How photographer got defining shot of Summer Games

Aug. 8, 2012
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U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas performs on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's individual all-around competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
In this Aug. 7 "Beat of the Week" note to The Associated Press staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes recounts how photographer Greg Bull scored the image of American gymnast Gabby Douglas that’s been seen and applauded around the world.
 
Sometimes, a great photograph is the result of the photographer being somewhere that nobody else is, finding an event or a moment that nobody else has found -- or even thought to look for.
 
And sometimes, a great photograph comes when everybody else is there, too, packed in shoulder to shoulder, looking for exactly the same thing.  
 
In such a case, it’s a matter of out-thinking, out-planning, and out-performing the rest of them.  Which is exactly what AP photographer Greg Bull did to capture what has become, quite simply, the defining image of the London Olympics so far: U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas soaring high, high above the balance beam, back arched, legs stretched out taut beneath her, and right arm pointed skyward, as if that’s where she was heading herself. 
 
Actually, Douglas was headed to glory: a gold medal in the women’s all-around, the first African-American to earn that honor. Bull was headed to front pages around the world -- and to this Beat of the Week prize.
 
Some words are overused in our business. “Iconic” is one of them. So is “dominant.” But around the industry, they’ve been using those words, and more, to describe Bull’s photo, which appeared on the front pages of The New York Times, the Washington Post and countless others -- easily on a quarter of all U.S. papers, for starters.
 
”I don’t know if I’ve seen a more beautiful picture than this one of Gabby Douglas, at least in a long, long time,” tweeted Tim Carmody of The Verge, a technology publication.
 
“I'm just not certain how sports photography gets any better than this,” wrote Erik Malinowski on Deadspin.  “Gabby Douglas gave a historic performance today in the women's gymnastics all-around, and this is a photo worthy of that accomplishment. “
 
“I was going to write something about local pride, but this photo goes beyond that,” a reader in Virginia, where Douglas is from, wrote on a newspaper website. “This is universal pride -- that our human species is capable of something so clearly astounding (and) graceful. Great photo.”

So how did Bull do it?
                                            
The answer is that he choreographed his moves with a skill worthy of the Olympic all-around gymnastics championship. On the night in question, only six pool photographers were allowed to circulate in the field of play. The remaining 152 photographers, including Bull, were left to compete for space around the perimeter. These positions are limited, due to space allocated to television platforms, judges’ tables and closed-off team areas.
 
So Bull had to jockey for his position, finding a way to place himself precisely in the spot where he could perfectly frame his shot. He was  tightly packed in with at least 50 other photographers vying for a similar photo.
 
But he had been planning. He had seen Douglas’ beam routine several times already, and knew there was one moment when she just launched herself high above the beam. And there was more. The previous night, Bull says, he realized that if he crouched just a bit and moved a certain way, he could get the balance beam to hide all the TV cameras in the background, making for a pure and uncluttered shot.
 
At the moment Douglas jumped, Bull took his shot. In fact, he feared that he’d cropped the gymnast’s arm out of the frame. It wasn’t until a few hours later, when he had time to look, that he realized his fears were unfounded; He had, indeed, captured exactly the image he was looking for.
  
Bull is one of 65 photographers and 20 photo editors who traveled to London from bureaus across five continents to cover the games. They’ve used state-of-the-art technology, such as underwater robotic cameras and overhead remotes for swimming, but more importantly have also used their many years of experience and deep knowledge of the sports they cover, as well as patience, planning and gut instinct.
 
For using all those qualities to produce a photo that will be remembered long after the London Olympics, Bull wins a perfect ten in photo-journalism and this week’s $500 prize. 

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