Capturing the Essence of Sports: A Conversation with Simon Burton, Co-Founder of the World Sports Photography Awards

During an engaging discussion with The Game, Simon Burton, co-founder of the WSPA, shared his remarkable journey in the sports photography industry. Revealing the origins of his passion, Simon offered profound insights that illuminated industry tips that set sports photography apart. He encompassed the deep significance of storytelling, the ever-evolving influence of technology and AI, and invaluable guidance for aspiring sports photographers seeking to make their mark in this dynamic field.

In this captivating interview, we spoke with Simon Burton, co-founder of the World Sports Photography Awards, the global sports photography competition. With a remarkable background as an event entrepreneur and a deep love of sports, our guest has harnessed his passion for creating a platform that celebrates the captivating stories and moments immortalized by sports photographers. 

Through thought-provoking reflections, he shed light on the key elements that make sports photography stand out, the power of storytelling, the influence of technology and AI, and invaluable advice for aspiring sports photographers looking to make their mark in the industry.

IMAGO / ANP | Zonta van den Goorbergh (NED) crashes with his Kalex during the second free practice of Moto2 on June 23, 2023 at the TT circuit of Assen, Netherlands.

IMAGO / ANP | Sanne Wevers during the apparatus final beam at the National Gymnastics Championships in Ahoy.

To begin with, could you tell us a bit about your background and what you do?

I am one of the co-founders of the World Sports Photography Awards, the world’s biggest sports photography competition. The Awards are in their 4th Edition and showcase the work of hundreds of sports photographers from around the world.

How did you become part of the photography industry, especially in sports?

I’m an events entrepreneur who has a passion for sports. As one of the founders of the Football and Sports Business Awards I regularly saw amazing sports photography that I didn’t think was receiving the attention it deserved. There’s a very long history between photography and sport and I wanted to create a way to celebrate that.

There’s a very long history between photography and sport, and I wanted to create a way to celebrate that.

IMAGO/Beautiful Sports
IMAGO / Beautiful Sports / Axel Kohring | World Athletics Combined Events Tour Gold Level on 17 06 2023 at Stadion Ratingen

In your opinion, what makes an image stand out among others?

Sports photography is unique in that there’s regularly more than one story behind the image because so often we know the athlete and their personal back story. This means the viewer brings that extra context to bear against celebration, despair and determination. That context can make an image very powerful. But it’s a big subject – we have 25 sporting categories represented in World Sports Photography Awards and a huge range of styles and contexts. I think what our judges frequently spot in our winners is a special quality that makes you “look again”. And when you look again, you see something slightly different or unexpected that wasn’t there at first glance.  Something was revealed about the athlete, their journey to that moment and, in turn ourselves as observers.

I think what our judges frequently spot in our winners is a special quality that makes you “look again.

Can you tell us about your perspective on the influence of storytelling in sports photography and how it can enhance the overall impact of the images?

I think storytelling is inherent in sports photography in a way it isn’t in landscape or architectural photography, for example. How did the athlete get to this moment? Not simply in the match but in their career. What were their commitments in training, relationships, and lifestyles that enabled this moment? What happened next in the image? In capturing the moment, sports photographers help us consider what happened before and afterward, which is the essence of storytelling.

IMAGO / NurPhoto / Klaudia Radecka | From June 21 to July 2, the 3rd European Games organized by The European Olympic Committees are held in Krakow and nearby cities.

What are some emerging trends, and how do they influence the industry?

Diversity and inclusion are as important in sports photography as in any other industry. There are a growing number of female photographers, up-and-coming young photographers and photographers from different countries and backgrounds who are all using their unique viewpoints to tell powerful and distinctive stories.

What is your opinion about AI, and how do you think it can influence or change sports photography?

AI seems to me to be both a huge opportunity and a huge threat for everyone in the creative industries. We are only just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible and to understand the implications of AI. What we must ensure is how we put AI at the service of photographers and not the other way around.

IMAGO/Uk Sports Pics Ltd
IMAGO / Uk Sports Pics Ltd / Phil Hutchinson | The United States defence ready for the penalty corner during the FIH Pro League 2022/23 match between Netherlands Women and USA Women at the Lee Valley Hockey & Tennis Centr, London, England on 20 June 2023.

IMAGO / TT / Caisa Rasmussen | Shane Breen, Ireland, on the horse Haya during the team competition jumping against the clock in the Longines Global Champions Tour in Stockholm

What advice do you have for aspiring sports photographers looking to enter the industry?

Be brave, share your unique worldview and personal style. But do that with a knowledge of what has come before and how you fit into that process. Follow all the great photographers who have already achieved success – in sport and other areas. What makes their images great? Look at what images are published and what images win awards like World Sports Photography Awards are they the same? What does each audience look for and how to you take pictures that reflect your spirit and appeal to audiences at the same time?

Be brave, share your unique worldview and personal style.

IMAGO/Pro Shots
IMAGO / Pro Shots | Player Nederland Floris Wortelboer during the match FIH Pro Hockey League Nederland – Duitsland.

Whenever you prepare to photograph any sport, you should have done your homework regarding that sport.

IMAGO / PanoramiC | action during the 2023 Moto GP Motul TT Assen Grand Prix Netherlands from June 23 to 25, 2028 on Circuit of Assen, Netherlands.

USA TODAY Network / Rick Osentoski | Minnesota Twins catcher Christian Vazquez (8) slides in safe at third after tagging up in the third inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

No matter what sporting or news event you are covering, you need to remember that you are an impartial observer, and should not being biased in any way.”

IMAGO / Shutterstock / James Marsh | Action during the Queen Mary Stakes.

IMAGO / ANP / Sander King | Sanne Thijssen with Hi There in action during the Nations Cup jumping at CHIO Rotterdam.

IMAGO / ANP | Bart Deurloo in action during the NK gymnastics in Ahoy.

The interview by Andrés Benedicto and Maria Diaz