How Terrible Pics of Olympians Went Viral—and Why That’s Good News for Photographers

From daguerreotypes to digital.
July 4 2012 9:45 AM

The World’s Ugliest Photograph of Michael Phelps

How a batch of terrible photographs went viral—and why that’s good news for photographers everywhere.

The Web is filled with horrible photos. Pixelated, excessively processed, offensively clichéd, they sneak their way onto news sites, blogs, Tumblrs, Instagram feeds. They get shared and reshared as memes or as art accompanying otherwise good articles. The Web’s terrible photographs mock the profession of photography every single day. And no one seems to notice, much less complain.  

Until now, that is. Evidently, this is where the digital public draws the line:

Michael Phelps Controversial Olympics Potrait
Michael Phelps looking like a volunteer heartthrob in an art school alien movie.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images.

When this crudely lit photograph of the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was posted in a slide show on CBSnews.com as part of a gallery of similarly awkward portraits of athletes vying for spots on the U.S. Olympic team, the Internet went nuts.

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The photographs were taken by Joe Klamar, and they are not good. Klamar was evidently on assignment for AFP, one wire service, and the photos were then distributed by Getty Images, another wire service. Virtually every major news site in America subscribes to Getty’s database of photos, which means the images could be published nearly anywhere. It appears that CBS was the only site that thought a gallery was a smart idea. Klamar’s portfolio makes our athletes look silly and desperate—the wrinkled guts of a makeshift studio serves only to steal their spotlight.

In this shot, an incredible gymnast’s muscles are overshadowed by rips in the paper beneath him.
 

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Jonathan Horton of the US Olympic Gymnastics team poses during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images.

Here, another gymnast’s laboriously trained leg is cut off by the frame; the edge of the backdrop revealed by the wrong choice of lens.

Julie Zetlin gymnast potrait
Julie Zetlin of the US Gymnastics team poses for pictures during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images.

Taken in aggregate, the sloppy images set off a firestorm of rage that was unprecedented (except in photo editors’ nightmares).

Initially, the images were passed around on Reddit, where they were ruthlessly mocked. Then the photography community caught wind of them. ”Horrible,” cried one Facebook commenter, when Sportsphotographer.net creator Cy Cyr linked to the images in his feed. “Amateurs don’t even make these mistakes!” another noted. “This is an embarrassment to our country and my profession,” wrote another commenter on a blog post about the affair. On Facebook you could even find that classic line of Internet criticism: “My kid could do better.”

The photos were so awful that some commentators even refused to believe they had been an accident, one blogger going so far as to suggest that they were an intentional subversive act.

Awkward Phelps
Another Klamar potrait of Phelps from the media summit.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images.

As a photo editor, my initial reaction was relief. I never thought the day would come when people would cry out en masse not because a photo is too sexy or controversial (more common complaints), but because the lighting and composition were bad. In a world where photo budgets are being slashed, and great photo stories are replaced with snapshots by writers and crowdsourced iPhone images, it is comforting to know that the same people who share blurry cat photos on Reddit also get enraged when an official portrait is not up to par.

CBS Screengrab Olympics
This is a photo in one of the other galleries on the CBS site about a Michigan boy who died. It's hard to understand how a photo this bad provides any added value, particularly amid a tragic story about the death of a four-year-old.

And it’s sweet that in an era with few shared national heroes, even cynical bloggers care deeply about how our Olympians are portrayed. But poor Joe Klamar does not deserve to be treated like a bumbling visual terrorist.

After all, Klamar is an award-winning Czech photographer. So it’s worth trying to understand how he came to turn in such amateurish work. And let’s debunk some of the now-widespread Internet myths about his atrocious photos.

Myth No. 1: You Could Have Done Better.

Unless you are a professional photographer, please hold the keyboard. Just because you once took a studio photography class and emerged with a beautifully lit nude of your pregnant wife does not mean you have the skills to take great photographs on Olympic media day.

What is Olympic media day? I contacted Klamar for comment and never heard back. I did, however, communicate with three other photographers who also worked the media day in May, and they offered some insight on its madness.

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This is Nick Laham's photo of rhythmic gymnast, Julie Zetlin. Keeping it simple evidently worked much better.

Nick Laham/Getty Images.

“It’s like a cattle call. You get a run sheet at the beginning of the morning,” explains Nick Laham, who photographed the Dallas event for Getty. Each photo agency got a photo station in the Hilton ballroom. Over three days more than 100 Olympic athletes passed through each one. “They come through and you have them for from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes,” Laham says.

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