Saturday 12 August 2023, 06:00

“I saw history being made in front of my eyes. My photos helped immortalize some of those moments”

Rafaela Pontes, Matthew Gelhard and Luke Vargas were part of a team of students from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University that partnered with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the Women’s World Cup group stage in New Zealand.

Another student team, from the University of Georgia’s John Huland Carmical Sports Media Institute, worked with the AP in Australia to do the same.

In what follows, Pontes, Gelhard and Vargas reflect on what the experience of covering the Women’s World Cup meant to them.

Rafaela Pontes, Photographer in Auckland

I can pinpoint the moment when it dawned on me that I’d be spending three weeks in New Zealand photographing the Women’s World Cup. It wasn’t during the 13-plus hours flying to Auckland, or when I first got a credential with my name on it, and not even when I walked into Eden Park with my camera for the first time.

The moment when the experience which I’d spent months preparing for became real was when the lights at Eden Park went out before the opening ceremony on July 20, and the crowd lit up the flashlights on their phones. The breathtaking view of a sold-out stadium shining bright made me realize the magnitude of the event I was covering. My first challenge in Auckland was shooting the opening ceremony while my eyes were tearing up with the raw emotion I felt at that moment.

General view of Opening Ceremony during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group A match between New Zealand and Norway at Eden Park on July 20, 2023 in Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau

In the following weeks, during every match at Eden Park a similar scene would happen again at halftime: the lights would go out, “A Sky Full of Stars” by Coldplay would start playing, and all the fans would light up the stands with their phones. It was my favorite moment every night. It was enough to help me forget about the bitter – for a Brazilian – New Zealand winter and the muscle pain from carrying around 20 pounds of camera gear.

Nights at Eden Park became routine. I’d get to the stadium hours before the first whistle, set up all the camera gear, and head to the pitch to watch as the stadium filled up with fans from all over the globe. The fans are a huge part of what makes an event like the Women’s World Cup so special.

During the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group E match between Portugal and Vietnam at Waikato Stadium on July 27, 2023 in Hamilton / Kirikiriroa, New Zealand

As someone who grew up in Rio de Janeiro, passionate soccer fans are no strangers to me. However, when you’re at a World Cup this passion is on another level — the fans travel from everywhere in the world to support their nation and their athletes. They dress from head to toe in the colors of their nation and scream through the whole match to show their support, regardless of the weather, the score, or anything else that might be going on. It’s something beautiful to experience.

Fan support gains a new meaning when you think that the Women’s World Cup is the biggest event in women’s sports, and this level of support for women athletes is unmatched. It’s not a secret that many of the athletes playing at the tournament had to fight to get to where they are — the battles ranged from social media hate to lack of funding — so every fan that shows their support and love for this event is supporting something that is much bigger than just the game.

Colombia celebrate victory with fans during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group H match between Germany and Colombia at Sydney Football Stadium on July 30, 2023 in Sydney / Gadigal

The Women’s World Cup highlighted female empowerment — and it wasn’t just the athletes. Everywhere I went I saw amazing, talented women working to make that event happen: the athletes, of course, but also the people working behind the scenes, the journalists covering the event, etc. Women were involved with every level of putting this event together.

On top of being hardworking and great at their jobs, all of the women I met while working at the tournament were willing to help the newcomers in the industry, such as myself. The sports industry can be quite competitive, so meeting experienced women in the industry who were more than happy to help and provide some guidance was a highlight of the event for me. More than offering their help, they were supportive of my work and genuinely interested in making this experience unforgettable to me.

Ali Riley of New Zealand celebrates with her mother after the team's 1-0 victory in the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group A match between New Zealand and Norway

The meaning of this Women’s World Cup is beyond what I can put into words. But it’s easy for me to say that being part of a historic event for women's sports is what I’m taking with me for the rest of my life and career. I saw history being made in front of my eyes and my photos helped immortalize some of those moments that happened at Eden Park, like New Zealand’s first victory in the tournament and Vietnam’s debut at the event.

If my experience working as a photographer for the group stage of the event was the first real “taste” of what my future work in the sports industry might look like, it reassured me that I’ve chosen the right career path. I might have left a tiny mark in the history of the 2023 Women’s World Cup with my work at the event, but the event left a huge mark on me.

Matthew Gelhard, Photographer in Dunedin

Matthew Gelhard, Photographer in Dunedin

What I was able to see through the viewfinder of my camera at the Women’s World Cup is that soccer may be played on the pitch, but the game pulls just as hard on the heart of each fan who walks in the stadium. You can feel it in the air, you can hear it in their voices, and you can see it in their eyes. The journey of preparing for and attending this event made us better journalists, better people, and gave us a pathway to better serve the audience we are working for.

Luke Vargas, Sports writer in Hamilton

Luke Vargas, Sports writer in Hamilton

I’ve been a lifelong football fan, and for me, the World Cup is the pinnacle of sport. The history of the game was being written right before my eyes. I not only witnessed the world’s best players compete on the biggest stage in sports, but as a football journalist, this is the biggest stage for my work as well. I honed my craft and sharpened my skills covering the highest level of women’s football: It was nothing short of a dream come true.