It's been a little over a week since I got back from the Beijing Summer Olympic Games and I still haven't had much of a chance to fully step away from the experience and gain better perspective. By most accounts, these were very successful games both in terms of photographs and the games – at the very least, the athletes sure did their part in bringing incredible record-breaking performances to this 29th Olympiad. I know that I enjoyed covering these Olympics more than I ever have before – but to be frank, that had more to do with how I was covering the event, and who I was working for, than the games themselves.
One thing that I have discussed a fair bit, and that I've been able to confirm with two colleagues who each have more than 10 Olympics under their belts, is a lack of "joy" that we felt in these games. Things were so carefully planned, and controlled – buses were perfectly on schedule, and everyone was in their specifically delineated areas at the correct time – that a total lack of spontaneity resulted. With the exception of who would win each event, it seems like nothing was left to chance – and that's a shame.
This idea of a "lack of joy" is not one I can take credit for. The first time I heard of it was from the photo venue manager for the swimming venue, Peter Charles. Peter, incidentally, will be the chief photo manager for the London 2012 Games. As we sat together for a rare break, we each sipped a "bing" (cold) beer at the end of the day as we looked over thousands of Chinese citizens taking in the sights of the Olympic Green that included the Bird's Nest and Water Cube. After talking at length about some of the Herculian efforts Peter went through to get some of the Chinese photo venue managers to "bend" the rules a bit (i.e., to give photographers inches of wiggle room), I asked him what his overall impression was. Peter responded, and allow me to paraphrase what he said as I wasn't jotting down quotes: "There's something missing here. I'm not sure if it's the fact that we're so isolated from the real Beijing, but there's a lack of energy, a lack of joy if you will." And that was the first time I had heard of this "lack of joy."
Just last night, during a gathering of photographers set up by Howard Schatz at his studio, Sports Illustrated's director of photography, Steve Fine, was projecting an edit of his photographers' work at the Olympics. One of his main points – and he brought the magazine with him to the show – was to discuss an article by Anthony Lane of The New Yorker titled "Fun and Games" that directly addressed this "lack of joy." It's well worth a read. [http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/09/01/080901fa_fact_lane?currentPage=all].
Personally, I had a tad of a rough start to the games which I won't get into here (I discussed it on Newsweek's blog and on my personal blog at length: http://blog.vincentlaforet.com/2008/08/13/a-third-of-the-way-through-time-for-a-little-introspection/) and I had a tough time telling if it was me having a hard time that was clouding my judgment, or if there really was "something" missing from these games. I didn't feel the electric energy that fills a building during a world-record breaking event, something that I felt was very palpable in Torino day after day, for example. I'm sure many photographers will identify with the thunderous roar and energy that fills a stadium when something historical and unique happens. In fact, that outpouring of energy is one of the few reasons that going to an event is still worth it – when you consider how good the television coverage has become at most of these events.
For some reason that "oomph" just wasn't there. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that half of each stadium is reserved for media, broadcasters, athletes, and sponsors (literally half of some stadiums had these "reserved" seats to the left of the stadium, and the public on the other half – a clear 50/50 split) but that's nothing new compared to previous Olympics. All too often the athlete sections and especially the sponsor sections are mostly empty – making for fantastic photographic backgrounds btw! (NOT!)
In fact, I'm over being disillusioned at how much of a controlled PR event the Olympics has become, with the main goal seeming to be making sure that the "Official Sponsors" and "Olympic Partners" are well taken care of. I've often thought that the IOC mantra was that as long as the money keeps flowing in, who cares about the experience of the local spectators and media, for example – and at times I've even thought that that priority trumps how the athletes themselves experience the games.
But perhaps that's a bit of a jaded way of looking at things. It doesn't seem that cynical however when you go to any of the bathrooms and see an Olympic sticker plastered over every urinal to cover the "Toto" or "American Standard" logo on each unit – they, after all, are not "official" sponsors and cannot share in the "Olympic Spirit." You just can't make this stuff up. My only regret is not having my camera with me when I saw this in the bathroom of the fencing venue; it would have felt weird pulling out a camera there anyway.
Journalists can easily get a bit jaded when, seeing athletes who have just accomplished a dream of a lifetime, we are ordered not to jump into the stands for "security reasons" or whisked away mid-celebration from the field of play by overzealous officials trying to keep everything "on schedule" for BOB – BOB being the Beijing Official Broadcaster, the beast that feeds every television feed around the world (with the exception of NBC). Or almost on every occasion, actually, whisking them to a live standup television interview... absolutely KILLING the moment. By the time the athletes come out for the medal ceremony, it's not uncommon for 15-25 minutes to have passed.
Back to the games … The point, I think, is that the fans just didn't have the same spirit that I've seen at other games. We all felt like we were living in the "Olympic Bubble," kept at bay from both the fans, the athletes – and, well – Beijing! We'd wake up in the morning, go through security (mag and bag) IN our hotel lobbies, and then remain in that "secure," "clean" security bubble for the rest of the day. It made it much easier to get around, but definitely cut down on how much we could "mingle" with the everyday person from Beijing.
There's definitely a whole other social/economic side to this as well that involves the fact that the gap between the rich and the poor in China is wider than ever before – and you can bet very few "poor" Chinese ever got to step inside one of the Olympic venues. I witnessed quite a few of them, in fact, that could not even afford to get the service that broadcast the games in China. There was a story in a local paper that I remember reading one morning in the media bus. It talked about how a local artist had sold a painting for $3,800 or so – and how he had invited four or so workers from outside of Beijing to attend the games. (God knows if this was his idea, or the government's.) The four were brought to the Bird's Nest and given digital point-and-shoots. One of them was quoted as saying (again I paraphrase), "I feel a responsibility for being the eyes of all of those who were not given a chance to be here, and to enjoy on the behalf of all of my fellow citizens who weren't given this chance of a lifetime." The Cultural Revolution happened nearly 40 years ago, and it will take the Chinese a while more before they truly cut the cord with their communist/socialist past and way of thinking. But if you talk to one of the young volunteers, there is no doubt that the severing of that cord is already well underway.
Overall, I think that there was a prevailing feeling that this was China's ONE chance to get it right – the one chance to put their best foot forward and enter the "modern" world at full speed and become a legitimate player, equal to all other superpowers in terms of social, technological, architectural, and logistical accomplishments. There was this overwhelming, almost oppressive, fear of making that one mistake that could possibly tarnish that image of "the immaculate games." No one wanted to stick their neck out; no one wanted to take ANY risks, because as we all know with risk comes the chance of the unpredictable and, worse, a mistake or failure. And I think that fear of being THE one to make that mistake was ever present in every local photo venue manager, volunteer and official that I spoke with at these games. While they understood that you wanted to move six inches to the left to make a significantly better image – even if doing so put no one at risk and did not block another camera (still or video) or fan – no exceptions would be made. In a country that is known for doing everything "by the book" this weariness of veering off of the most carefully laid out plans was much more prevalent than what most of us who have been to and worked in China prior to the Olympics have come to expect.
In the end, I think that this lack of spontaneity somehow translated into most of the images coming out of Beijing. And more importantly, it was felt within the walls of almost every venue. That being said, I had a fantastic time because I was given the dream job by Newsweek of not only shooting whatever I wanted in terms of pictures (i.e., not having to chase medals or specific athletes) but I was also given a chance to blog about my experiences daily. That alone was a true breath of fresh air, and I find it so much more fulfilling than simply trying to make a picture that would hopefully make it into a magazine's cramped layout. If I missed a photograph, even due to no fault of my own, for once I wasn't left empty-handed for the day, I usually had a good story to write about. The reaction that the blog got bodes well for the future of magazines, by the way – that was another surprise. While I gave magazines 5-10 years max prior to these games (in terms of how long I thought they would be able to keep publishing with diminishing revenue and circulation), I am now much more upbeat about their future if they continue to examine new ways of getting their content out there (such as blogging and other yet-to-be-invented ways of connecting with their audiences.)
I will make one more prediction: I think we'll see 10% of the total number of still photographers we saw in Beijing at the 2012 London Summer Games. By then I think video will have become the main driving force behind Web sites, and that there's no way that the major rights holders will allow still photographers to come into their venues to shoot anything but still images. And yes, I do think that most still photographers will be shooting professional hybrid cameras that shoot both high-definition video and stills that by then will be used en masse (with the emphasis being on gathering video first, stills second.) The amateur D-SLR cameras that are being released right now that are shooting both still and HD video are but the tip of the iceberg. And at the rate things are moving along and changing on the Web, I just can't see still photography being the main focus of major publications and their Web sites four years from now. I hope I'm wrong – and in some other ways I don't – because we all need to embrace this change and find new ways of getting the word out no matter what devices or delivery method we use. It's still just about getting the story out, not what equipment or method you use to disseminate it with.