“When I was 13 the family dog died. We only had six pictures of him and they were all bad. I told myself then that as soon as I got a paying job I was going to get a camera and always have enough good photos of the animals in my life.” True to her word Susan Stickle got a camera with her first job and started to take pictures. But not just of animals. Pictures of everything: “I would shoot tail lights when my Mother was driving me down the road. I wanted to learn how to do it.” The learning process was one of trial and error. Susan’s goal was “to be able to see what I wanted to see” and to capture that in a photo.
Susan had no formal training “I started taking pictures before digital photography was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye.” Shooting with film did require a discipline that does not exist in digital photography where results can be seen instantly and discarded and another shot taken. Working with film the photographer had to be clear about what they wanted to shoot and how they wanted it to appear and if mistakes were made they were not seen until the film was developed some time later.
Dressage was Susan’s discipline as a rider. “I really loved it,” she told me. Soon the photography and the horses began to intertwine. She started going to dressage shows and people at her barn asked her to take photos as the shows had no professional photographers. The next step came when she set up a table with cards and a sign-up sheet at Gladstone, New Jersey. In 2003 she gave up her day job and became a full time equestrian photographer. She is now the official Sport Photographer for the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington Florida; the biggest and longest running dressage show series in the world.
Dressage is still her favourite equestrian discipline as a photographer. She does not find the jumping so interesting. “Twelve to fifteen rounds in and I start shooting in slow motion or changing the angles from the horizontal. I need something else to do.” This is something that she does not find when shooting dressage. “You can see a lot more through a camera lens and you are more a part of it.” she says and dressage is what she wants to be part of. I asked if the camera gave her a feeling of being somewhat removed by seeing everything through a lens. Does the camera act as a shield? “No, I feel more involved. The camera does not feel like it’s a shield. The camera enables me to create in a digital format what I see in my mind’s eye.”
Susan has been to the Olympics in Hong Kong in 2008 and London in 2012 but will not be going to Rio. “London was partly paid for but the Olympics are difficult as the IOC has copyrights to photos as well as the various national federations of the riders. The bottom line is it is still a business.” She chose to go to the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships rather than the Pan Am Games as there was more potential work at the NAJYRC that would be paid for.
Has she had any special moments in shooting the top riders and horses in the dressage world? “Yes! Seeing Totilas at the World Equestrian Games in 2010 and also the Spanish horse Fuego at those games.” Another highlight was Steffen Peters and Ravel in Hong Kong. “I thought we had the Bronze medal….but…..” she shrugs her shoulders. Any other favourites? “The hairs stand up on my arms every time I see Charlotte and Valegro.” Susan had no doubts about who was going to win the individual gold in London. She found the ride of Charlotte Dujardin and her horse Valegro were the clear winners. “It was so harmonious. There was a big difference (between Charlotte and her closest competitor) in the trot tour on that day.” With the camera Susan feels she can be closer and see more detail with the long lens than people who are in the stands. She feels she is in the ring with the horse and rider.
Susan J. Stickle, a self-made woman, working long hours and not always in the most comfortable situations but doing a job she loves and would not trade for the world. Her work speaks for itself and as it happens the first photos she took of me in competition were of a special horse that became ill a few months after the photos were taken and I had to say goodbye to him. The photos are above my desk at home. I’m lucky. I have beautiful photos to remember him by.
I asked Susan to send me a favourite photograph from her collection to go with this blog post. The photo she sent me is both unique and beautiful and it reveals a lot about her as a photographer and a horse person. It is taken from behind the podium where Charlotte Dujardin is receiving the gold medal at the World Equestrian Games, Normandy , France, 2014. It shows Alan Davies, groom for Valegro, giving him a kiss. The love of a horse and the importance of the support team. What a wonderful photo!