When Hard Work Pays Off
Joel Marklund shoots sport internationally. It's his dream job but the work-life balance is hard
Joel Marklund has earned a reputation as one of Europe’s best sports photographers, taking breathtaking, dynamic shots at the biggest sporting events in the world. He’s on the official roster at Wimbledon, has been a regular at winter and summer Olympics, and he shoots top-level ice hockey and more from bases in New York and Stockholm.
Aged 16, he was determined to be a reporter, and while still at school in Boden, Sweden, began writing about video games for his local newspaper, Norrländska Socialdemokraten (NSD). When this progressed to reporting on entertainment and music festivals, NSD asked Joel to supplement his words with pictures. By the time he finished school at 19, the paper had a photography internship waiting.
“It was an eye-opener being at that newspaper,” says Joel, speaking to Nikon Pro before the coronavirus outbreak, “because I was allowed to shoot everything: news, sport and fashion, learning as I went. I was in a small team and asked the other photographers everything. It was a good way to learn because even if I made mistakes, it was not the end of the world.” He discovered a talent for shooting sport, helped by an active childhood playing ice hockey, handball and basketball. Soon his accomplishments at the local paper were noticed by Sweden’s biggest daily, Aftonbladet, which approached Joel with a job covering sport and news in northern Sweden, a position he refers to as “the real deal”.
After only a few months into the job, he joined the staff of Bildbyrån, Sweden’s biggest photo agency. He was assigned sport full-time, and approached it with apprehension. “I remember thinking that I would give it half a year to see how it went. I really loved news photography and the adrenaline in chasing a story."
But as the six-month mark approached, the agency sent him to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and his career path was set firm. “I was hooked,” he says. “After Beijing I thought: ‘I will be able to attend these events and cover these stories?’ That was what really got me to stay in sport photography.
“At the Olympics,” he explains, “you’re in a bubble. For those two weeks, the whole world stops and circles around the events. It’s like so many different world championships compressed into one. In the morning, you can shoot the biggest thing for one athlete in their career and then you go onto the next thing in the afternoon. You need to get some distance from it to understand what you have been seeing in front of your eyes. For example, in 2008, Usain Bolt crushed the 100m world record and it wasn’t until a few weeks after until I really understood: ‘Oh! I was actually there!’”
Twelve years on, he was due to go to his seventh Games in Tokyo, as Bildbyrån’s chief photographer and manager of six of the agency’s photographers, for six weeks of intense work, head down, in the bubble again.
Joel began this year busier than ever, with a punishing schedule of assignments that began at the start of January with the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland. His work can be gruelling and time-consuming, but in sport photography, as in sport, the hard yards pay off.
“At the Olympics,” says Joel, “we planned to have an underwater camera in the pool. From all the photo agencies in the world, you might find 10-12 cameras in the Olympic pool. It’s really difficult to get in there and you need to work for many, many years to get access like that, it doesn’t come for free.” Joel is one of many people for whom the cancellation of the Games is a blow, but one from which he, and all who work behind the lens, hope to recover from quickly.
Mindful of the price he pays for intense work commitments, Joel is careful to take breaks from shooting sport. “Every two years or so,” he says “I try to do a project that is totally different. I think it’s important for whatever kind of photography you do to have a break and find something else refreshing.”
Two years ago, Joel shot a special project for Nikon, documenting the Sami people of northern Sweden in a series of remarkable portraits.“I try to find inspiration from not only looking at what other sports photographers do, but from fashion photography, documentary photography, advertising, art and paintings. Anything to shake up my mind a bit. When you have been a sports photographer for a long time, you get really good at it, but you also need to step out of your comfort zone.”
Helping with the shaking-up and stepping-out is the fact that Joel splits his time between Stockholm and New York. “Ice hockey is a big sport in the Nordic countries and we have about 100 Swedish players in the NHL in the US and Canada. A few years ago, I saw an opportunity to be based there and cover not just the hockey, but other things as well: boxing, features and other assignments for Swedish newspapers. I was always drawn to New York."
"It’s a fantastic city when it comes to creativity and I always feel energised when I'm there. It’s also a different environment when it comes to photography. It’s very competitive; a bit rough in a way, but I really relish the challenges.”
Joel’s social network is split between the two cities. “I try to spend a lot of time with my friends,” he says. “I’m the type of person that when I do something I do it 100 per cent. So, when I’m at work, that’s what it’s all about, but when I have some free time, I try not to look at a phone and I’m really into enjoying the break from work.”
Though 2020 is not the year Joel wished for, he remains in the top rank of his profession after years of hard work and hopeful that he can continue and grow his career. “I also hope," he says,"that my friends still want to hang around with me.”
I was loaned some Nikon gear at the
2008 Olympics. I came back and told my colleagues and the whole agency ended up switching to Nikon at the beginning of 2009. [In 2016, Joel was announced as Nikon’s first European Ambassador.]
For the big international events: four
D6s and a D5. And then eight lenses:
AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR,
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 105mm f/1.4E ED,
AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G,
AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G,
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR,
AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED and the AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED
I think 5G will be playing an important role in the future. Also, developments in AI and deep learning. I hope to see robotic camera systems developed to be smaller and more suitable for smaller media companies.
AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
FINA World Championships, South Korea, 2019 (© BILDBYRÅN)
D4S, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, ISO 4000, 1/1600 sec @ f/5
Serena Williams, Wimbledon, London, 2019 (© BILDBYRÅN)
D5, AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2G ED VR II, ISO 320, 1/8000 sec @ f/2
Women’s 100m final, IAAF World Athletics Championships, Doha, 2019 (© BILDBYRÅN)
D5, AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR, ISO 2500, 1/2500 secc @ f/2.8
Sweden v Latvia, IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, Slovakia, 2019
D5, AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D, ISO 3200, 1/1250 sec @ f/5
Snowboarding Men’s Slopestyle, The Winter Youth Olympic Games, Lausanne, Switzerland, 2020
D5, AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR, metadata unavailable
Romanian athletes during The Winter Youth Olympic Games, (Both ©OIS/IOC - Olympic Information Services)
D5, AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR, metadata unvailable