These striking portraits of female athletes help address the gender gap in sport photography

CNN  — 

When photographer Alana Paterson looked at images of athletes in mainstream media she noticed something missing – women.

Their absence is backed by statistics the Vancouver resident likes to quote when she talks about her latest project, “Title IX.” Named after the 1972 US law that bans gender discrimination in federally funded sport, the project features female hockey players from 14 junior and college teams across the US and Canada.

“Only 4% of (media coverage) is specifically focused on women – that seemed pretty shocking to me.

And then I heard about the pay gap between male hockey players and female hockey players, and it’s basically like the Pacific Ocean,” Paterson said in a phone interview.

The photographer’s brightly lit images, shot on film to mimic the aesthetic of 1980s and 1990s sports photography, document her subjects excelling at sport, goofing off at practice, or staring aloofly at the camera. She says that rather than direct her subjects, she encourages them to “just be who they are.”

CNN Style caught up with Paterson to talk about her work and how important it is for young women to see themselves in the media.

The bright colors and stark white of hockey players' uniforms, combined with Paterson's choice to shoot on film and use bright flash, produce an aesthetic that mimics the sports photography of the 80s.

Why did you start photographing female sports teams?

I was looking for a new project and I had heard some really shocking statistics about women in sports. And then I started looking into the benefits of sports and what happens to girls if they are involved in sports.

If you’re a high-level female executive, your chances of having been involved in sports as a young woman are 90%. If you’re a CEO or higher, it goes up to 96%. Those are really incredible numbers. And then, if you look at how we’re encouraging women to be in sports – it’s dismal. They fund the boys’ teams with millions of dollars, the girls get no funding, when you could easily argue that the girls are the ones that need the funding.

What role do photography and images play in the disparity between women’s and men’s sports teams?

The people that are researching this, they’ve figured out that the best way to encourage young women is to put their mentors in front of them. They react incredibly strongly to seeing people like themselves, seeing what it is they want to do. If you can get them in the same room, that’s even better. That’s peak encouragement.

But just seeing them on TV, in media, posters, whatever, does phenomenal things for keeping girls in sports. It does phenomenal things for keeping boys in sports, too. It’s just taken for granted because they’ve (male athletes) always seen that, that’s just part of their culture.

Paterson captures athletes on and off the field, both in posed portraits and candid shots like this. She says that her young subjects like to "get silly" on camera.

What was it like working with young, female athletes?

It’s been super easy. They’re all very accomplished athletes, and they’re really proud of what they do. They don’t get a lot of media attention – I’ve had no pushback whatsoever. Everyone has been really just awesome. I mean, it’s sad to say, but a lot of the (hockey) girls are younger. There aren’t a lot of older female hockey players, because the upper reaches of hockey is university – that’s it.

Your use of a strong indoor flash produces this kind of nostalgic, bright aesthetic. Why use this style specifically?

I really wanted to mimic (the style of) sports photography that was happening in the ’80s and ‘90s, when there was even less female representation. And that’s how they shot back then. So that’s where that approach comes from. And it’s also really honest, there are no secrets. Flash really gets into every nook and cranny. It shows you the truth.

All of the sports projects are shot on film – how does using film impact your work?

With film, you’re very intentional, you’re making choices. And there’s also a bit of strength in not being able to show (the subjects), because a lot of people go, “oh, can I see it?” afterwards, (but) you can’t do it, like “oh sorry, it’s film.” And that kind of creates a nice space for them, to not think about themselves, or to not become insecure.

Your projects feature a mix of posed portraits and action shots. What can you capture in a portrait that you can’t in an action shot?

I like the portraits, but I also think it’s really important to have the action stuff in there, because I want it to be about their abilities, and how hard these girls work, and how talented they are, and how little exposure they get. That’s just part of it; for me there’s no separating the two.

Paterson's photos capture young athletes' vibrant personalities as well as their athletic prowess.

For “Title IX”, you photographed young female high school and college hockey players in Canada and the US. What made hockey players an attractive subject?

All the gear, all the equipment creates a really great juxtaposition against the level of femininity that they choose to have, or not. So that was really attractive. Their uniforms also play really well on flash. They’re bright, they’re white, they’re poppy. And then, just the numbers around the game. The pay gap is really interesting.

Tell me more about the juxtaposition between athleticism and femininity.

I had never met a female hockey player before (photographing them). I had no idea. I found it really interesting that you go in with these preconceptions, especially (because) I was born in the ’80s. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, to be a female hockey player you had to play on the boys’ team. I think a lot of them tried to remove as much femininity from their appearance as they could, because they didn’t want to be singled out. But, now that these girls have teams of their own, they retain as much femininity as they choose to, or not, and I found that really fantastic.

What do you hope your photos do for female representation in sports?

I hope it just doesn’t become a shock anymore. I want these images to be viewed as normal, so people won’t think twice about it. I mean, if they’re getting that much coverage, the pay comes also. And it is getting better, absolutely. If more women are encouraged to take more photography, I think naturally there would be more coverage of female sports. A female sports photographer would go into the field with fewer preconceptions, less prejudice.

The Canadian photographer was invited to work with the basketball players by their sports coordinator as a way to keep them "pumped and engaged."

The US women’s national soccer team and their success in the Women’s World Cup got a lot of media attention. What do you think this spotlight is doing for women in sports?

It’s awesome. My friends in New York were posting pictures of little girls on the train going down to the parade with their hair in braids and little soccer things painted on their faces and soccer outfits – girls just getting pumped and being encouraged by their parents, but also just naturally by what’s happening in the media. That matters. It does.