Are Joe Klamar’s photographs of Olympic athletes amateur or genuis?

Lashinda Demus, 400 hurdles world champion in photo by Klamar (AP/Getty Images)

By Ruth Ferguson, NDG Editor

Imagine getting the assignment you have always wanted during your professional career. You do the work, unveil it expecting people to simply love it. Yet, when the cover is removed instead of praise you get slammed. Now multiply that by million – because I would imagine that is likely how the official photographer for the U.S. Olympics team is feeling right now. Or is he?

Joe Klamar was hired to photograph the U.S. Olympic athletes at the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit held in Dallas a few weeks ago at the Hilton Anatole. Members of the U.S. team were flown in for several days to provide the media from around the world with the opportunity to interview and photograph the elite of the elite athletes selected to represent the United States in London later this month.

Apparently Klamar was hired to take the “official” portraits of the team members but after they debuted this week, instead of universal applause his work has generated thousands – no exaggeration – of comments in reaction. Perhaps his harshest critics are his colleagues describing the work as amateurish and “shoddy” and those are a few of the kinder comments. Other folks even feel his work is unpatriotic as they do not represent the grandeur of our gladiators preparing to face the world, with poor lighting and unflattering poses. The photo pros hates how the viewer can clearly see the sets intended to provide background imaginary.

However, Klamar is not without supporters. A few with gusto and a few in a backhanded kind of way. The second group suggests they are just so bad there is no way a professional could deliberately produce such bad work, no matter how little time he had or the cramped space.

Others who defend his work suggest he was attempting to peel away the fake, glorified images of these athletes and show them as real people – which isn’t always so pretty.

BagNews shared this viewer’s theory:

There is no way any photographer with a mind for composition would make these mistakes. … If you were to tell me to set up shots to be as ugly as possible, but to not get caught, I would do these same setups. For that reason, I think he must be making a statement about the way society paints athletes as perfect. Showing flaws in the photos to illustrate the fact that they are people, not gods. … The mistakes are intentional. Especially considering about half the mistakes could be fixed by any redditor that has photoshop (Smooth backgrounds, basic color corrections, straight shots, cleaned textures, etc.) Hiranyagarbha – Reddit commenter: Uh… what happened here? (from an AFP/Getty photographer, nonetheless)

So far Klamar is not talking much. But it is important to keep in mind – Getty Images signed off on these photos, which if the reviewer above is correct that is odd. Would love to have been a fly on the wall when they first received the photos, did he have to “explain” his work to them?

The key question are:

  • Did he simply do a poor job or was he making an editorial statement about the glorification of athletes, etc.?
  • Did Klamar have an obligation to show these athletes representing the United States in all of their splendor and glory?

What are your thoughts?

To see a few of the photos for yourself, click here.


  1. From looking at his previous work, he is a photographer of natural light. He excells at using the light that is available to him. To be honest, he probably has never been in the studio in his life. I’ve been a photographer for 8 years and I still struggle in the studio. He really should have looked at his work and said , “This is shit. Let me photograph these in my own element.” Cause honestly, they are some of the worst photographs I have seen. Sorrry!

  2. NDG Staff says:

    Thanks for sharing your unique perspective as a photographer. I cannot wait to hear how he decides to respond.

  3. I have to agree with Dana. These are the mistakes you’d see in anyone who was trying to do a crash course in studio work, no matter how long they’ve shot available light. The posing in many shows a certain amount of contempt for the subjects, and the camera angles are a poor choice, but one likely from someone who’s not accustomed to shooting the wide angle lenses he’d need in this situation (although his photojournalistic work most likely relies on long zooms) these show every sign of a decent photographer out of his element. The fact that they are un-retouched shows that he probably handed off the RAW image files or thier raw jpg output and dusted his hands of it.

    I think the real culprits in this debacle are the Olympic committee and Getty, who saw in thier grasp, not a gold mine of good photography, but a gold mine of publicity. What else do you do when you’ve already paid for something and have nothing else to show for it?

  4. NDG Staff says:

    I agree – surely the Olympic Committee did not intend or at least anticipate such a strong reaction to an “artistic” attempt if that was in fact what the photographer was trying to go for.

  5. I agree with Dana that he likely has little to no studio experience, though it goes beyond trouble with lighting. It appears to me that he has little knowledge in appropriate posing, not just for flattering angles, but just to keep the photos in proportion. The lighting did little to highlight flaws, instead it created unnatural angles. It added flaws that weren’t there to begin with. I believe that if the goal was to show them as people they would have, 1. Properly lit the photos, enhancing slight flaws, such as not removing blemish, whitening teeth, lengthening legs or removing unflattering rolls or lumps. 2. Made sure it was easy to tell what sport they participate in. 3. Retained the image of hard work. If this was just an attempt to show them as people then they did so in such a way that made a mockery of their exceptional skills. Personally, I believe these photos are simply the product of a photographer working outside of his abilities.

  6. I think Dana almost has it. Its actually very hard, if you search, to find much that this guy has done, outside of PAPPARAZZI style celebrity stuff, and some natural light sports photography. And I’m sorry, but natural light sports photography is EASY to build a portfolio with. You put the camera on auto and shoot 7 frames per second, fill a few big cards a day and before long, you’ve ACCIDENTALLY gotten enough to build an ok port.

    But what I’ve seen of his stuff, while some of it is ok compositionally, some of its NOT, and some of its simply crap. And there are weird technical mistakes like a shot of fisherman that he shot in really bad HDR, or processed it that way. And a TERRIBLE shot in every way of hunters in a field where you can see water stains on his lens.

    Clearly, to someone who knows this business, he’s NOT a particularly impressive photographer. Add to that having to shoot in a studio for what may have been the first time….and he certainly didn’t have enough space to work with….he was in over his head. What he’s guilty of, is not admitting he should NOT have been doing it. You have to understand the importance of this particular job and JUST SAY NO.

    The idea that it was artistically intentional? Rubbish. You can make the athletes look vulnerable, or human, or whatever DEEP MEANING you want, without having photographer errors. You should NEVER see the paper, let alone ripped paper. Personally I won’t even USE paper. You shouldn’t be cutting off the feet of a gymnast in the air. Your runner shouldn’t look 10 years older than she is and depressed…..although she would have a good excuse AFTER seeing the pic.

    No, he just stunk. No doubt in my mind.

  7. I obviously don’t have the facts on hand to backup up my suspicions, but my hunch is that these images were shot “as is” on purpose for reasons we have yet to be made privy to. The stir they’ve generated is *exactly* what the photographer intended.

    My best guess is that these photos are a commentary on how athletes slick media presence often overshadows their actual talents.

  8. Even if he was attempting to make a statement you don’t have to forget how to create and image to do it.

  9. The pics are not official. He is one of many photographers from a variety of agencies, newspapers etc that were allowed access to the athletes over a short period of time. The pictures do not have to be signed off by the US Olympic committee, they are distributed by their own agencies. A fish out of water I believe. I am sure there are many photo journalists out there who have no idea how to set up lighting in a studio, and if forced to would have a major challenge on their hands. Cut the guy a bit of slack

  10. Fook Huynh says:

    I stopped reading after the third sentence when I read “now multple that by million.” Sorry, but bad grammar is a peeve of mine, especially if it’s supposed to be a professionally written article. I can understand seeing this type of stuff in a rough draft while proof reading or in a blog entry by John Smith, but not in an informative article.

  11. NDG Staff says:

    Fair enough – it was a blog post written on the fly to find out how others felt about a topic debated extensively throughout the Internet community. However, the error mentioned is corrected. By the way proofreading is one word. (RF)

  12. similar photos I have take when I have start to photograph, now I am prof. photographer after over 20 years of amateur, for sure these are noto professional photos

  13. Horrible images. The guy is an armature at best and an embarrassment to the profession. How did he ever get that gig? http://www.marhargen.com/

  14. If the statement he was trying to make was “I’m completely out of my comfort zone in the studio,” then he succeeded.

  15. Holly Jay says:

    Pardon me, but I must have MISread the article or have early Alzheimer’s…but were these photos not taken at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas?? I’m fairly well-traveled, but I know of NO hotel that has a photography studio in it. It sounds, to me, like they hired Joe klamar to take photos of ALL the athletes, flown in for this photo and interview op over a short period of time. Granted, if the situation was not ideal there he should have spoken up. But I heard he was given an assistant and the “studio” was actually 2-3 rooms at the hotel and these elite Olympians had little more than a few minutes to be photographed. If this truly was the situation, it’s no wonder these less than stellar photos of our Olympians were produced.
    by Joe Klamar.

  16. Mike in Houston says:

    @Holly Jay

    You are describing a VERY common scenario in professional photography. Time and ideal location are preferred, but they are never guaranteed. Klamar was ill prepared for the scenario given him, but instead of realizing that and adjusting, he tried to do something he simply did not have the capability to do.

    The appropriate way to handle this was to say “I can’t do it this way” and then have enough professionalism to suggest an alternative in your wheel house.

    Oh yeah, and the editor at the image service that released them should be fired.

  17. Sorry…. i am sure this guy has no lighting experience. Nowadays, photographers do not know the different between incident vs spot reading. Search for his photos, Joe images are flat most of the time. There is always space for improvement . i wish him well

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