Blind Magazine : photography at first sight
Close this search box.

Photographing Rugby: Eyeing the Mud

The 2023 Rugby World Cup begins in France this Friday, September 8, with the France-New Zealand match. Former L’Equipe Magazine editor Jean-Denis Walter, now a gallery owner specializing in sports photography, talks about the soul of rugby photography.

To a photographer, rugby is always a treat, by which I mean the photogenic character of this sport. With its confrontations, races, its regular “run-ins” (scrums, lineouts), it offers a variety of situations and material for photographers to express themselves. And yet, there are fewer photographers specialized in rugby than there are in tennis or motorsports, where a tight timetable means that there is little time for anything else.

Still, there is a handful of rugby photographers, and the most famous among them is French. Michel Birot started out in fashion photography and reporting (for Réalités, Dépêche Mode, Biba, 20 ans, and Le Figaro Magazine). But in the early 1990s, he started a personal project, following his son-in-law at his rugby school. This work led to Birot’s first exhibition on the theme.

Kid playing, Rugby school of l’Hay les roses, France, 1990 © Michel Birot / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

As early 1995, he covered the World Cup in South Africa for the newspaper Libération, followed by several Five Nations Championships. The first step made, his career took a new turn. It peaked with the creation of Attitude Rugby in 1998, a luxurious, large-format, black-and-white quarterly where he could showcase his own work as well as that of other great photographers he brought onboard.

Men II, Cape Town (South Africa), July 4, 1998. South Africa / England (18-0) © Michel Birot
Mêlée III, February 7, 1998, Stade Jean Bouin. French Championship, Stade Francais / Colomiers © Michel Birot / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Michel Birot invented a style, a new way of talking about this sport, of narrating the ferocious fights, the locker-room confidences, and the strong bonds forged in the process. He left behind an oeuvre, an everlasting tribute to this sport and to the men who play it.

Brothers, November 26, 2005 at the Stade de France, Test match France / South Africa (26-10) Dimitri Szarzewski in the arms of Yannick Nyanga following hymns.
© Michel Birot / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter
Samoa, Before the 1999 World Cup, Michel Birot made a great “rugby” trip in the southern hemisphere,
a long-distance journey that took him from New Zealand to the Samoa Islands via Australia, Fiji and Tonga.
© Michel Birot / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

He left behind a legacy and two heirs. Isabelle Picarel grew up in a Carcassonne family — which helps — and, having regularly collaborated with Attitude Rugby, is now the official photographer for the French Rugby Federation. When she can find the time, she spends it on her personal projects … all about rugby.

Scotland. March 17, 2013, Stade Amédée Domenech in Brive, Tournament of the VI nations of – 20 years old, France-Scotland © Isabelle Picarel / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter
First one. February 9, 2003. Racing / Toulon. Yves du Manoir Colombes stadium © Isabelle Picarel / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

The other heir is Julien Poupart, who had met Michel Birot on a rugby paddock and almost immediately joined the Attitude team. It happened quite seamlessly, such was his admiration for the photographer’s work and their shared philosophy. Poupart quickly learned the ropes under the master’s discreet guidance and made the most of his sparing advice: Michel was more of a bear than a songbird. He was a rather taciturn mentor, who, saying little, managed to convey a lot.

Now the fledgling has learned to fly on his own. Julien Poupart has his own distinctive style and is his own photographer, although still shares the magazine founder’s philosophy of the sport and of images. He thus carries on the work, enriching the peerless photographic patrimony of this sport.

The Last Waltz. European Cup Final 2014. Last matches for Jonny Wilkinson. © Julien Poupart / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter
Brennus. Stade de France, June 9, 2012, Top14 Final. Stade Toulousain / Toulon (18-12)
Thierry Dusautoir, Stade Toulousain captain showing Brennus’ shield to his supporters
© Julien Poupart / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Outside of France, quite naturally, the field is dominated by the formidable Anglo-Saxon school of sports photographers. Everyone, including the celebrities, must come across it at one point or another in their career. There is, of course, Gerry Cranham, “the pioneer”; then, showing even greater assiduity, Mark Leech, founder of the illustrious agency Offside Sports Photography. Both have developed an A-to-Z approach to sports, and to rugby in particular, drawing inspiration from the game but also from the broader context and the social dimension. 

Gareth Edwards. March 27, 1969, Stade de Colombes. Five Nations Tournament, France – Wales.
Gareth Edwards dives into the French goal to score despite the return of Pierre Villepreux
 © Gerry Cranham / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter
French Flair. Semi-final of the 1999 World Cup, France New Zealand at Twickenham.
Christophe Dominici drops off Andrew Mehrtens to score the first French try.
© Mark Leech / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Then there are Getty photo agency’s heavyweights, including the “legend” Bob Martin. His name is synonymous with efficiency; his turf is the football field, and nowhere else. He’s like a shooter who never misses his target: when something spectacular is happening, he’s got in his viewfinder. Period.

Defense. USA – England, World Cup 2007 © Bob Martin / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

For iconography to be rich, non-specialists must also add their touch and know-how. Rugby is an exciting subject even for top photographers. In the fall of 2010, New Zealand Rugby, eager to leave a trace and build their heritage, granted Nick Danziger, a great English photojournalist, an unprecedented access to the All Blacks rugby team over the course of five weeks. A dream come true.

Team Talk. Changing rooms for the All Blacks at Waikato stadium (Hamilton, New Zealand) after a game against Wales. (29-10) © Nick Danziger / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Seeking fresh insights, the federation decided not to bring in a New Zealand photographer or even a rugby specialist. Their choice was based on one man’s formidable ability to tell life stories. Accompanied by the journalist James Kerr, Nick Danziger not only followed the team, but, driven by an unquenchable curiosity, traveled around the country, from rugby schools to remote, rugged landscapes. The resulting story gave rise to a unique book, Mana, a priceless record for future generations.

Runaway. Rugby school in the New Zealand countryside © Nick Danziger / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Jodi Bieber, a South African photographer and a multi-award winner (including several World Press awards), was born, raised, and still resides, in the land of the Springboks, triple World Cup winners (1995–2007 and 2019). Rugby is in her blood…

In her work, she tackled the subject on several occasions, most notably in her wonderful work on an Antananarivo school in Madagascar, the Life Rugby School, which takes children off the streets, tries to give them an education, and turn their lives around through rugby.

Mada III. Produced in 1999 this report by Jodi Bieber for the magazine Attitude Rugby rather quickly focused on a school in Tannannarive “the Life Rugby School”
which takes children from the streets and tries to give them an education and to get them out of delinquency by rugby.
© Jodi Bieber / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter
Mada I. Produced in 1999 this report by Jodi Bieber for the magazine Attitude Rugby rather quickly focused on a school in Tannannarive “the Life Rugby School”
which takes children from the streets and tries to give them an education and to get them out of delinquency by rugby.
© Jodi Bieber / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Jodi Bieber’s sensitive gaze also shone in her project on Wales XV. 

Cardiff by night. February 22, 2003, after Wales-England, a fan in the streets of Cardiff © Jodi Bieber / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Pascal Maitre, a National Geographic photographer, could not resist the temptation, either. He had played rugby in his youth and wanted to give something back to a sport that had brought him so much. His year-long journey resulted in La France du Rugby, a volume now sadly out of print, which, more than a commentary on the sport, is its chronicle. It chronicles a territory through the prism of a sport that has done a lot to foster harmony and bring people together.

Committee of the Alps, town of Thônes © Pascal Maitre / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter
Committee of the silver rating, Ychoux, under a fine rain, the striker makes his ranges after training © Pascal Maitre / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Lastly, there is a miracle, one landmark photograph taken as part of an ordinary news story, something that may happen to any photographer covering world events. The Irish Ian Bradshaw, now living in New York, was working for AP (Associated Press) when, one fateful winter day in 1974, he was assigned to cover an England–France match in Twickenham. He brought back this nugget, this incredible image of the first streaker in history, Michael O’Brien, who, having lost a bet, tried to run across the field stark naked. 

Twickenham Stadium, London. England vs France, 1974 © Ian Bradshaw / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

Several photographers were able to take a snapshot of the scene, but their images are banal in comparison. Bradshaw’s picture shows a Christ-like streaker and captures the laid-back, friendly atmosphere, so unlike our present times, with easygoing “bobbies” gently ushering the intruder off the field. The scene is full of English humor, with one policeman shielding the offending object with his helmet.

To learn more about these and other sports photographs, as well as purchase prints, visit the website of the specialist gallery:

Cover: Jean-Pierre Rives bleeding, during a V Nations tournament match against Wales, March 19, 1983 at Parc des Princes. © Mark Leech / Galerie Jean-Denis Walter

You’re getting blind.
Don’t miss the best of visual arts. Subscribe for $9 per month or $108 $90 per year.

Already subscribed? Log in