Photo by Madeleine Penfold of ex footballer and TV presenter Alex Scott wearing tailored trousers, a cropped t-shirt, and heels, while sitting on a perspex chair facing off camera to the left, with flags from around the world draped in the background and along the floor

Photographing the stars of women’s football

As the Women’s World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand, photographer Madeleine Penfold talks to us about how she works with sporting talent, her thoughts on brands, and how she uses negative perceptions as fuel

Women’s football seems to be going from strength to strength. The heady highs of the Euros 2022 tournament, which sent the game into the stratosphere, are set to rise further with the World Cup taking place across in New Zealand and Australia this summer. Photographer Madeleine Penfold, who has worked with England’s Lionesses on multiple occasions, along with leading clubs and sports brands, is heading there independently with her own mini-squad of football friends to document the buzz and fandom around the tournament.

The vibe around the game has come a long way since Penfold started out, when women’s clubs were often portrayed as “a little team that played in a back garden” compared to the gloss of the men’s game. She cut her teeth capturing male footballers, after an opportunity came up to photograph Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, followed by gigs with Real Madrid, Manchester United, and New Balance. Two years in, she found her portfolio filled with male football stars, but found herself asking: where are the women? “These men were put on a podium, photographed in this heroic way, and I was, nah, I want to put some effort and energy into this,” she says of the women’s game. Like a modern-day Robin Hood, she began to take the money she earned photographing the men’s game and poured it into pro bono projects capturing women players.

Finally, the winds changed and “now the budgets are there and the exposure is there”. She says that the US national team were instrumental in putting the women’s game on the map, after campaigning to get equal pay. Likewise, many people will have heard of Megan Rapinoe as a personality before they saw her performances on the pitch. It all drew attention to the sport, nonetheless. By the time the Euros 2022 came around, Penfold noticed more and more brands starting to align themselves with women’s football, and the Lionesses’ win did wonders in England. “It was like this huge explosion of ‘women’s football is here’. Look at the level it’s at. They sold out Wembley. Look at everything that it encompasses.”

Photo by Madeleine Penfold of four Manchester United women's players smiling with their arms around one another, photographed stood behind a goal net
Top: Alex Scott for BBC; Above: Man United WFC