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Photographing Michael Phelps in an Aquarium Tank

Photographer Simon Bruty shares the stories behind some of Phelps’s iconic pictures.
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Michael Phelps just wouldn’t stop moving. Sure, being inside a tank at the National Aquarium in Baltimore alongside the sea creatures that typically inhabit it could make anyone squirm. But this is Olympic legend Michael Phelps we’re talking about.

“What’s going on?” Sports Illustrated photographer Simon Bruty shouted to his assistant on the shoot.

After a long pause, the assistant responded. Phelps had to go to the bathroom.

“Lucky enough,” Bruty says, “the person who was making sure we didn't kill all the fish, he was near me, and said, ‘You know, don't worry about it. He can take a leak in the tank.’ And he did.”

Then, after coercing the fish to get back into the frame, Bruty got his shot, despite calling the experience “traumatic.”

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Bruty discussed photographing Phelps and other Olympic stars with Sports Illustrated for our Full Frame video series.

The shoot in the aquarium wasn’t the first time Bruty photographed the swimmer. Bruty first met Phelps in Athens in 2004. Through the years, Bruty relies on one aspect to help him shoot some of the most famous athletes in the world.

“Making that connection with your subjects is pretty key,” he says.

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But even if he’s able to find that connection with an athlete, cover shoots, in particular, can get wonky. From memory cards not having images on them to balancing the complex schedules of multiple athletes, dealing with mishaps becomes the norm, Bruty says.

“Photographing any Sports Illustrated cover, the photographs themselves are not necessarily the best images that you've taken that day, to be honest with you. But what is very difficult about those covers, and particularly when you get more than one subject in your frame, you end up dealing with a lot of logistics,” Bruty says.

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You can watch the full story about the complications during Bruty’s cover shoot involving Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles in this Full Frame video. If you are interested in more of the behind-the-scenes stories of Sports Illustrated photography, you can keep up with all of the Full Frame videos in this Youtube playlist and on Instagram on the @sifullframe page.

Have questions, comments, or feedback about Sports Illustrated's newsletters? Send a note to josh.rosenblat@si.com.

Full Frame is Sports Illustrated's exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI's historic photography.

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