Perfect exposure - capturing a quarter century of Irish sporting greatness
Since its foundation by Billy Stickland and James Meehan, Inpho has chronicled the ups and downs of Irish sport
The All Blacks were coming, coming. Tacking their merciless way down towards the Havelock Square end. Aside from the referee and the 15 Irish men trying to find a stop, Billy Stickland was probably the nearest person to them. Yet he was one of the few people in the Aviva as time ran dead last Sunday that was paying them no attention at all. Had his back to them, in fact.
Instead, he was crouched down in front of the Irish bench, his lens pointed at Brian O’Driscoll’s face – as it has been since O’Driscoll was a teenager. That the pair get on well didn’t matter. O’Driscoll told him where to go and wasn’t dainty about it. Stickland didn’t move and kept clicking.
Monday’s papers had the fruit of it – O’Driscoll with his hands to his mouth, the horror of the endgame in his eyes.
That’s the job. And nobody’s been doing it better for longer. Inpho, the sports photography agency Stickland set up with James Meehan back in 1988, is a vital part of the sports media furniture.
He sends photographers to all corners of the planet following Irish sportspeople and makes his way to many of them himself. Although not, he concedes, as many as he used to.
“If you asked me if Ireland had qualified for Brazil next summer would I have wanted to go, I’d have said not really,” he says. “It’s always the first time that does it. If you could bottle that first time and take it away with you, you’d be set up for life in terms of feeling brilliant.”
Photographing the peloton
“The first Tour de France I went to, we were in a car on the first morning and the driver asked me where I wanted to stop and take photographs. And I had no idea. I left it up to him. So we stopped on the side of the road and waited for about 10 minutes.
“And then the peloton came past and it was amazing. I mean, just f***ing amazing. It was Bernard Hinault and Stephen Roche and Seán Kelly and all these heroes. And the sounds are something I can still remember. Just this click-click- click-click of really well-oiled bikes with the best cyclists on the world on them. It was incredible.”
Does it not last?
“No. By the time I did the ninth one in 1993, the novelty was gone. It’s that first time. I went to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. I was photographing Brazil playing Spain in Guadalajara. And again I was just thinking, ‘What am I doing here? This is fantastic.’
“I was at a hurling match in 1984 I think and Wexford beat Kilkenny. They had this full-forward, Tony Doran, who scored the winning goal in the last minute. I had been at the Kilkenny end but I went down to the Wexford end for the last five minutes and Tony Doran scored the goal and the place went mad. It was completely exhilarating.
“But the thing is, once you’ve had that once you don’t get it again. I would never have had that feeling at a hurling match in all the years and all the matches since.”
The job has changed almost beyond recognition over the years. Technology has improved to an unimaginable extent, access has all but disappeared. When he started out, not only could he have gone to watch an Irish team before a game, they would have asked him why on earth he wanted to take pictures of them training. Nowadays, they get 10 minutes at the start of a session and then they have to go.
“If I went to watch the soccer team train, I could spend the time with the camera up Jack Charlton’s nose if I wanted. When you went to Croke Park in those days, you could wander all the way around the pitch. Now you’re stuck in specific areas. There’s just a lot more people doing it and a lot more people protecting people.
“The cameras are so good now that action photography is amazing. But there’s a huge sameness about it. The cameras are the same, the positions you’re allowed to shoot from are the same. So if you see a goal scored, there will be about 20 different photographers with a brilliant shot of it the next day and there’s no real difference between them.
“So for me anyway, what drives us is the feature stuff. The stuff that’s different. You have to get people’s trust. It has to be clear that we’re not trying to set them up or make them look stupid. Once you can establish that rapport, you’re doing well.”
Which brings us back to O’Driscoll. One of the best photographs in Heroes: The Best of Inpho Sports Photography is a shot he took back in 2001 of the then 22-year-old rising star apparently walking on water (below). It’s the kind of photo you’d never get unless you had the trust of the subject.
And as it turned out, the subject needed to trust Stickland that day a little further than he’d bargained for.
“We were down on Sandymount Strand, where the water comes in really quickly. So what we did was pile a whole load of books on top of each other and waited for the tide to come in. There was a very small window of opportunity there because the tide was rising so quickly. I think there was maybe about a minute before the water was going to be too high. If it rose more than half an inch, it would be too much.
“So I took the photo. But then of course, he’s standing there and the water is starting to lap up so we had to try to get him back to dry land. Otherwise he would have been absolutely soaked. So I ended up having to carry him on my shoulders back to shore.”
He got the shot though. Always has.