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Increasing Visibility of Women in Sport: Interview with Karen Yeomans

Marianne Stenger
21st July 2019

“It is not an accident these strong women are in my life, I seek them out and stand beside them.” - Karen Yeomans 

It’s no secret that sports media is still male dominated, but research funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union and shared at the Women in Sport’s Empower Conference in London last year shows that women’s sport is often ‘barely visible.’

Across all five nations studied, women’s sport was found to be significantly less visible than men’s sport and did not reflect the extent of high-level women’s sport taking place. In the UK, men’s sport accounted for over 80% of sports coverage.

As one of the few female sports photographers working in the UK today, Karen Yeomans understands the need for balanced coverage and is on a mission to support women in being seen. In addition to her commercial photography work, she’s currently working on a long-term project called ‘Standing in the Light,’ with the aim of telling female athletes’ stories.

We talked to her about her passion for sports and photography, the challenges involved in working in a male-dominated industry, as well as some practical considerations for photographers who might be looking to break into the industry.

Sports media is still a very male dominated industry, so what is it like for you as a woman to working in sports photography?

It’s definitely challenging. A lot of it is not particularly well paid at the moment, so I use my commercial work to be able to pay to do what I really want to do, which is to cover women’s sport. I’m not raking in loads of money, but I feel that it’s really important.

I think it’s very hard for female sports photographers in general, even those covering men’s sport. Only two percent of photographers that are shooting commercially and have agents are women, which is pretty shocking. There are a lot of female photographers shooting things like weddings and families, but it’s really hard to get the big commercial jobs as a woman.

I’m involved in a lot of groups to help change this, such as the exhibition that I’ve just done called 100 Heroines. It’s part of the world photographic society and was actually a collaborative exhibition of around 60 female photographers from all over the world.

At the moment there are very few women in London that I know of who are shooting sport. That opens the question about whether we are seeing our sports women from a male point of view. It’s always going to be slightly different.

So what’s really important in the work I do with female athletes is that it’s about their talent and skill, rather than the aesthetic. I think that too often, when we look at women in images, it’s more about the way they look than what they do, and I think this also happens with sports women.

Of course there’s a fine line, because it is possible for female athletes to be beautiful, but there’s always a slightly different energy when a man has photographed a woman than when a woman has photographed a woman. I quite often find that when I’m working with women it’s more of a celebration of their power and their strength, because they react to me in a different way.

Out of all the projects you’ve worked on throughout career so far, do you have any favourite shots or projects?

I always find that photographs are a bit like experiences, so the more you’ve seen them and the further away they are, the less impressed you are with yourself and them. So it’s quite typical that my favourite project so far is my recent one with the Saracens woman’s Rugby Team.

It’s really caught my imagination, and I would love every little girl to see it, because they represent what I wish the future to be. It’s all about what they do rather than what they look like.

I think that’s a really important message for this moment in time, because I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a young girl right now with all the emphasis on social media. So that’s kind of my mission. I want women to be really seen, and I don’t want them to be looking at images that aren’t real.  

When I did the Saracens shoot, which you can see on my website, I spent quite a bit of time with the team, watching them train and getting to know them. This was partly because I needed to learn about the movement and work out the best way to capture it, but also to create a relationship so I can get the best out of them when it comes to photographing them.  

When I did the shoot last summer, I wanted to shoot at dawn with that dawn light coming through into the stadium. So the girls agreed to come in at 5am, even though it was pre season training and they all have full time jobs and train quite a few nights of the week.

We actually had to move that photo shoot three times, because the weather kept changing, and they were totally cool with moving the day of the shoot. I was so impressed with their attitude that I actually decided to follow them for the rest of the season.

There was something so down to earth and straight forward about them, and I had never seen women react to a camera like they did. There was no self-consciousness about what they looked like, they were just being themselves.

It was quite a powerful experience for me, and that’s what I want to do as a photographer. I want to help women be seen for their strength, capacity and depth, and everything they have to offer rather than just their aesthetic.

Do photographers need to understand a sport in order to photograph it well?

I do think it’s helpful for a sports photographer to get a sense of the sport they are photographing, because you can start to pre-empt things and predict roughly what might happen next. This helps you to be in the right place to capture the perfect shot, and also understand the speed of the game and know what shutter speed you’ll need to use and how you’re going to light it.

Being able to predict the movement and the direction of the game or sport will make you faster and equips you to get the right shot. I also think that if it’s at all possible, it’s really helpful to build a relationship with a team or a person before you photograph them.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’m really quite thorough and don’t like to walk into a situation without thinking it all through in my head. Of course it’s not always possible, but if I’m shooting at a location that I don’t know, I will usually go and see it or at least try to see images of it.

Do you have any advice for new sports photographers or those looking to break into the industry?

I think it depends where you are in your career. If I speak to students, I always tell them to keep all their creative options open, whether that includes video or graphic design. I feel that it’s my responsibility to tell them that while it’s a fantastic job, it also takes an awful lot of determination.

Getting as much experience as possible is really helpful. If you can, try to get some experience working with a sports photographer. I didn’t have a chance to do this, so now I always find female assistants, because I know that it’s quite hard for women to get work assisting.

If you’re already a more established photographer and would like to move into sports photography, my advice would be to be prepared to do a lot of shooting just for yourself, because it’s hard to get work if you can’t show that you can do the work.

I probably spend over half of my working week on marketing and building relationships or going to meetings and seeing potential new clients. So even when things are going really well, it’s good to keep putting stuff out there in order to stay visible and be in the community you want to work in, because nothing speaks better than a genuine passion.

I think it’s important to have a passion for your chosen area. Since I love sports, it doesn’t really matter whether I’m shooting my paid commercial work or shooting for pleasure, because it’s not really a job when you’re doing something that you care about and enjoy.

Want to find out more about Karen Yeomans or see more of her work? You can visit her website or connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter