Business: Photographer Karen Yeomans
What’s it like to capture women’s sport? How do you balance your creative personal projects with branded campaigns? We sit down with famed sports photographer Karen Yeomans to discuss the changing commercial landscape and the realities of earning a living through photography
Photography by Karen Yeomans
We sit down with sports photographer Karen Yeomans to discuss her remarkable journey of capturing the grace and strength of women’s sports. Since a young age, Karen has recognised her passion for photography, and she has masterfully fused it with her love for sports to produce stunning visuals that honour female athletes. Throughout our conversation, we explore the evolving commercial landscape and the practicalities of earning a livelihood as a photographer.
Glorious: Tell us how you became interested in sport?
Karen Yeomans: When I was in school, I was a competitive cross country runner and a member of an athletics club. I trained twice a week, raced on the weekends in middle distance running. Alongside that, I was dating a cricket player, and I’ve always been very interested in participating in cricket. When I was a teenager, I became quite ill with a condition called Achalasia, which affects neurological messaging, making it impossible to swallow. I had to live on liquid nutrition, so I couldn’t run or compete at the same level, so this brought me to yoga that has supported my journey through my illness and the condition which I still have today.
Glorious: How did you find photography?
Karen Yeomans: I always knew I wanted to be a photographer pretty much from school. A science teacher set up a small darkroom and really encouraged me. During my late teens and early 20s I had to have several surgeries. Also at that time, I was studying for my photography degree, and my work was quite feminist and anti-fashion. A lot of my work became anti-fashion, which then progressed to how I could see sport making a difference for women.
After finishing my degree, I came to London and began to assist photographers. Not all of them, but most, were men. That’s when you do your real learning, you need to work with different photographers to learn different approaches in order to make a career from photography. It’s great if, like me, you have a first degree in photography, but you have to apply what you’ve learnt.. Assisting for nearly a decade taught me that sometimes you have to do the work you need to do in order to help pay for the work that you want to do. Often the work that I want to do doesn’t have any budget or it has minimal budget attached to it, but I’ll do it because it’s what drives my passion and creativity.
Glorious: Can you tell us about your decision not to have children and how it relates to your career?
Karen Yeomans: I decided in my 30s that I wasn’t going to have children. I think you can do both (have a photographic career and children), but I just felt that I just didn’t have the space to do it and I didn’t feel a huge draw (to having children). It wasn’t as important to me as producing work that mattered. I think that’s what it comes down to – it’s really important for me to make work that matters. Alongside this work I’ve found a way to balance my books by taking on other work that means fulfilling my client’s briefs. I enjoy this work too, I love producing beautiful photographs whether that’s for a book or brand stuff. I might think it’s a bit superficial, or not completely to my taste, but I can still love it.
Glorious: What advice would you give to young aspiring photographers?
Karen Yeomans: It’s important to keep expectations realistic. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but the best advice I can give is to remember that you’re here for the long haul. Work might happen immediately, but if not, you’ll have to keep getting back up and hitting it again. Continually write to people, you’ll feel like a pest sometimes, but you’ve got to be. One other piece of advice is that if you are already a talented sports photographer, I don’t believe it’s necessary to do a university degree and be lumbered with a lot of debt. You’d be better off applying for a job within sports media that send photographers out to shoot different sports and build a portfolio to learn through. Personally, I wouldn’t change anything because I loved doing a degree, but I do think I wasted quite a bit of money whilst studying and was taken off onto a tangent of being an artist, which I never wanted to be! Whatever you do, it has to be relevant.
Glorious: What drives your passion for women’s sports and elevating their visibility through your photography?
Karen Yeomans: Alongside my commercial work, I’m always trying to create work that matters, especially in the realm of women’s sports. I really care about the future of women’s sport and helping by being just one of those tiny little molecules in a chemistry that is building within the whole of the sport world and this excites me. That is women’s sport, and it’s really important that women get seen.
Glorious: Can you tell us about some of your favourite projects or experiences in photographing women’s sports?
Karen Yeomans: I prefer photographs that I have taken recently because they still evoke the same adrenaline and excitement I experienced while capturing them. A couple of weeks ago I worked with Girls on Track, which is an initiative by Motorsport UK to help encourage young girls into motorsports. The idea is to get them excited and for them to see that there are so many other areas of motorsport, like mechanical engineering.
You don’t have to be the person behind the wheel. Watching a group of young women observe the diverse options available to them really excited me and I left there feeling full of optimism. I also really enjoyed working with fencer Kate Beardmore. Fencing is a kind of lonely sport due to it being individual. It takes a lot of determination and resilience to stay mentally focused. Part of the journey is seeing my journey in their journey, deciding to do something that is not that easy for a woman to do.
Glorious: You’ve remained true to your goals in elevating women’s sport through your photography. As the commercial landscape is changing and brands are realising the power of using women’s sport in their campaigns, have you found more companies coming to you as you’re an expert in shooting women’s sport?
Karen Yeomans: Yes and no. I can’t remember when it happened, maybe last year. I opened Instagram and saw a group of sportswomen who I’ve photographed a number of times by a non-sports based male photographer in a massive campaign.
I felt like I’d been punched! His (the photographer’s) work is great, but I couldn’t help but feel that I could have done that shoot! There’s definitely (like in any industry) a certain amount of ‘who you know.’ Sometimes I’ve been in the mix for a job and ultimately, I haven’t won it. It makes me think that sometimes there is this kind of attitude of ‘let’s give it to this man as he’s a more safe pair of hands.’ Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking, this is women’s sport! Why are you asking men to capture women’s sports? What I know is that when I don’t get the job I really want, I can sleep knowing that I couldn’t have put any more effort into trying to get it. Looking back to my early 30s, when I made the decision to not have a family, it was because I knew that I needed to be 100% focused. I have absolutely no regrets surrounding this. I know, at nearly 50 years old, I’ve worked hard to be in the position I’m in and I hope to be the first person who will come up in people’s minds when they think about photographing women’s sport.
Glorious: Do you think there’s a difference in the way you work to your male counterpart?
Karen Yeomans: A really powerful energetic exchange happens when you’re taking people’s pictures. Being a woman, you’re going to understand their personalities a lot more, the way they feel, and the way they move. Being a photographer, you are creating a space that allows them to be who they are and to show you who they are. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful male photographers, but that space that’s created between two women is always going to be slightly different. It’s not necessarily better or worse, but it is going to be different. I’m looking at them from a slightly more ‘we stand together’ angle. I love seeing women in their own power.
I don’t like the idea that we have to make female sportswomen look like their male counterparts. I’ve definitely had that, particularly in rugby. A client on my shoulder wanted the athlete to look more like a male rugby player. Whilst yes, there are some really tough-looking sportswomen and rugby players, they’re not all like that and you want to catch their individual personalities. Sometimes it will be the softness in the strength. That is really an embodiment of them and their personality. We don’t need to make them look like men to make them relevant to a sports audience.
Glorious: Do you think the landscape and the business of promoting women’s sport is truly changing?
Karen Yeomans: A certain amount of brands that feature female sportswomen and sports is tokenistic, but I’m hopeful that this is changing and brands are actually waking up to the power of women’s sports. I hope that in 10 years time it won’t matter that it’s women’s sport, it’s just sport and we’re all just celebrating talented people. I also hope that the people involved in sports, sitting on boards and making the rules are women. Oh, and I hope I’m there, documenting it all!