Interview with the sport photographer Joel Marklund
Joel Marklund, born 1985, has been working as a photographer since 2005. He is currently based in Manhattan, New York and Stockholm, Sweden as U.S. Correspondent and Chief Photographer of Sweden’s nr 1 sports photo agency Bildbyrån. He has worked in more than 45 different countries and covered numerous international sports events around the world, among them the FIFA World Cup and six Olympic Games. He started his career at the local newspaper NSD before moving on to Aftonbladet, Scandinavia’s biggest media outlet, in 2007. The same year he joined Bildbyrån as a staff photographer and in 2013 became the chief photographer of the agency.
He is an award winning photographer, frequently honored in Picture of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism and the Swedish Picture of the Year Awards. Since 2016 he’s a Nikon Europe Ambassador.
Since 2016 he has been part of the official photography team covering the prestigious Wimbledon tennis tournament for The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. He worked as an official photographer for the International Olympic Committee at the Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympic Games and 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Joel Marklund’s photographic work has been published all over the world in different media outlets. On the commercial side his clients include Adidas, Nike, the Swedish Football Federation, Nikon, Panasonic, Nocco (Vitamin Well), the UFC among others.
Could I ask you when you decided to become a professional photographer, and why? How began your artistic path and what photography means for you?
My media career started out as reporter and reviewer, first writing about video games and eventually entertainment and culture. I did it from an early age, around 15-16, as a side gig when still in school and when I was 19 I did it full time. From early teenage years I’ve been very interested in journalism and read all I could find about it. Around age 17-18 I started to get interested in photography and when working as a reporter I got the question if I could take my own photos during interviews and concerts I was sent out to cover. I soon realised that photography, especially in sports and news, is very unforgiving in that way that you only have one chance. Miss the moment and it will never come back. There’s a thrill in it, that I couldn’t find in writing. Also, through photography I could let my artistic side shine. We’ve got some artistic talent in the family, there was a famous painter on my mum’s side a while back. Today I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
You have a great experience in photographing all kinds of sport. I imagine that each of them presents different difficulties, and that you have to find different creative solutions at any time, depending on the sport. Do you have a great knowledge of the various sports disciplines? Is it useful to know a sport to be able to foresee the action, and to enter into its spirit?
Sports photography is a lot about finding a clean background and manoeuvre the changing light. It’s also about predicting what’s going to happen. So I do a lot of research when I cover new sports, athletes or teams. In swimming; which side does the swimmer breathe (I look at Youtube clips to see that and where they breach the water at the start), for football; where are the fans seated so I know where some players will celebrate; for tennis; where do I need to be when that beautiful late afternoon light hits the court. The more I know about a particular sport, the better I can plan my position and where to put my remote cameras, I need to know where the action is going to unfold. With that said, I have a big knowledge of a lot of sports, but there are instances when I shoot a new sport, for example just recently at the FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea when I covered water polo. I really didn’t know a lot about the sport before a colleague explained everything to me. When I had observed a match I could figure out fairly well where the best pictures are.
Do you practice some sport yourself? Is it useful to practice the sport you are about to shoot to predict how the action will take place and to figure out what to document?
When growing up I participated in a lot of different sports and I’ve always been extremely competitive. In sports photography there are as much competition on the field as outside. We sports photographers compete for that best shot of the game deciding moment. I love that part of the job. Today I only play football about once a month and try to have time to go for a run now and then. It’s quite tricky to fit in more as I travel more than 220 days a year, only in work. Keeping yourself in shape is definitively a good thing in order to be able to do this job for a long time, given how physical it can be. However, I don’t think participating in sports generally makes you a better photographer. To understand sports is a lot about observing, find trajectory in movements. It’s great to have basic knowledge of different sports to understand the dynamics, but you can get that as well from studying the sport.
Is there an image you are particularly attached to that you would like to tell us the story behind the scenes?
In 2012 I was finally able to take a picture I had envisioned for many years. The national football team of Sweden was about to meet England in a match on the brand new Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. I had negotiated for months to get access to put remote cameras above the goals, providing a very graphic look that I was used to execute at ice hockey since many years. A lot of things needed to be in place, insurance, special permissions and in the end some luck. The action needed to happen where I had planned. And finally it happened. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the big star of the team, scored the historic 1-0 goal behind goalkeeper Joe Hart. As he starts celebrating you can see the players of England lie down on the grass, dejected. The picture later won 1st price in the Swedish Picture of the Year Awards in the category Sports News.
I know that you are a Nikon Ambassador, and that you use Nikon gear. What kind of equipment do you use?
I use Nikon D5’s for the majority of work, the D850 for studio, video and some portrait work and D4’s as spare remote cameras. My go-to telephoto lens is the 400/2.8. I also use the 600/4 and in my bag you will always find a 24-70/2.8, 70-200/2.8 and 16mm fisheye. Other than that I frequently use 24/1.4, 35/1.4, 50/1.4, 105/1.4 and 8-15mm fisheye.
Very often you use particular points of view, from the sky or from under the water, with fisheye lenses that give the feeling of being right in the middle of the action. how do you plan shots like that? Do you position the camera in advance and trigger it with remote control during actions?
I always try to put remote cameras in unique angles where I as a photographer aren’t allowed or can't fit physically. My style is graphic, I love to use lines as visual elements when using overhead remote cameras. To do that you need to ask for permission and might need to provide a lot of documentation, sometimes the same day, others several months ahead. I’m already planning for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and visited some of the venues two years ahead of the games.
What’s hard with the underwater shots is that I need to frame and focus the image perfectly in advance, I can’t rely on robotic cameras as the big agencies. The cameras are triggered either via cable or radio signals, depending on where they are situated. Normally we place them a few hours before the game or event starts.
What is the athlete you most enjoyed working with? Are there any athletes you would like to work with but you have not had the chance yet?
Sweden’s best swimmer, Sarah Sjöström, who I’ve been covering extensively for about ten years, always looks for where I am and make sure to pose in my direction for medal shots. A lot of the other photographers actually move to where I am when she have won a race, because they know the best pictures will be where I’m at. During the last day of the European Championships in Glasgow in 2018 she knew I was situated in the roof right above the finish line. Eventually she looked up, saw where I was and started floating and celebrating up towards me. It made a great shot.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was always special to photograph when he played in the Swedish national football team. I’ve been doing the portraits and team photo for the national team for many years and there was always something exciting when he was around.
I am regularly covering the biggest sports events in the world, so there isn’t really any big name athlete I haven’t photographed the last years. One sport I’d love to work with sometime though is Formula 1, for some reason I still haven’t been to a race.
I know you work with many magazines, and that you are the chief photographer of the Bildbyrån agency. In which magazine could we admire your works?
My work is published all over the world. Our agency’s pictures are of course mainly published in Sweden and Norway but can also end up in Sports Illustrated, Wall Street Journal or L’Equipe. When I work for Wimbledon as an official photographer the pictures reaches millions of people every day on their website and social media. When I covered the Paralympics and Youth Olympics for the International Olympic Committee my images were distributed by AP, AFP and Reuters and reached every single newspaper in the world.
What does it mean for you to be able earn from a job that matches your passions? Athletes also do their work with total dedication, perfectionism and passion. Can you define yourself an athlete of photography?
I could not see myself doing anything else right now. I absolutely love my job. Of course, I could wish for more of a balance when it comes to time spent traveling, but I’ve realised there is no perfect job or balance in life for most people. The important thing, as I see it, is that I can be creative, have fun at work and learn new things. For me every single day is different from the other, and that’s a luxury a lot of people don’t enjoy.