OSCAR PISTORIUS – THE MAN BEHIND THE IMAGE

Independent freelance UK photographer and journalist, John Coxon’s personal and professional observations and reflections from first hand experience of the South African athlete Oscar Pistorius.

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At my second Paralympic World Cup, having met & chatted privately to the athlete the previous one I was able to help out these Four RSA avid Oscar  fans desperate to speak to him & have a photo taken. He is accessible and engaging, remembered my name & was happy to come over when I called to him  & let me pose the shot.

At my second Paralympic World Cup, having met & chatted privately to the athlete the previous year’s meet, I was able to help out these Four RSA avid Oscar fans desperate to speak to him & have a photo taken with him & I had trackside media privileges. He is accessible and engaging, remembered my name & was happy to come over when I called to him & happily let me pose the shot. Vain , up themselves devas do not do this kind of thing as standard and I can confirm that Oscar is the real deal and I  believe no liar or fake.  I found him  a decent, humble  guy.

When we look at images like this now, following the awful. tragic death of Reeva Steenkamp, for which South Africa’s Paralympian and Olympian athlete, Oscar Pistorius is currently on trial for her killing, perhaps we cannot  see them in the same light, as they came from the time when his journey from double amputee in very early childhood led him to become the most recognised athlete with a disability on earth, found him universally loved and admired for his achievement and dismissal of the term “disabled” . Like everyone else when  I heard the news I was shocked and frankly I maintain that the man I met and spoke with is a genuinely decent guy and in my mind incapable of deliberately hurting a fly. I have listened closely to the trial and weighed the prosecution evidence in my own mind and have found nothing substantial in the evidence they have presented which causes me to doubt Oscar Pistorius’s version of events.

Oscar became the face of Paralympics before 2012- in fact the three Paralympic World Cups I attended in Manchester played to a less than half full stadium & many attending were schoolchildren given free tickets.

Oscar became the face of Paralympics before 2012- in fact the three Paralympic World Cups I attended in Manchester played to a less than half full stadium & many attending were schoolchildren given free tickets.

Much has been alleged by the  SA police and  prosecution, effectively seeking to destroy the athlete’s character in order to prove their perception that this was or must have been the wilful act of a sometimes violently tempramental and controlling individual very unlike the public image. They want us to believe that the athlete is not the  “ poster boy saint” he has been seen as and since his girlfriend’s untimely death  , in order to prove their view, that  the killing was the result of a private and very unpleasant side of the man with alleged Jekyll and Hyde personality. The athlete maintains, as I remain convinced,  it was a tragic accident whereas the prosecution see the athlete’s version of events as an elaborate scripted  act designed to protect himself from facing responsibility for Reeva’s death. Whilst he accepts ,and we are in no doubt, he fired the fatal shots, and have we ever seen a defendant so ill and distressed in court, I still think the state’s case  leaves a lot to be desired in terms of hard evidence of it being pre-mediatated murder. That it could have been anything other than a somewhat bizarre and tragic accident is hard to believe . A violent rage-fuelled domestic fight hardly seems consistent with what most people thought of him back then nor is it consistent with the view I formed of the man on the two occasions when I met and spoke to him, once completely out of the public and media gaze.

In my professional career I have never met an ellite world class athlete prepared to spend so much post race time with fans and well wishers.

In my professional career I have never met an ellite world class athlete prepared to spend so much post race time with fans and well wishers.

But I think there are things  we might still learn from this and other professional sports photography of the athlete in public, either running, interacting with fans or the  media prior to  the tragedy and we may have forgotten that it was the media and not the athlete himself who gave him celebrity status. When you are exceptional at something and especially when you also have a visible unique difference, the media knows you will capture their audience’s attention. Add to that he is a man of considerable, genuine charm, and is friendly, articulate and accessible with great inter-personal skills, he is or indeed was, the media’s dream ticket as well as an outstanding self-driven athlete and competitor.

Naturally the professional athlete has contractual obligations to speak to the international broadcast media immediately after completing a race & I have never heard a fellow professional even suggest that he is vain or attention seeking in anyway but a joy to interview.

Naturally the professional athlete has contractual obligations to speak to the international broadcast media immediately after completing a race & I have never heard a fellow professional even suggest that he is vain or attention seeking in anyway but a joy to interview.

Most genuine celebrity status is acquired without actively seeking it and from personal experience in a private conversation away from any other media, it is more than clear to me that Oscar Pistorius does not deliberately seek public or media attention.  I’d say he automatically attracted it. At the meets I photographed him at , after media interviews he always responded to fans in the seating track side who screamed to him to come over , happily signing auutographs and chatting effortlessly with them for some time.

Oscar proved himself to be accessible & attentive especially to young able bodied and disabled fans.

Oscar proved himself to be accessible & attentive especially to young able bodied and disabled fans who were so keen to meet him.

 

In that informal conversation I had with him, (as he waited for a drugs test when all the establishment media had all left) I asked  him if he ever got tired of people wanting so much of his time after a race . “No, never” he said , “I always really enjoy it.”  I had noted that I had never seen any other elite athlete during the course of my work stay and interact with fans so long. He seemed to me happy to hang out with them at that event following the win of yet another World Paralympic gold medal as long as it took, this after the queuing broadcast and other media had interviewed him almost immediately after  he crossed the finish line .

People seem to conveniently forget that the carbon fibre blades he runs with place different strains on his body , different to the prosthetic legs he wears in every day life thus, to spend a lot of time after the exertion of a 400 metre sprint on them likely requires more of him in terms of discomfort than it would for an abled bodied athlete spending so long with fans at the trackside.

oscar pistorius signs autograph

But he was responding to their needs, the wish  to meet their idol, speak to him, get his autograph, when for most athletes, after an event,  will give a token amount of time, as they need to wind down, shower and get away or have other pressing engagements.  Yes he really likes to mingle, interact , sign autographs, “pose”  with fans or other athletes but that, I re-iterate,  is when he is asked. He is actually both devout but also, I can confirm, exceptionally engaging, attentive  and courteous and he, more than most , is least likely to refuse or rebut any fan when they ask of some of  his time for a brief moment at an event. This is a man who gives a person his complete attention, makes ordinary people feel special – he willingly engages with fans and does not ever have one eye looking for the camera. I find that difficult to match against the picture of him now being carefully built by the presecution to undermine his defence and also hard to hear him being so openly and often called a liar when I don’t believe he is.

Professionally , with photography my sole income , elite sport is one area I cover & generally not for profit since I aim to help unofficially promote athlete's I consider to be worthy & genuine role models. Equally, it would be professional suicide for me  to publicly support & or endorse anyone who was not a genuine 7 honesst individual. Despite this tragic event I have no reason or evidence  to change my view of the athlete Oscar Pistorius    as genuine & sincere privately & publicly.

Professionally , with photography my sole income , elite sport is one area I cover & generally not for profit since I aim to help unofficially promote athlete’s I consider to be worthy & genuine role models. Equally, it would be professional suicide for me to publicly support & or endorse anyone who was not a genuine & honest individual as the majority of ahtlete’s I have met actually all are. Despite this tragic event I have no reason or evidence to change my view of the athlete Oscar Pistorius as genuine & sincere privately & publicly.

 

I am of course not a famous or well-known photographer or media name , just a sociable, local independent jobbing professional photographer who was enjoying a unique opportunity to get photos of the athlete and lucklily too got to  have an unexpected yet  friendly informal long chat with the athlete.  Any use of the images I got of him actually competing were not-for profit  and my online celebration of his achievements and use of pictures of him to help champion the issues he does, on social media for example, was purely voluntary on my part. I have no vested professional interest whatsoever in publicly supporting him here nor have I had supporting him elsewhere prior to that tragic event. (In my former parallel career as a specialist educator of young adults with the whole range of disabilities I was well qualified and experienced in making observations and assessments of character, behaviour and needs and for example compiling informed reports for outside agencies as well as acting as voluntary media officer , through my photography and journalism, helping promote the achievements of my school and individual pupils in the local and national press. )

World class athletes of all disciplines and abilities admire Oscar Pistorius as a master of his craft, as a competitor , and yet as a very humble and likeable individual and for paralympic athletes they also respect him for always having represented sports for athletes with a disability in such a positive and assertive light. His celebrity but more so his success brought problems , put him in conflict with the sports establishment when ,for example ,they challenged the use of carbon fibre high tech blades as giving and unfair advantage but also wanted to deny him the right to compete in the Olympics and the Paralympics representing South Africa.

World class athletes of all disciplines and abilities admire Oscar Pistorius as a master of his craft, as a competitor , and yet see him also as as a very humble and likeable individual. For paralympic athletes they also respect him for always having represented sports for athletes with a disability in such a positive and assertive light. His celebrity but more so his success brought problems , put him in conflict with the sports establishment and in fact his impecable actions on and off the track bought about positive change.

People want to excel in their field, be it as an actor, musician, artist or athlete and most start with a dream , to do what they do best, be the best that they can be and achieve at  the highest level , and the acclaim and public and media attention certainly for elite athletes, is not in their list of priorities  because they are nearly always working hard training, travelling and competing and that is all consuming . It is literally a way of life which plays hell with your personal life and relationships. Public and media interest and attention are not mutually exclusive , the later feeds the appetite of the former and as a person’s celebrity grows that media interest grows.

The controversy over possible advantage from high tech blades was hard to believe   because on blades, a double amputee is actually at a disadvantage at the start because it takes time and distance to get upright and balanced before he can hit top speed. disadvantage at the start because it takes time and distance to get upright and balanced before he can hit top speed.

The controversy over possible advantage from high tech blades was hard to believe because on blades, a double amputee is actually at a disadvantage at the start phase of a race because it takes time and distance to get upright and balanced before he can hit top speed. disadvantage at the start because it takes time and distance to get upright and balanced before he can hit top speed.

 

 

Much was made during the prosecution case at trial of Oscar Pistorius as the serial “liar” who was fearful of having his “well-polished” image tarnished by negative publicity but those who understand the dynamics of sponsorship and  funding through, for example , product endorsement are aware that funding from sponsors involves a conditional contract essentially they are bound not to do anything which might damage the brand. It is therefore I’d say reasonable for the athlete to have asked people not to say things which might have damaged his realtionships with his sponsors.

The media , PR , advertising and marketing people have a vested interest in re-enforcing and projecting and helping to maintain a celebrity’s positive public image and will , in the event of a slip,  go into damage limitation mode or as in the case of the killing of his girlfriend, although innocent until proven guilty, all major brands who sponsored him dropped him when news of Reeva’s death hit the front pages.

Major global brands who sponsored Oscar Pistorius have cancelled  those mutually rewarding product endorsement contracts & sought to dis-associate their brands now that question marks have been raised against the athlete's reputation & previously flawless public image.

Major global brands who sponsored Oscar Pistorius have cancelled those mutually rewarding product endorsement contracts & sought to dis-associate their brands with the athlete now that question marks have been raised against the athlete’s reputation & previously flawless public image.

Celebrity and media presentation of it is always going to be a tad idealised and that pretty much goes for all the celebrities  people admire, love and aspire to be like. It is the market reality and the gloss may include some “white lies” and yet does not make a person a fake or a liar and actually the public as a whole are pretty adept at spotting such frauds or the genuine attention seekers. We also have the addtional unoffcial media now where word, good or bad,  spreads very rapidly , far faster than the press via social media and that can help build or destroy a public image or reputation very quickly. However adept a person is at controlling their public image, it is now virtually impossible to pull the wool over people’s eyes and, prior to the trial I cannot recall any Tweet or comment from ordinary people who had met the athlete which showed him in a poor light. Yet,since the bail hearing last year , and especially with the ongoing trial transcipts beeing so widely publicised now , there has been a huge wave of public opinion and a deluge of commentary , especially on Twitter and in the main that is people who have never met the athlete ( but from many who feel they really know him. )  People’s views on the subject , expressed on social media, are sometimes based on a personal  assessment of  the facts , through following the trial closely and taking what the press have to say with  the usual pinch of salt as we say and from the views of on line legal experts , or they write simply from personal agendas, prejudice and bigotry  or supportive , blind faith fanatacism.  The notion of “innocent until proven guilty” naturally holds sway in the actual court in Pretoria and in the eyes of the Judge (where in RSA there is no jury system following the dismantling of apartheid.) but the public in the main have already decided one way or the other.

 

No one, to the best of my knowledge, had previously any cause to doubt that there was any real difference between the public Oscar and the private one although, for the prosecution’s case to succeed, they have worked hard to attack the previously exemplary character of the athlete and yet offered little other than hearsay and circumstantial “evidence” that he is both vain, controlling and temperamental. I maintain, he is none of these not just based on how he acts in public but having seen the private side of  the man.

Prior to the tragic event, Valentine’s Day 2013, there was, to the best of my knowledge, only one incident (which in my view was sensationalised by the press at the time) which raised eyebrows in respect of the athlete’s otherwise impeccable public image where he was alleged to have deliberately injured an unruly female house party guest (whom he had previously asked to leave because of disruptive drunken arguing at the party) and who later tried to force her way back in. In preventing her forcing her way past him she sustained a very minor injury. Her endless pursuit of the athlete for compensation and redress very much appears to be based on exaggeration of the actual circumstances , regardless of facts and I heard he actually settled out of court, just to be free himself of any further hassle.

When Oscar was growing up and developing as a champion athlete all he was focussed on was getting better and better and fiercely competitive and he became famous largely through consistent success winning events he specialised in against all comers but that journey threw up a series of handicaps , unnecessary barriers that all athletes and everyday people face and have to overcome on top of their disability and Oscar’s publicly stated determination to get fast enough to compete in non-disability events drove his training and aspirations and it must have come as a shock that the establishment were unready to facilitate that without further struggle.

This is a unique image and did not appear in any establishment  media, the majority of whom, depending on their area of responsibility, shot the events or crowded the finish  where they interviewed the high profile athletes, so, in a sense , the incident was witnessed only by a group of people around the athlete waiting their turn for autographs. A young abled bodied  lad offered his sunglasses as a gift for inspiring his own running. Oscar thanked him warmly, clearly touched , but regretted he could not accept them due to contract issues with his sponsors, Oakey and then gave the boy the sunglasses he had worn during his race.

This is a unique image and did not appear in any establishment media, the majority of whom, depending on their area of responsibility, shot the events or crowded the finish where they interviewed the high profile athletes, so, in a sense , the incident was witnessed only by a group of people around the athlete waiting their turn for autographs. A young abled bodied lad offered his sunglasses as a gift for inspiring his own running. Oscar thanked him warmly, clearly touched , but regretted he could not accept them due to contract issues with his sponsors, Oakey and then gave the boy the sunglasses he had worn during his race.

Other athlete’s witnessed that controversy , and the public through the press,  saw Oscar  labelled with the mantel of disability exemplar,role model, ambassador for Paralympic sport and champion of disability rights but he was just trying to do his thing   Oscar did not assume the role- he was principally fighting for his own rights and yet happy to add his weight and name to a host of disability causes and initiative. His naturally altruistic disposition is also demonstrated in his support for  individuals including children with similar disabilities. Much of the latter was conducted away from the media’s or public gaze and what was reported was more often via , for example, a grateful parent wanting to express their appreciation publicly. This is hardly the behaviour of a self-obsessed, vain and attention seeking individual the prosecution would have us believe.

Images from inspirational athletes like Oscar have enabled me to support & promote disability issues on social media & help raise awareness iwthout any personal gain.  Oscar expressed his thanks in a couple of Tweets when I published these but also showed appreciation for my supporting his career & achievements publicly.

Images from inspirational athletes like Oscar have enabled me to support & promote disability issues on social media & help raise awareness without any personal gain. Oscar expressed his thanks in a couple of Tweets when I published these but also showed appreciation for my supporting his career & achievements publicly.

At all big sports events the media , press and TV broadcast personnel, journalists and camera people  have to acquire media accreditation which gives them a range of access rights and there is actually a “pecking  order” where official TV broadcasters always get priority and usually universal access rights because they have potentially the biggest audiences .and therefore  as do , normally the official photographers , usually these days a large agency . and these groups have paid heavily for those rights. Status in that pecking order is denoted by the colour of bibs. Event management staff actually police media activity to make sure that lower order professionals do not stray beyond usually media pens in specific spots meaning that the camera totting herd get very similar shots and the elite, official photographers  have far more licence as to where they stand. Event management PR people inform the media of times and location of when high profile athletes will be available for interview.

My work station at the  Media Centre during my Paralympic World Cup coverage.

My work station at the Media Centre during my Paralympic World Cup coverage.

My media credentials for the Paralympic World Cups I attended in Manchester where Oscar was competing were gained as a representative, ( as photographer and contributing journalist) of the not- for-profit  global women’s sport news website womesportreport.com. (Essentially I attend such events on a completely voluntary basis with a view to help promote and raise awareness of gender and disability issues in sport.) So my main focus was on female competitors in a range of sports at the athletics stadium, indoor wheelchair basketball courts, and the Manchester Aquatics Centre but, like all freelancers covering the games, the opportunity to see and shoot Oscar in action was one not to be missed.

Myself at work covering traithlon- lying down to get the most dramatic angle- hell on my old back.

Myself at work covering traithlon- lying down to get the most dramatic angle- hell on my old back.

 

I am not a fan of those photographer pens which event management people set up to herd in any photographers who are not the official ones ( companies who have paid for greater access rights and freedom for their photographers ) and the resulting very similar shots you all get inevitably. I try to be orginal and have pushed the boundaries where you actually have to  risk being ejected. since the far side of the stadium was virtually empty, I wondered overe there  and lay down behind the safety barrier peeping my camera out at track level, lying down and concealed by trackside advertising. I wanted to record the majesty and focussed concentration  of Oscar Pistorius in full flight as her rounded the first bend.

Oscar Pistorius flying

 

Finally, professional athletes actually rarely are ever given photographs of themselves doing what they do best unless, for example,  their manager’s buy them from pros or pros let them have an image or too with the proviso that they credit them as the photographer on websites and social media. If I attend an event over a few days and have been impressed by an athlete I meet and who happily engages with me on a personal level while I am working I ocassionally print off an A4 photograph or two of them from my work  and seek them out the next day and give them the shots as a personal thank you for them and perhaps their family.  I took a spare of the shot below and asked Oscar if he would autograph it for me and yet he added a thoughtful message as well completely voluntarily. I’ll often also use images of them from my extensive archives to illustrate my journalism when they have achieved another goal or simply on social media to show support and to celebrate their achievements. This is something I do natural and with no thought of personal gain or anything back and any reaction is simply a bonus and of course always appreciated but not expected.

So many and constant demands are made on atheltes who have achieved celebrity status such as Oscar by the media and public and it is to  his great credit that he does , or did find time for people whenever he could although at this terribly difficult time for him, his family, his coach and indeed the family of Reeva , it seems the wisest course of action is the one he has taken ,  not to communicate publicly and rely on his management to make any public statements necessary because whatever he says it is very likely going to be received the wrong way or with agression and cynicism as well as with empathy from  those like me who continue to believe in him. Those who still openly support him like myself have been at times viciously attacked and or ridiculed by some on social media which is a shame as I am all for people having a differenct perspective it is expressed reasonably and politely.

A personalised message gifted to me by the athlete,

A personalised message gifted to me by the athlete.

When the trial begins again I will be following it via Twitter feeds from RSA journalists live from  the court with great personal  interest and commenting from time to time on my Twitter account. Why not check out all the other interesting original stuff I share on my by clickinmg on these links,   Twitter   and   Facebook  Thank you.

 

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6 Responses to “OSCAR PISTORIUS – THE MAN BEHIND THE IMAGE”

  1. michele Paoli says:

    Merci merci de tout coeur John! J’avais vraiment besoin de like quelque chose de positif après tout cet incroyable déversement d’opprobre sur la tête de ce malheureux héro. Merci d’avoir pris le temps de justifier votre opinion si méticuleusement. Les aboyeurs ne pourront jamais vous’accuser de ne pas savoir ce dont vous parlez. J’aspère sincèrement que vous ferez parvenir cet article à Oscar ou du moins qu’il le verra sur ce Blog et que le plus de gens possible se donneront la peine de vous lire. Je vous suis très reconnaissante! MIchèle XX

  2. Janine says:

    This is excellent. Wonderful insight into media. I’ve never, ever doubted Oscar. He always appeared humble, genuine. I was in photojournalism and now special education. Nice to see perspective from someone else who has worked in both fields.

    • John Coxon says:

      Thanks so much Janine for taking the time to comment and all the more appreciated from a fellow special educational professional and former photojournalist. so wish there had been role models like Oscar and other para athletes when I was teaching – they would have so inspired the kids and fueled their dreams.

  3. Sharon Ann Meyer says:

    John, I thank you for publishing these facts about this remarkable, humble athlete. I have and will not no matter the outcome believe that what happened to Reeva. Steenkamp was anything but a horrific accident. Thank you for believing in him like many over the world. I trust with the power of our Almighty God the Magistrate will see through the state version and see the real truth of the man Oscar.

  4. Hank Williams says:

    Great article…thank you John. I’m with you here…100%. I have never doubted or will ever doubt this young man…a true Inspirer, Oscar is. I believe him…and believe in him…yesterday, today and tomorrow…always

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