The role of photography in sports journalism and media

Student ID: K1719648

Module: CHS

The role of photography in sports journalism and media


Lists of iconic sporting photographs are commonplace on websites like Buzzfeed and other resources that rank cultural artefacts. Among the most frequently cited great sporting photographs include the footballer Diego Maradona taking on six defenders who seem to be lined up in order to stop just him, with little regard for the normal conventions concerning formation on a football field; an exhausted, relieved and ecstatic Roger Bannister crossing the finish line having just completed the first sub-four-minute mile; Muhammad Ali roaring triumphantly over the prostrate form of Sonny Liston; Jesse Owens refusing to perform a Nazi salute at the Berlin Olympics, and, most recently, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in protest at racism during a pre-game national anthem (Moore, 2012).

Yet while there is widespread agreement on which photographs deserve the label “iconic,” there is remarkably little scholarship on what particular properties render a sporting photograph iconic. This dissertation takes a number of universally acclaimed “iconic” sporting photographs as its basis in order to examine the relationship between sports journalism and photography and to chart the changing role of the journalistic sporting photograph in an age of Instagram and social media. The dissertation delves into several key questions about sports photography, beginning with an examination of the semiotics of the photograph before exploring whether there is a distinct aesthetic to the sports photograph and finally considering some of the darker sides of sports photography, including gender bias and the sexual exploitation of sportswomen via photographs originally taken by sporting photojournalists.


The project takes its theoretical cues from a range of critical and cultural theory, but generally takes the perspective that sports photographs are designed first and foremost to convey a narrative, and that the iconicity of sports photographs tends to stem from their ability to capture economically, in the single instant at which the photographer presses the shutter, the background to and key narrative elements of the story they are attempting to capture. In the Jesse Owens photograph, for example, the contrast between Owens’s black skin and the white-skinned people all around him, doubled with the cultural iconicity that has been accrued over time by the Nazi salute as a symbol of racism, intolerance and evil, tells in a single instant a multitude of different stories: about the racism of Nazi Germany; about the importance of the Berlin Olympics to the Nazi propaganda machine; about the tensions that ensued when visiting athletes were expected to join in with the salute; and ultimately about the bravery of Owens, a black man in a white supremacist dictatorship, being the only person present to refuse to participate in the salute.

The project uses mostly uses structuralist, poststructuralist and postmodernist theories to examine the photograph both as a form of narrative signification and as an ideological object, in order to examine the ways in which sports photographs play on particular sets of cultural assumptions, about the importance of sport, about the heroism of its participants, and about the political backdrops to sporting events. In particular, it draws on the work of Roland Barthes (1977) on the semiology of the image, Susan Sontag (2001) on the ethics and aesthetics of photography, and W.J.T Mitchell (1995, 2013) on the narrative qualities of images.

Chapter 1. Semiotics of the Photograph

This chapter begins by looking at the semiotics of photography in general, and in particular at the role of narrative in constructing the photographic image. Although this chapter examines the materiality and the technological specifics of photographs in some detail, it does not draw exclusively on photographic theory but rather focuses on the relationship between image and narrative as a whole. A particularly valuable idea is the concept of the “pregnant moment,” which Barthes explores by looking at the art of painting. Barthes defines the pregnant moment by asserting that “In order to tell a story, the painter has only an instant at his disposal, the instant he is going to immobilize on canvas, and he must thus choose it well, assuring it in advance of the greatest possible yield of meaning and pleasure” (Barthes, 1977, p. 73). Barthes goes on to describe this moment as both “total” and “artificial”, in that it must fully convey the story it attempts to tell without actually telling it (having only visual means at its disposal), He suggests that the pregnant moment ultimately consists of “a hieroglyph in which can be read at a single glance . . . the present, the past, and the future; that is, the historical meaning of the represented action” (Barthes, 1977, p. 73). The chapter concludes by arguing that sports photojournalism, perhaps more than any other genre except perhaps war journalism, is celebrated for the degree to which it captures the pregnant moment and renders a single scene with maximum narrative possibility.

Chapter 2: Is there an aesthetic of sports photography?

Having established the thesis that the primary value of sports photography lies in the way in which it captures the pregnant moment, this chapter seeks to explore whether an aesthetic of sports photography can be determined, and also considers the relationship between the sports photograph and the other elements of a journalistic sports report – i.e. the content and amount of space, the layout and the relative prominence given to image and text, and the types of discourse in which sports reporting participates. There is, as noted, relatively limited literature to survey in this field, but valuable insights on which the chapter will be based include Markus Stauff’s argument that

While sports reliably offer dramatic situations, which can be used to highlight photography’s potential to freeze movement and condense meaning in one image, photography offers sports a way to communicate the spectacle of moving bodies and outstanding performances. Yet sports photography is always entangled in cross-media practices that support and complicate the referentiality of the image in order to evaluate the athletic performance and its aesthetic experience. (Stauff, 2018, p. 203)

This general principle will be paired with the work of scholars who have examined sports photographs in specific times and places (e.g., Mishra, 2014) in order to establish the degree to which the aesthetics of sports photography are culturally specific or universal.

Chapter 3: Contemporary uses and the darker sides of sports photography

Having established the aesthetics and aim of an ideal journalistic sports photograph, the project’s final chapter examines contemporary uses of sports photographs and considers some of the more problematic aspects of sports photography, in particular in relation to the sexualisation and exploitation of women. This chapter argues that, whereas the circulation of sports photographs used to be controlled by a relatively small number of publications and editors, the contemporary circulation of sports photographs is governed by ubiquitous photo sharing platforms and apps, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This chapter argues that this democratisation of sports photography sharing can be very useful in terms of analysing what lends a sports photograph mass appeal, it has also allowed sports photographs of women, in particular, to be used in ways counter to their original purpose and intention, and in exploitative ways.

The chapter argues that the emergence of new sharing technologies, in combination with changing social attitudes to female athletes, has resulted in two opposing effects. On the one hand, the overt sexualisation of women athletes in photographs published by mainstream media outlets has actually fallen, though this has coincided with an overall drop in women being represented in such photographs, with men accounting for a growing percentage of sports photographs published in mainstream media outlets (Sherry, Osborne and Nicholson, 2016). On the other hand, and more alarmingly, Keats and Keats-Osborn report an increasing number of  incidents where

Accredited photographers have been observed taking sexualized, voyeuristic images of athletes that are later distributed on pornography websites and among collectors of pornographic images. As with other emergent forms of digital voyeurism, such as upskirting, these images are taken in public places in such a way that they capture compromising moments without any awareness on the part of the victim and expand the temporal and geographical scope of the intrusion. Such a prurient use of photographs can be devastating and humiliating for the athletes. (Keats and Keats-Osborn, 2013, p. 643)

The chapter concludes by arguing that these unauthorised uses of women’s sporting bodies pose a threat to the medium of sports photography, while also challenging previous assumptions about what makes a sports photograph attractive and valuable to its audience.


The project concludes by reflecting on the relationships between the different aspects of sports photography explored through the three body chapters: the sports photograph as semiotic and ideological object, the sports photograph as a medium with a distinct cross-cultural aesthetic that also requires close interaction with words and established norms of sporting bodies and behaviours in order to signify properly, and finally the sports photograph as an unconstrained medium capable of being recirculated infinitely on the internet with significant repercussions for women in particular, who might be exploited intentionally or unintentionally by sports photographers and their audiences. The project concludes that ultimately, while the photograph may often be viewed at the time of publication as an annexe to the “main” matter of the text of the sports report, it is often the photograph that endures while the reporter’s words are forgotten, demonstrating the power of the sports photograph to convey a narrative more powerfully than words.










Barthes, R. (1977) Image-Music-Text. Translated by S. Heath. London: Fontana.

Keats, P. A. and Keats-Osborn, W. R. (2013) ‘Overexposed: Capturing a secret side of sports photography,’ International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 48(6), pp. 643–657. doi: 10.1177/1012690212448001.

Mishra, S. (2014) ‘Nationality and gender in sports photography: a case study on portrayals of figure skaters at Torino Winter Olympics,’ Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 6(3), pp. 382–400. doi: 10.1080/2159676X.2013.809375.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (2013) Iconology: image, text, ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mitchell, W. T. (1995) Picture theory: Essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moore, J. (2012) The 30 Most Iconic Sports Photographs Of All Time, Buzzfeed. Available at: (Accessed: 13 April 2019).

Sherry, E., Osborne, A. and Nicholson, M. (2016) ‘Images of Sports Women: A review’, Sex Roles, 74(7), pp. 299–309. doi: 10.1007/s11199-015-0493-x.

Sontag, S. (2001) On Photography. London: Macmillan.

Stauff, M. (2018) ‘The Pregnant-Moment Photograph: The 1908 London Marathon and the Cross-Media Evaluation of Sport Performances’, Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 43(2 (164)), pp. 203–219.