It’s been an incredible month of sport, with Wimbledon, the EUROs and the Olympics all converging. We sat down with prolific sports photographer Harry George Hall to find out more about his experience of capturing sporting icons, which includes everyone from Mo Farah to Raheem Sterling.
You may also recognise Hall’s work from Hold Still: A Portrait of our Nation. His image Joanna in PPE was one of 100 images selected out of over 31,000 for our collaborative project, spearheaded by The Duchess of Cambridge, that created a collective portrait of the UK during lockdown. Alongside his sports photography, we also caught up with Hall about what the reaction has been like to his photograph featuring in Hold Still.
With several sporting events having taken place this July, we’d love to hear more about your experience of sports photography and the sporting icons you've captured.
What a month for sport!
Sport is where I now focus my photography, but it’s a great ‘genre’ because so much other stuff bleeds into it. There’s the lifestyle element that stems from the performance side of it, music and sport are very linked, as is science and nutrition, youth culture… It leaves it open!
A Portrait of Mo, photograph by Harry George Hall - Mo in his hotel room during a high-altitude training camp in Ethiopia © Harry George Hall
Within sport, I like to capture candid moments of intimacy and reality. I’m really intrigued by the mind-set behind the athletes. Moments of reflection and anticipation. You’re more likely to see the exhausted athlete laying on the floor in my work, rather than the athlete exploding out of the blocks. I like to show the human side of the people. Mo Farah for example, who I had the privilege of photographing during a training camp at altitude in Ethiopia. We’ve all seen him do the ‘Mobot’, we’ve seen him win gold, he’s a household name but we haven’t necessarily seen how he spends his downtime, where he trains or the mind-set his achievements require. The same for Cristiano Ronaldo. One of the most focussed professionals in the world. I found his gaze with the lens very powerful. Pure determination.
I worked with Raheem Sterling just before the EUROs. A really lovely man with a great story. I was so happy to see him perform so well at the tournament. Away from icons, I’ve also worked with hobbyists. Runners and cyclists who do it for fun. Working with Strava has led me to meet some really passionate people that get out for their dose of exercise whenever they can. Visually, I’m just as interested in the guy that runs so he can try every burger in New York (true!) as I am in world record holders or world cup winners.
What are the biggest challenges with this type of photography?
Access can often be difficult. Lots of people say that a lack of time with talent can be prohibitive, but I love the energy of having to work quickly. It also helps capture reality. Less time to pose or contrive things. Professionally, it’s quite a competitive space but that also makes it diverse and exciting.
A Portrait of Mo II, photograph by Harry George Hall - Mo on a treadmill during a high-altitude training camp © Harry George Hall
Are there any differences between your photographs of sports personalities and other portraits you’ve taken?
There’s a lot of crossover. I did a personal project on a remote control aeroplane club deep in the Suffolk countryside. Portraiture is all about understanding the subject’s world and trying to incorporate that into the portrait. Here it was the goggles. I love that they stand in this expanse, lost in the point of view of their aircraft, oblivious yet so aware of everything that’s around them. Like always, it started with a chat, I learnt about and took an interest in their hobby, had a biscuit with them in the middle of the field and snapped away.
The Captain, photograph by Harry George Hall - Remote Control Aeroplane Pilot, Suffolk © Harry George Hall
Your portrait Joanna in PPE was also selected for Hold Still. What caused you to enter the project and to share this particular image of Joanna?
Being part of the project was/is a huge privilege. As a photographer, it felt very natural to be capturing our experience of the first lockdown. The image itself felt so relevant to what we were all going through. The entire nation was finding comfort in the NHS. For me, there’s a confidence that comes through in the portrait. It looks like everything is going to be ok. Retrospectively, making that portrait had two key purposes. It documented what Joanna (an NHS Midwife) was going through at the hospital in the thick of it, and I suppose the portrait (and others from the series) also gave me my creative fix during a time when commercial work was in limbo. Looking forwards, the portrait of Joanna and the other 99 photos will be an incredible reminder of a truly unique time. I think there’s already a degree of nostalgia attached to the project.
Joanna in PPE, photograph by Harry George Hall © Harry George Hall
What has the reaction been like to your image?
It’s been amazing watching people react to the image. From seeing people talk about it online, to receiving photos from a teacher who told me some of her art class had drawn the portrait for a school project! Some people bumped into Joanna on the ward and recognised her from the book. Everyone relates to an image in the collection, and photography has a powerful ability to draw us back into a time, place or feeling. I hope someone still has a copy in hundreds of years when this unimaginable and almost unbelievable period is recalled.
A cyclist passing an outdoor display showcasing some of the images from Hold Still
As a photographer, what interests you in particular about portraiture?
Becoming part of someone’s world for 10 minutes, an hour or a day is one of the biggest privileges of the job. Actually, 10 minutes isn’t accurate. I had someone for a 90 second sitting once… I’m not a good runner, but I’ve sat centimetres in front of some of the best on the planet and talked with them about it. It still hasn’t improved my 5k time though… More generally, we’re all fascinated by humans. We’re nosy by nature. We people watch. We scroll. Capturing people is important and, to me, fascinating.
Has there been a moment in your career that’s surprised you, or led you to think differently about portrait photography?
I realised that my hobby could become my job. When I first took an interest in photography, I would sometimes shoot bands for a music blog that sadly doesn’t exist anymore. The work wasn’t paid, but I didn’t have a ‘portfolio’ so I thought it’d give me good access to subjects, plus free gigs. One of the assignments was a behind the scenes feature on a music video shoot for a big UK based artist. I clocked the campaign photographer who had assistants and lots of kit as soon as I arrived. I veered from the brief and took some portraits of the artist throughout the day. I showed them to someone at the label who was sitting on the same table as me where I was editing. The label commissioned one of the portraits as a key image and I ended up travelling around the UK, Europe and US with them for paid (!) work.
Joanna in PPE displayed on a telephone box in Cambridge in October 2020
What advice would you give for inspiring photographers?
Take photos. At the beginning, don’t worry about what you’re photographing either. Making a living from it requires you to focus your subject/genre a little bit, but enjoy the freedom, enjoy making photos how you want to. Experiment too. Don’t get caught up in the gear or the technical stuff. Our phones are such good cameras now. They’re always with us too. Set yourself projects. Talk to other photographers, mess about on Photoshop/Lightroom if you can and digest photography wherever possible, it’s everywhere. Look in magazines and see who took the photos, follow them on Instagram and communicate.