July 2, 2012

A Few Words About Joe Klamar's Viral (and "Obviously Terrible") Olympic Portraits


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)

While photographers and photo enthusiasts debate Joe Klamar’s portraits from the Olympic Committee’s media summit, one fact is incontrovertible — the photos have gone viral. So whether Klamar was hoping for something more polished or these were the results he was aiming for, what’s most interesting is how much these photos have captured widespread imagination for unconsciously deviating from the slickest standard.

That said, I think the Reddit commenter is pretty much on the money. Whether the picture subverts the background, the composition, the lighting or the athlete’s expression (or some combination), what at least a handful of Klamar’s photos “accomplish” is to slight the plasticized image of the Olympic athlete perpetuated throughout the quadrennial media and advertising orgy. More than that though (and imagine you’re reading the rest of this sentence to rabid chants of USA!! USA!!), I think this subset of photos also take a silent sledgehammer to the jingoistic adulation of the American team, to the extent these athletes serve as a fantasy extension of the dying dream of American worldwide superiority.


Cleverly, I think they also (Just Do It, Lashinda!) undermine the Adidas stripes and the Nike swooshes symbolic of the commercial bacchanal too.

Looking at the whole 35 photo edit, I don’t know if Klamar prompted certain athletes to defy the hero, macho, up-close-and-personal drill with a particular prompt or some just took the liberty, but given the Olympic coverage is like one long series of saccharine personality profiles interrupted at points by an athletic event or two, I can only imagine some of these Olympians welcoming the opportunity, for a moment and subtlety, to turn into people. the question is: did some of these Olympians welcome the opportunity, for a moment and subtlety, to turn into people, or was Klamar (either consciously or unconsciously) editorializing?

So here’s to the rip in the background paper, the crinkled flag with the folded edge and, especially, the lint on gymnast Jonathan Horton’s socks.

So, to the extent these photos represent the politically and commercially-exploitive side of the Olympic indulgence, here’s to the rip in the background paper, the crinkled flag with the folded edge and, especially, the lint on gymnast Jonathan Horton’s socks.


Here’s to weightlifter Sarah Robles of “The United” something-or-other totally geeking-out.


Here’s to Jillian Camarena-Williams who (get it?) could care less about her shot.

Here’s to Lindsey Berg channeling a volleyball victory, and more bling.

And bless this one, here’s to Mark Michael Phelps, the last time — unless he totally blows it, of course …or maybe succumbs to his demons — you’ll see him in the dark.

(Edited for meaning 8:40 PST. My intention was not to put this on the athletes at all who well may have been innocent in this, each instance being potentially unique of course. Instead, my focus is on the politics of the imagery, also allowing for speculation as to whether Klamor had an actual agenda or not.  All changed indicated via strike-outs. Also, with the lateness of the hour, I think I confused Michael Phelps with Mark Spitz. But maybe that’s part of the issue, keeping the heros straight.)

(photos: Joe Klamar)

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

The Big Picture

Follow us on Instagram (@readingthepictures) and Twitter (@readingthepix), and


A curated collection of pieces related to our most-popular subject matter.


Comments Powered by Disqus