Arts in Lockdown Series Part 9: Al Bello, Getty Images on Sports & Photography
I met Al Bello, sports special correspondent photographer for Getty Images, in 2005 when he called me to photo assist his Getty Images Discovery Channel assignment. We were photographing Lance Armstrong and his cycling team practicing for the Tour de France in Santa Ynez Valley.
A consummate and respected professional sports photographer, he started at ground zero as the darkroom manager for The Ring boxing magazine, and photographed boxing on the weekends. Three years later, he landed a job as a sports photographer at Allsport, now owned by Getty Images. From there he transitioned to Getty Images chief sports photographer for North America for 16 years. In 2020, he shifted to sport special correspondent photographer, making him only one of three at Getty Images to hold the position, and the first for sports. He develops his coverage, which includes top sport and news assignments, and the mentoring, hiring, and teaching new photographers.
His dedication to photographing sports in a never-before-seen manner using every creative art angle and technology available, Al is at the top of his field, photographing the Olympics and pro-sports team sporting events worldwide. His body of work includes photo-stories, including the impressive Athletes of the World Senior Games. Awards are many, from World Press Photo, The Lucie Foundation, Pictures of the Year International, the New York Press Photographers Association, the Boxing Writers Association, the Football Hall of Fame, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the International Olympic Committee.
He is open, direct, heartfelt with an NYC can-do attitude, a family man, and all around team player. Al is based out of Long Island and he took 15 to Zoom with me about the pro-sports scene during lockdown, while driving home after covering the Tampa Bay Rays win over the New York Mets at Citi Field on September 23.
Q. What is it like to cover sports now?
A. With sports slowly coming back, it’s not the same, you’re doing all kinds of hoops to get into the game, get the COVID tests, pass the temperature checks, lots of forms, got to wear a mask at all times, everything is a lot different.
NBA basketball has been a total bubble situation, as is the NHL, we got photographers scheduled for each sport, but only one photographer is allowed. We had one photographer in each city for the NHL, they had to quarantine for 14 days in a hotel room before they could do anything, until we acclimated in Canada where they are having the playoffs now. It’s a grind.
How often are you getting the COVID test?
If you are in a bubble situation, like I was in the U.S. Open Tennis, I was getting tested every three to four days, and I was not allowed to work if I did not get tested, and I had eight COVID tests over the course of three weeks. The testing is dictated by the sports governing body of the event you are covering, and it depends on what sport you are covering, for baseball they take your temperature and ask you a lot of questions and for any sport, always have your mask on.
You are covering everything solo?
Yes, more or less. We get, due to safety concerns at the moment, very limited credentials, and a lot of the other agencies are in the same boat. A game like tonight where it was just an average baseball game, even in non-COVID times I would have done that by myself. However, I just finished covering the US Open Tennis event, which is quite busy and usually we have eight to 10 photographers covering it, but now, I was covering it alone for the day sessions, and we had another photographer come in for the night sessions, and that was it. We were not allowed on the field of play [as usual], we had to stay in the stands for the most part, and they did not grant us access to courtside on the main stadiums until the last weekend. It’s hard; it’s crazy right now.
Can you set up remote cameras at sports events?
Not really because you are not allowed to get down to the field of play to do anything at all, even before it starts, no matter if it’s a basketball court, baseball field, football field, the photographer has to be in the stands, so it’s a struggle and challenge to make due with what you have and come up with different kinds of pictures than before. I use really long lenses and do the best I can.
The stadiums are empty right?
Yeah, it’s really weird, there are cardboard cutouts for fans, nobody there, and they have piped in sounds of fans cheering. It’s obvious that the players feel it when they need an energy boost from the fans, and they have said it’s just not the same. And they are right, it’s just not the same, it’s really weird.
Can you sense whether the athletes are playing in their top form?
The athletes look fine, but I know the NFL is suffering a lot right now because the players got hurt from not having a full training camp, they are paying for it now, a lot of soft tissue injuries, these are the consequences, especially with a contact sport like football. The baseball players are affected too, a lot of nagging injuries that a spring training would have had them in proper shape.
Are there any social issues being advocated by the players? BLM?
Yeah, in football it’s on the back of their helmets, and at the US Open Tennis there was a player, Naomi Osaka, she wore masks to the court in each of her seven victories with the names of Black people who were victims of violence. The movement is real, and it’s real in sports, NFL, MLB, tennis, hockey, basketball, you see it everywhere. Taking a knee is more prevalent now; all the leagues are doing it.
During lockdown, what is the reality for sports photographers?
If you are a freelancer in the sports world right now, it’s very, very difficult, not gonna lie. The reason is they are not letting in as many photographers to cover the events as before COVID-19. At Getty Images, we are very limited as to how many credentials we can get for sports events.
As a result, with sports closing down for so long, and opening up in little bubbles here and there, work is scarce. It wasn’t anyone’s fault except what’s going on right now and keeping everyone safe, and unfortunately the casualty is the freelance sports photographer. If you’re on staff at one of the bigger agencies you are lucky, I consider myself lucky, Getty’s been fantastic the whole time from bell to bell. It’s tough out there right now.
What did you do when sports was shut down initially?
We had to come up with our own assignments. I pivoted and helped out the Getty News Team, which I never really did before. You just have to adapt, and to use the new catch phrase, you have to pivot. So I did picture stories on how several boxers are dealing with training on their own, a lot of fitness clubs, and found a lot of other feature news stories.
What’s the next step in sports, have you heard anything?
It’s status quo right now, to keep doing what we are doing. There is no vaccine, and I don’t know how or when everyone in the country is going to get one, so we are in it for the long haul, I’m talking still next year and maybe just coming out of it.
I don’t believe anything is ever going to be the way it was again, this has changed the game in so many different ways, the cleanliness protocol and all that, even if I had the vaccine, I would not be opposed to wearing a mask on a crowded subway. It’s hard to predict the future, but I am not one of those people with rose-colored glasses thinking this is, poof, going to go away. It takes a lot of hard work and a supreme sacrifice by our country, which we are not doing right now, and we are suffering for it.
On a personal note, how do you feel about it all?
You know, I feel very frustrated. I feel helpless with the situation, powerless with what’s going on, and I am just trying to adapt and thrive in what’s happening in this particular moment, not just in the sports world, but what is happening in our country. I don’t think I’m alone feeling that way, I’ve had deep discussions with my colleagues at work and my competition at events, we’ve had some dear friends who are photographers who have passed away, and it’s affected us deeply, and brought us closer as a photo community. Anthony Causi, sports photographer of the New York Post, passed, and he’s been honored several times by the local teams here. It’s a reminder of what we are in right now, and the tragedy that is 200,000 American people at the moment passed away, and I feel a lot of that could have been diverted and avoided. New York got killed right away, we had it worse because we got hit first. As a New Yorker, I believe in what people tell us as advisement to do, we follow protocol and continue to do so, and luckily we are the only state under one percent because of the simple thing like wearing masks is helping us, trying to stay safe, keep your distance and not do the things that people are doing out there. I know I want to be alive and not get anyone else sick, especially my family. And if you tell me to wear a mask, I’m going to do it. It seems to keep it at bay, not get rid of it. It’s beyond me why it’s such an issue, why people don’t want to wear a mask.
I feel terrible for the younger people right now, I feel not only in our photo industry but all industries, these kids in their 20s just getting out of college have nothing to go to. It’s devastating and we’re going backwards; it’s something that doesn’t sit well with me at night whatsoever, keeps me up at night, I am out of answers. I don’t know what to say or do.
Advice for sports photographers?
I talk to up-and-coming photographers every day; I keep telling them they have to grind through this and keep coming up with new ideas to get through this, and if you have to take a job that’s outside your field, so be it whether it’s temporary or not. I’ve got some really good photographers who have to support themselves to make a living, they are working for Amazon or driving an Uber, but that is the reality right now.
411: Website – www.albello.com, Instagram – albello55