Q&A: Documenting the pandemic with Getty Images

21 Dec 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

Some of the most striking moments of a year like no other were captured by photographers and seen across the world. Empty stadiums, deserted streets, and people staying in their homes and gardens characterised 2020.

Sport Industry Group chatted with Ken Mainardis, SVP & Global Head of Content, Getty Images about covering history, adapting to new circumstances, and how sports photography will continue in 2021.


What were those final few events in February and March like, before sporting events were cancelled but as it was becoming clear the virus was serious? 

It was different country to country and an evolving situation day by day. There were a couple of moments when it became clear we were entering unchartered waters. The first was when world class athletes and coaches started to test positive for COVID-19 and it became clear the situation wasn’t sustainable. The second was when some events were held with spectators, while others played behind closed doors.

With so much of Getty’s sport business based on live events, what were the first few weeks of lockdown like as you adapted? 

As the sport event industry globally shut down we knew we needed to adapt, and quickly. Over the past 25 years, we have built up trusted relationships with our customers and are partners to over 85 sports governing bodies around the world. Our focus has always been looking at how we can be a partner to the sports industry, so as soon as lockdown happened, we approached it from that perspective: how can we help? How can we continue to support our partners engage audiences at a time when there are no events? We listened to them and began to plot how we could leverage our assets (photographer talent, an immense archive) to help them engage with their customers where there were no live events. 

How did Getty initially adapt to the fact there was no live sport? How did it teach you to think differently about content? 

We’re incredibly lucky, our team of photographers are all excellent storytellers and they used lockdown as an opportunity to push their creative boundaries and find new ways of capturing engaging content. Thanks to the close relationships many have developed over the years with world-class athletes, our sports photographers were able to document how sporting professionals the world over adapted to training at home (socially distanced of course). We shot features of the German Rowing team and the German Paralympic athletes. We captured the Team GB rowers as they exercised on balconies and in their gardens, triathletes swimming in paddling pools and athletes exercising in stairwells and make-shift gyms. One of the features I was most proud of was one we did around women’s sport in lockdown. Women’s sport was a big focus long before COVID-19, and it was very important to us that we continued to raise visibility and support female athletes as much as possible.

What new creativity did you see from your photographers when they were forced to stay at home? We saw during the first lockdown a lot of people get creative and innovative with how they create content. Did you try to encourage similar?

Yes definitely. Regardless of the pandemic, we’ve always encouraged our photographers to be innovative in their approach. Almost as soon as lockdown happened, our photographers saw an opportunity to shift to virtual photography. It seemed that almost everybody was using Zoom, and so we explored using that as a medium to capture content. We did a Zoom portrait session with Thibaut Courtois for UEFA for example – and it wasn’t just limited to sport, we captured several entertainment assignments via virtual photography too, such as the One World: Together At Home Global Citizen event - a historic global broadcast and digital event to support frontline healthcare workers and the WHO.

How did it feel to know you were ‘covering history’, and how do you think the pandemic will be remembered through the lens?

Our editorial photographers take their responsibilities to objectively document unfolding events, be it news, sport or entertainment, very seriously. In that sense, we are always covering history, and history provides a crucial tool to make sense of the world we live in. 2020 of course has been a very unusual year and so we believe that our coverage has contributed to creating some meaning to what seems confusing and that this process only amplifies over time. From a sports point of view, I believe the visuals showing sporting professionals finding innovative ways of carrying on, despite lockdown and social distancing, will be the images that will stay in our memories. It connected audiences to the fact that our athletes were facing exactly the same challenges as all of us.

Staying at home was also an opportunity for the likes of esports and online fitness classes to become more popular. Does Getty see this as a growth area long term, and what lessons from lockdown can help you flourish covering such events?

Yes, we were actually working on a strategy around esports for more than two years, long before COVID-19 happened, as we had identified it as a growth area. At the beginning of summer, we announced an exciting partnership with Polyphony Digital Inc which sees us as serve as the exclusive photographic agency of Gran Turismo’s global line-up of esport events.

We are also the official photographic partner to the W Series Esports League, the first official women only simulated racing league, as well as the official image and distribution partner for Riot Games’ League of Legends Global Esports Events. It felt like a natural fit to move into the esports space. We have world-class motorsport specialist photographers who can now bring their expertise to the table and capture engaging in-game action content and then distribute it to our global client base. We saw the interest in esports rise exponentially during lockdown, a trend which we expect will continue. 

We saw a lot of sport organisations wake up to the value of their archive? Do you think this is a trend that’s here to stay, and will we see more innovative ways of using retrospective/throwback content in the future?

I think archival content will always play an important role for any sport organisation. It’s more than a trend, it’s a powerful way for organisations to connect with their fans and remind them of their long-term relationship and heritage. Particularly this year, we’ve seen people turning to the past in order to feel more connected to the present. Especially with so many events cancelled, the archive was a compelling way for many brands to continue telling their story.

During lockdown, our team of editors and photographers immersed themselves in our archive, diving among our over 130 million images to curate stories, for example looking at specific athletes and their histories or iconic events. That’s been picked up and utilized by partners really well. 

How long was it before you started making plans for sport’s return? And how closely were you able to work with sporting leagues, organisers and Government to bring photographers safely into behind-closed-doors venues?

Above all, we took a decision quickly that our world class talent needed to be retained so that it was available to us when the pandemic was over. That talent is key to differentiating us from other organizations and many organizations took different decisions releasing talent. When the pandemic itself hit, the first thing we did was to provide training for all our photographers into how you work in an environment such as a pandemic. We did that using some external advice that we sourced from experts but also through our own internal resources. We have a very well-established news team that is used to working in very hostile environments and had a lot of experience working around health crises, and so we used their experience with all of our sports staff. We have specialist teams - a specialist sports team, a specialist news team, and a specialist entertainment team.

We really believe that specialism brings a higher level of quality to our product, and in this instance, it has really paid off in the sense that we could utilise the experience of photographers and content creators who have worked in Africa around Ebola, to be able to pass on those experiences to a sports team that was preparing for return to sports events in Germany. Then we also made sure, based on that advice, that our staff were properly equipped to be able to work in that environment, with all of the right PPE and all the other equipment that you need to be safe. We have been able to work with all the different organisations and our partners to ensure a return to covering their events in a COVID-safe manner. 

What sort of adaptations did you have to make to cover sport in the new Covid-secure era? Or has sport’s return brought you back to normality (apart from testing and social distancing in stadiums etc)?

Coverage of Sport is still very different to pre COVID times for two main reasons; because of the need to social distance the number of credentials available are nowhere near the levels they would usually be, as the number of people in venues is still understandably being very closely controlled. Secondly, the photography positions are understandably more restricted as lots of venues operate with different zones. So previously photographers are in a privileged position of sitting very close to the action - right on the edge of the field of play - but at certain sports and venues those usual position are not currently accessible in order to maintain a two-metre rule from the athletes.

One flip side of these restrictions has been that photographers are having to be creative and adapting to shooting from different angles and positions they have previously not had access to. While we of course want photographers to shoot sport from the best angles and against the best backgrounds, shooting from new angles has given the pictures a different look and feel. This means coverage of some sports and events looks a lot different during these times and from a historic perspective – these pictures will truly tell this extraordinary period of time. 

What adaptations have Getty made that you’ll bring with you into the future?

Getty Images is always thinking about our sports coverage and how we approach covering each event so we are always adapting. Across our 25 years plus of covering major sports events, we’ve acquired the ability to adjust to the environment or our evolving customers’ needs and this is crucial during and after a global pandemic. We were able to leverage our remote editing team and global network of content creators to guarantee content from remote events all over the globe despite travel bans. Our team itself, although forced to work from home, became much more connected, and we will certainly carry some element of this forward.

Also, what has increased during COVID times is the closer working relationship between assigning teams across our News, Sport and Entertainment businesses - 2020 has seen a lot more cross collaboration between teams and we are constantly learning from each other to support our colleagues.

What do you see as the big trends for sports photography in 2021 - when hopefully we’ll see sport played out in front of full stadiums? 

Esports will continue to grow. With regards to live sports, our photographers will be excited to shoot against the background of fans again - the colour, ambiance and energy that backdrop brings to a sports picture is unparalleled. And everyone is excited that we have two Olympic Games and two major international football tournaments compressed into a period of just 24 months!

Finally, which sporting image(s) do you feel sums up 2020 the most for you? 

This picture (main image) sums up sport and the impact of COVID in one moment. The Olympic Games being postponed and the flame being preserved encapsulates the events of 2020 but the enduring spirit of sport.