feel bad for posing for klamar…so go USA TEAM!!!!!!!! WIN!!!!!!!

  • aphoto

    The Art? I see nothing artistic about them. As a professional photographer, I have to say we are very critical. We have to be because there are amateurs that think they can take great photographs, which isn’t true. And as a professional you should always be prepared for the unknown. He had equipment that could have gotten the job done in a different approach. and “I am sure those that did earn the right to be there are far more respectful to the art then any of these Bozo’s” guess what, its who you know that gets you there in this industry not “earning the right”. It is cut throat and that’s a fact. I mean we are provided with the tools for post work at least. Photojournalism shots even get post work. You just can’t crop out people or change the event, But you can still make people and backgrounds look good. Unforgettably his “bad day” went viral, that’s why you check your photographs before uploading it. And I did find those pictures “insulting” of the USA team. Those images are representation of photographers in this country and this is why it is a big deal, if it was any other event or time that would be a different story..But its not just the USA looking at them..

  • naricontrary

    I work in advertising, and when we hire a photographer for a shoot we look at their portfolios to assess who is the right person for the specific project. So for example, if it’s a project that requires food photography, you hire someone who has experience shooting food. The AFP is at fault for hiring someone who does photojournalism, rather than a photographer who can compose shots. Klamar is a photographer who REACTS to a situation or event that is in front of him and shoots. He is NOT the type of photographer who can compose a shot, who has visual creativity, who can give direction. Not to say that all photojournalists are like this – I just think that Klamar isn’t as adept as other photographers to step out of his comfort zone and create a nice shot. AFP should have known better, and Klamar should have known better about his strengths and weaknesses as a photographer.

  • kabar

    This guy is available light and background animal. A street photographer. An as-is shooter. He has no idea about controllig and creating anything. Just point quickand shot fast. But… who the hell published this disaster!

  • Snapsalot

    He wasn’t thinking about how to position his strobe or his subjects. He rushed through his shots without checking if his concepts were actually working (aka looking in the LCD). He was in full panic mode and bumbled this one badly… this is not how a seasoned professional reacts. A professional adapts. Bad day or not, this will trash his reputation and hurt his career… sad.

    Like someone else said earlier… stick with safe if you’re met with a unexpected chaotic situation. Simple and easy headshots would have been fine.

  • basil

    Thank you! I thought I was the only one who loved them for their anti-sensibility. Though I have to say, I’m a little mortified to hear that it wasn’t on purpose…

  • basil

    I know, right? What on earth went wrong… I mean- I kind of liked the grimy nature of these photos, until I found out it wasn’t on purpose…

  • asdf

    Maybe he saw the other photogs there with their studio set-ups and got nervous?

  • adsf

    I could have done that job with a speedlight, a stand, a DSLR, and a 70-200mm.

  • Basil

    If I showed up and everyone else had a studio set-up and I didn’t- I would take the athletes outside, and do candid, outdoor headshots. That said- I kind of love these photos.

  • Craig Leffel

    Here’s what this blog says about itself –


    Born in May of 2009, PetaPixel
    is a blog about photography geared towards tech-savvy
    photo-enthusiasts. Our goal is to inform, educate, and inspire in all
    things related to photography.”

    Yeah, it matters. Criticism, both constructive and negative is a normal part of a photographer’s life. The excuses given by “Joe” as to why these are not particularly great – is just that, an excuse. We’re talking about a job that is a career. One that requires craft, dedication, and knowledge. As many who know have mentioned, the gear mentioned in his possession could have easily created photographs that served his requirement. He chose not to make those photographs. He chose to make these photographs and they are out in the ether now. they are complete fair game to criticize and inspire a conversation about the nature of modern photography, its limits, its deadlines and its laziness. This guy is about as lazy and devoid of effort as it gets. Anyone visiting a Blog on the subject should at least hear the other side that this is not normal, nor good, nor well done, nor thought provoking, nor anti-establishment, nor gritty, nor acceptable as professional work. These are lazy, sloppy pictures that should be mocked and criticized, especially in areas of the internet where people allegedly care and are interested in said subject. If you want “real” go hang out on Youtube. If you want more crap like this, go hang out in places where amateurs scream in internet speak that it doesn’t take a “professional” to make professional looking pictures. These are always the people not making a living in any way from a craft like photography. Try and remember that the word craft means that you can make something from nothing. You “craft it”. Like a plumber or a carpenter or a surgeon or a bricklayer. If you don’t know how – when being hired and paid – don’t. If it’s a hobby, do whatever makes you happy. That’s when it’s called Art.

  • Photosmotos

    I think you all are being duped! This guy has just re-created all of the most common mistakes made by amateur photographers doing portraits. I don’t buy hid explanation at all! He found a way to make a profound statement about the state of an industry in a visual medium (art), and got tons of publicity in the process.
    I especially like the outrage he has caused in the ranks of the art ‘professionals’!
    Keep it up!

  • Paul

    Clever man. I’ll bet the AFP wire melted down as soon as he submitted… hilarious well done Joe, intentional or not.

  • Jeff

    I agree whole-heartedly with your points. He was in over his head, and didn’t have the photographic experience, vocabulary, or ability to think quickly. Oh, and not much artistic sensibility either. I think some of the blame needs to go to those who hired him for improper vetting as well.
    I sense by his comments he was a photojournalist(and I use this term loosely), and not a trained portrait photographer.

  • Tobias Roybal

    Sorry on being late about this. But he is a professional, he should be used to this type of madness etc.. So he should not have been nervous, and he should not have even given some of those photos lol.

  • Jacob

    God you’re thick…