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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jodi Bieber’s sensitive gaze also shone in her project on Wales XV.
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.
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.
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.
By Jean-Denis Walter
Jean-Denis Walter is a journalist, former director of photography and editor-in-chief of L’Equipe Magazine. He now runs the Jean-Denis Walter Gallery.
To learn more about these and other sports photographs, as well as purchase prints, visit the website of the specialist gallery: www.jeandeniswalter.fr