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How Does a Photographer Sum up the most Incredible Experience of their Career?

Photographer Dillon Vibes shares his experience attending the Special Olympics World Games 2023 through photographs he captured while in Berlin. Below is a collection of photos and personal insight to his most memorable times at the Games.

Ever since I picked up a camera and shot my first track meet it’s been my dream to photograph an international sporting event. Over a decade later, with hundreds of sporting events shot, I can finally say that I realized that dream through my coverage of the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin, Germany this past June.

I felt that the easiest way to describe what this experience meant to me was to pick my favorite photo from each day of the Games and to write about why I chose it.

Olympiastadion with 50,000 people in it
Olympiastadion filled with 50,000 people at the Opening Ceremony

Day 1

The Opening Ceremony was truly the most amazing event I’ve ever had the pleasure of photographing. It was nearly impossible to pick a favorite image from it, but I ended up choosing this one to show how epic and grand of an event it was. The ceremonies were held in the Olympiastadion Berlin, which is where the 1936 Olympic Games were held. To see thousands upon thousands of people come out to support Special Olympics and enthusiastically cheer on each and every athlete was enough to bring a tear to me eye many times over.

Athletes running on track with batons
Two athletes crossing the finish line in a Unified Athletics event

Day 2

This photo finish was part of what’s called a “Unified Sports Experience” in which Special Olympics athletes team up with Special Olympics Global Ambassadors to compete and enjoy sport together. Global Ambassadors are described as “icons of success” across all industries who lend their time, talent and resources to support the Special Olympics movement. So all week long, there were events like this, where individuals such as former NFL running back Jamaal Charles (right) competed directly alongside Special Olympics athletes. This photo, and these unified experiences in general, symbolize to me the power of sport to bring people together.

Athlete in green shirt celebrating with fists of joy
Special Olympics Ireland bocce athletes celebrating together

Day 3

If you would have told me before the World Games that the most electric sport I’d photograph is bocce, I probably would have laughed in your face. I also would have been very wrong to do so. This photo, taken immediately after Ireland’s bocce team secured the win and a spot on the podium brings a huge smile to my face every time I see it. There is nothing quite like the joy and exuberance of victory in sport, and those emotions were on full display during bocce competition.

Athletes running in the rain
Special Olympics runner collapses after crossing the finish line

Day 4

This image is without a doubt my favorite photo from the entirety of the World Games. The capturing of this moment was truly serendipitous. I had been walking by the track on my way to the football fields for my next assignment when I noticed they were gearing up for the 800m final. Rain was coming down pretty heavily, so I debated walking past and not risking water damage to my camera. Luckily, I ended up deciding that five minutes of exposure to the rain couldn’t be that bad for my gear. In those short 5 minutes I captured what ended up being the most emotionally charged and vulnerable moment that I witnessed throughout the entire Games. It’s moments like these that make me grateful for what I do and for where photography has taken me.

Athlete standing with four medals around their neck
Special Olympics rhythmic gymnast receiving her gold medal

Day 5

You’ll notice that this athlete has four medals around her neck. Due to the variety of events in rhythmic gymnastics, it’s not uncommon to receive multiple medals in a single competition. This moment and reaction, however, came after receiving her first gold medal. Despite having won three medals previous to this, it wasn’t until her name was called for gold that she started to tear up and display the wonderful emotions that she is. You can tell that this sport really means something to this athlete, that being at the World Games and competing at the highest level is important to her. And I love that.

Two competitors in karate uniforms on the mat competing
Two judo athletes entwined on the competition floor

Day 6

I don’t have anything super insightful to say about this image other than how epic and badass it is. This was my first time ever photographing Judo and it did not disappoint. I cannot even begin to imagine the level of strength, dexterity and mental fortitude it takes to compete in a sport like this.

Special Olympics powerlifter lifting a barbell
Special Olympics powerlifter competing at Berlin 2023

Day 7

Speaking of strength and mental fortitude, here’s one of my favorite powerlifting images from the World Games. This athlete is lifting 200 kilograms, or roughly 440 lbs., and as if evident by his facial expression, is giving every ounce of energy and effort he has. What I love so much about sport, and specifically about powerlifting, is that it’s one of the only times that we get to push our body to its absolute maximum potential. This athlete exemplifies strength and determination in such a wonderful way, and I’m grateful that I was able to photograph him.

Special Olympics Jamaica sprinter running with a baton in front of a crowd
Special Olympics Jamaica athlete competing in a track event

Day 8

The 8th day of the Games was amazing because it was the first and only day I didn’t have any specific assignments other than “create cool photos.” Given the chance to photograph any sport I want, I will almost always choose track and field. I love this particular photo for what it says about Special Olympics in general. What a lot of people don’t realize about Special Olympics is that while it does cater towards individuals with intellectual disabilities, it’s not just a cute sporting event where people with disabilities get a chance to compete. It’s an incredibly competitive and high-level competition where ridiculously good athletes participate. I love being able to show the high levels of athleticism within the Special Olympics community through my images.

Special Olympics athlete smiling
Special Olympics athlete taking part in a Unified sport experience

Day 9

I think this athlete’s smile says more about this image and why I chose it than I could ever try to in actual words. Taken during another “Unified Sports Experience” in which Special Olympics athletes competed alongside Global Ambassadors, the joy emanating from this athlete’s face is everything.

With any luck, I’ll get to have more incredible experiences in my life and career like I did photographing the Special Olympics World Games.

Images courtesy of Dillon Vibes.

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