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Why trust is the key to some of Ireland's finest sports photography

Forget about selfies and setups, these men capture true emotion behind the closed doors in Irish sport.

THERE IS A fine balancing act to consider for the men and women sent out to capture the best and brightest Irish sportspeople in still photographs.

David Wallace massaged by Willie Bennett Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

On the one hand, they’ve been invited into the inner sanctum of a team and for that there is a certain debt held to you. On the other, you still have to produce excellent, insightful and meaningful material – because otherwise, what’s the point?

That’s where one simple undefinable concept comes in: trust.

INPHO photographers Billy Stickland and Dan Sheridan are two men who have earned that trust and been able to blend in with the physios, doctors, energy bars and water bottles in an international rugby dressing room.

Sheridan was the man taking pictures as Ireland celebrated the Six Nations championship in a Stade de France changing room and he has been in the middle of joyous and disappointed Lions tours. However, he admits that it was difficult to treat the Irish Women’s team exactly the same as he had treated their male peers. At least to start off with.

Ireland team in the dressing room Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“With the men, it’s obviously a bit different, but there’s still the trust built up over years,” Sheridan tells TheScore.ie.

“It’s not like I go in there every time because I expect and I think that I can. I bide my time and I take my opportunities to do it.

“It’s about going in and being a quiet little fly on the wall. Getting in a position, hiding and getting the best angle from it. Certainly not making any noise or interfering in anything that actually happens.

“That’s where you build the trust. They know they can do anything they want, and they know for a fact that if they did something – I’m not going to start taking nude pictures of them and stuff like that. They have that trust for me to be in there and trust that I’m going to make the right decision about what goes out.”

Tania Rosser Ireland scrum-half Tania Rosser takes a moment for herself before going into battle at the World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The trust extends beyond the doors of the changing rooms too, and Stickland has previously described his effort to get uncomfortably close to Brian O’Driscoll before the painful full-time whistle when New Zealand won in Dublin in 2013.

“I moved in close on the bench and he told me to… get out of the way,” Stickland said with a self-censoring tone on a Second Captains podcast.

Brian O'Driscoll watches as All Blacks' score a try through Ryan Crotty in the last minute Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He was just about to explode with joy – if the final whistle had gone, it just would have been an extraordinary photograph. So, split second decision: ‘no, I’m going to have to stay here. It’s just too important’.

“You have to read the situation. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been told to leave and I’ve had no problem with that. It’s a matter of reading the situation, but in that particular one it was just too vital.”

Just under four months later, when O’Driscoll finally played for the last time in an Ireland jersey, Stickland was well clear of the action when the record caps holder allowed himself to leap for joy. But once the jersey and boots were hung up and the job had been done well, Sheridan had to wriggle in to position to capture O’Driscoll’s moment of satisfaction.

Brian O'Driscoll in the dressing room after the game

“I was in the changing room the whole time they were in and out,” Sheridan explains. “That happened at the end, when everyone else was pretty much gone. It was just Rala and Sean Cronin left in there.

“Cian Healy had left the trophy on the table about five minutes beforehand and I just kind of bided my time, sauntered over to work a good angle where he didn’t see me. I went in the doorway and under a table being as quiet as I could because I thought if he noticed me then he’d get up.

“I framed that picture the way I thought was best; with the trophy in the foreground, blurred, from head to toe and waited until I got him perfectly with his legs the way they were.”

It takes a keen sense to understand when it’s possible to blend in and when a little extra effort is needed to avoid disrupting a subject. There’s nothing for it, except experience and trust to feed that instinct.

Invisible men

“Invisible would be great, but it’s not possible,” Stickland jokes. “For me it’s about trying to get that element of trust so that you’re actually part of it without them worrying that you’re there. And that does take time.”

“Over a period of years with the girls,” says Sheridan, “you talk to them and they say they don’t even notice me in the dressing room now.”

“I’d certainly do my best also to make sure that I didn’t capture anything that would go against them or make them look bad or anything like that because it allows me to get so much more when I need to.

“Over the last few years with the girls, including the coaching team, they treat me exactly like I’m one of them. I’ve stayed with them and lived with them at the World Cup as part of the team. That was great.

“When you’re in the changing room and you want to not be seen, not be heard — that trust is key. It makes you get things other people don’t get.

“The players don’t change. They don’t think, ‘Oh there’s Dan taking a picture’, they’re just doing what they’re doing exactly what would be happening if I wasn’t there at all.

“They’re not changing because I’m there. In there, there would be times when I have to turn around. Sometimes I do get a bit embarrassed myself, but they have no problem with it. Because of that trust, they know I’m not going to be doing anything I shouldn’t be doing.”

And the results of that hard-earned trust give the wider public a crystal clear glimpse inside the elite environment of Irish rugby.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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