A week into the greatest show on earth, it’s the image of the Games: a seven-shot, multi-exposure photo that captures the astonishing athleticism of the greatest gymnast in history.
And behind the lens was an Irishman, who also happens to be an Olympian: Bryan Keane.
Before we get to how that shot occurred, let’s start with the aftermath. Last Sunday in Tokyo, Keane – a staff photographer with Inpho – got a message from an employee on the desk back in Dublin, telling him he should really post that picture of Simone Biles.
Keane isn’t a big fan of Twitter, but he was happy with the image so he fired it up with a simple caption: 'I shot this today.'
It was the following afternoon when one of his bosses called him, Keane covering the Irish Rugby Sevens Game: “Is your phone blowing up?” Keane had no idea what he was talking about, his notifications disabled besides email and WhatsApp. He was told to look at Twitter. The image had gone viral, retweeted by Biles along with several Olympic accounts and a litany of famous names. So far it has almost 40,000 retweets and just shy of 350,000 likes.
As a kid, Keane’s dream was always to go to the Olympics, which the Cork triathlete fulfilled in 2016 in Rio. But following his retirement a year later a new vision took hold as he pursued a career in photography, which led him back to the Games in 2021.
“I lived that Olympic dream,” he says. “But what fed that dream was seeing it on TV and seeing iconic pictures of the Games. It led to my love of sport and Olympic sport. To now be on the other side of the lens and to create an iconic image of one of the greatest Olympians of all time, it’s been mind-boggling. I never expected it, I never planned it.”
Which brings us back to how it happened. Keane was at the Ariake Gymnastics Arena last Sunday with a simple brief: capture Irish gymnast Meg Ryan in the women’s all-around. With that box ticked, he had an hour to kill before relocating to the swimming arena so he decided to experiment.
The presence of Biles meant a horde of 30 or 40 photographers were following her every move, so Keane went one step ahead to her next rotation and staked out a good position by the vault. He chose that part of the arena because of the smooth black background in the corner – a key for photographers in avoiding clutter in their shots – and there he waited, biding his time.
“I was shooting the US team on practice runs, they were fine but I said, ‘I need something new.’ I knew that black background would work really well with a multi-exposure, something you don’t use that often where the camera takes however many frames and overlays them. There’d be a lot of trial and error.”
He watched a few gymnasts do practice runs and snapped them mid-air, first with a three-shot multi, then a five. “That was beginning to work, but it was three-quarters of a circle. I put it on seven and was manually focusing, so then I had it focused, ready to go.”
Looking down his lens, he couldn’t see which gymnast was approaching, only hearing the rhythmic thumps of their steps along the runway and the thud when they hit the vault and were sent flying into space. The first one he shot on that setting happened to be Biles.
He knew it was good when he saw it on his camera, and a look on his laptop confirmed it. The image went everywhere in the days after, shown on major TV networks in Australia and the US. The luck he had in it being Biles isn’t lost on Keane, allowing as it did the chance for the world to see his work.
“It’s the best photographers here, it’s the photography Olympics too, so you always want to create great imagery,” he says. “It’s kind of bizarre for it to come full circle: I’ve gone to the Games and now I’ve created an iconic Olympic image. It’s a really cool thing.”