Having worked for more than 30 years as a photographer, Olivier Morin has taken his fair share of eye-catching shots.
After cutting his teeth at Bordeaux newspaper Sud Ouest in the late 1980s, he was able to continue working in the port city when he joined Agence France-Presse.
Still with AFP, Olivier has an enviable CV, having covered rugby union and football World Cups, highly-charged Milan derbies and every Summer and Winter Olympics from 1996 in Atlanta until the 2016 games in Rio.
He is now the head of the photo department for the agency in France and will be in Tokyo for the upcoming Olympic Games which gets under way in Japan in just eleven weeks time.
However, it is one photograph of a lightning bolt appearing above the Luzhniki Stadium just after Usain Bolt had claimed 100m gold at the 2013 World Athletics Championships in Moscow that catapulted his work into the public eye.
The Jamaican had achieved an unprecedented ‘double treble’ the previous summer at London 2012, defending his 100m, 200m and 4x100m Olympic titles.
By contrast, Bolt’s last world championship outing at the shortest distance ended in bitter disappointment, as he exited the competition after a false start.
When it comes to the fanfare he receives, few can touch the sprint legend. For Olivier, the atmosphere at Bolt’s races was something special.
“I consider myself one of the lucky ones who has been able to follow Usain Bolt in the whole of his career on every track. This guy was unique. When Bolt was racing, every final I did, I had to really, really, really make an effort not to be taken away by the importance and emotion of the race.
“When they are introduced by the speaker and it got to Bolt, every stadium exploded. The crowd was crazy. So at that time, it’s less than a minute before the race, and as a photographer you need to be super concentrated. You cannot talk. So I’m almost like a sportsman myself.
“I try not to get drowned by the emotion and the importance of where I am, but at the same you feel like enjoying it because the crowds are huge and making a lot of noise. Then the speaker says ‘on your marks’. Then silence, complete silence. You could hear your friend 200m away.
“Then the speaker says ‘ready’ and at the fire of the starting gun, there is an explosion like a huge bomb and for nine-and-a-half seconds, it’s a huge explosion until the end. The whole stadium and the ground is shaking.
“It’s super difficult to stay calm and concentrated on what you’re doing. I was happy in my years of photographing Bolt to never crack because I knew I was photographing a legend at that time.”
Olivier was the only AFP photographer setting up for the race who was interested in the use of remote cameras. It took him three days to set all five of them.
“The remote set is something special, you know? You cannot travel light when you travel with remote cameras, so I was carrying six, seven cameras. It’s 120kg of equipment.
“I always like to do something new. It’s the same for everything in my life. I’m never satisfied with what I’ve got or what I get. I want to experiment with new technology, new ways of doing things.
“Remote camera photography is part of that because it’s a bet. You never know what you’re going to get and it’s a big bet when you set up a fixed camera, because when you set it, you cannot move it after that, so you have to make bets about which lens you’re going to use, where the focus is going to be and hoping the guy you want to photograph will cross the field of the camera you set.
“There are two wires per camera – a wire to shutter and a wire to bring the disc and the photo back to the editor – so everything looks like a big spaghetti plate.”
Photographers from the various media outlets are spread evenly along the length of the track, with draws taking place to decide who gets which spot.
The image capturing the Bolt metaphor was not the one he had been yearning for.
“My idea was not to have this photo. The idea was to have a [full body] photo of Usain Bolt with his arms open, celebrating passing the line as the winner [with the stadium in the background],” Olivier explains.
“It was the photo I had been trying to do since 2008. Every Olympics and World Championships. This guy was always going so fast that the remote cameras were not in the right spot or he was not celebrating.
“I was hoping for this beautiful wide-angle celebration with the stadium in the background with the writing of ‘Moscow 2013’. An iconic photo of Bolt with wide open arms – that was the photo I was running after.”
After realising Bolt was to be in lane five for the final, Olivier had a brainwave. It proved key in getting the photo of his life.
“I decided to put my last remote camera, the one I took the photo with, even further than the allowed position, because I wanted this photo I was talking about earlier. I asked the press manager to validate this position because I was the only camera there. I taped it on the ground to make it safe for everyone and the guy validated my position. That means if I had been five metres more inside, where the other cameras were, I couldn’t get this photo.
“It was funny because it was not an easy authorisation. The press manager was OK, but there was an official who was arguing a bit and he didn’t agree with this position.
“Actually, it was bothering nobody, absolutely nobody, but there is always some troublemaker in the middle of everywhere and then the press manager had to call the big media manager to come there, to validate the position.
“So, it was a little struggle and then, after this photo, I went to see the big media manager and he was laughing and I said ‘thanks a lot!’”
A thunderstorm then started during the women’s 10,000m final, the event before the men’s 100m showpiece. Fortunately for Olivier, it endured.
As it transpired, Bolt did win gold, but the showmanship on display as he tore away from the field to light up Beijing five years before was nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps inhibited by the wet conditions, he chugged home in 9.77s, with rival Justin Gatlin pushing him hard to finish second in 9.85s. Olivier was understandably downhearted.
He continues: “The remote camera was shuttered by the camera I had in my hand, and I had five remote cameras. I checked the first four cameras and I then arrived to this one [the fifth one] after the race and when I arrived to this camera, I checked quickly on the back screen, but I didn’t see the lightning because it was too small. So I thought ‘s****y photo’.
“It looked like nothing had happened on the photo because he doesn’t have his arms wide open and I was just thinking ‘oh shoot, failed again’ and then I put all the photos on the laptop and when I opened those, I said ‘ooh, it’s not that failed’ and right away, I noticed it was going to be a good photo for sure, just for the ‘Bolt bolt’, but I was far from imagining the viral story this photo had.”
The image blew up online, and was naturally picked up by much of the world’s media.
Olivier is keen to acknowledge the role of luck in the photographer’s art. He has certainly been on the wrong side of it before, notably when two of his remote cameras failed to fire during the men’s 100m final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
“Every photographer, if they are all honest, they say that our job and our success depends on luck. At any point, luck has to be present and part of the photo. Any photo, not only iconic photos, because it’s not an exact science.
“The camera can break down at that moment, the discs can be corrupted, it can be a bug in the camera, it can be someone passing in front of your lenses, it can be a ray of light which completely screws the light and exposure.
“There are so many parameters to miss a photo, that, when you get it, it’s already good, and it’s already a little part of luck.
“Luck comes at the point when you have been trying a lot. New lenses or a style of photo or an angle. At one point, it always comes bigger than usual, but luck is part of our daily life in photography and in sports photography even more.”
Is it his best photo ever?
“I don’t know actually. As one photo in a lifetime, yes. Definitely. In those terms, it’s probably the most important photo I’ve ever taken. The nicest, I’m not sure.”
Bolt was eager to get his hands on the image after the race: “I’ve got to get that picture right now.” He got his wish, as Olivier handed him a print of the picture shortly after Bolt had defended his 200m crown. Olivier has a copy of his own signed by Bolt at home.
As technology becomes evermore refined, does Olivier feel the sports photographer role will eventually become redundant? He is cautious about writing its obituary, although accepts that there has been a shift.
“In some venues today, it’s considered a very dangerous sport for a physical person like in a gateway, in a catwalk, in a stadium when you want to shoot from up above. They don’t allow the presence of a photographer.
“So the only things we have is a remote camera. Even better than remote, it’s a robot camera. We call it a robot camera, because they are completely pilotable from anywhere with a network. You can zoom in, zoom out, move the camera around 180 degrees in every way. This technology has already replaced a physical photographer, a live photographer.
“But I cannot believe photographers will disappear completely because of the right of information and second of all because it’s part of the show.
“We are part of the backdrop. So, if you take out photographers, it would be so sad because it gives the situation even more intensity and emotion to see all the photographers around the winner.
“All the organisers, they know that. The possibility is that they will lose a number of photographers, but they never will get rid of them [all].”