This is work in progress. I am not where I want to be, but I believe I am on the right track.
I have always loved photographing high school sports. The biggest reason: access.
One of my favorite examples of access goes back to my early days in Indiana. I covered the state basketball championship run of Tecumseh High School. I’d spent quite a bit of time covering the team leading up to the game. This proved valuable when I overheard a conversation about a pre-season bet made between one of the players and his grandfather. The grandfather had promised to shave his head bald and paint it red (the school colors) for the championship game if his grandson’s team was to make it to the championship.
The grandfather proudly allowed his wife to shave his head and paint it bright red when Tecumseh won the championship–and readers of the Evansville Courier were treated to an unexpected picture. I think it told more about the story of this southern Indiana basketball community than any action photos could. (Note: This is where my ss.com icon came from)
It’s pretty easy to tell a compelling story about sports when you are actually allowed to witness those stories from beginning to end, with access to the key players.
Portland currently has one major professional team, the Portland Trail Blazers. Each season since moving to Portland in 2000, I have been assigned a handful of games each season. The games were assigned to the photographer working the night shift on game day. For the first several years, I would request for some sort of behind-the-scenes access from the team, but was denied. I tried asking over and over and was met with the same response: No.
I wanted to change that answer. The approach I decided on would take an investment of both time and a little money.
Below is an excerpt from a letter I sent to the GM and VP of basketball operations for the Blazers.
It is difficult to tell you exactly what I would photograph since I have never been allowed the kind of access I’m requesting. I imagine wanting to photograph pre-game rituals, players volunteering in the community or just relaxing between games on the team plane. My experience tells me that the best moments cannot be planned. It will just take an investment of time on my part and trust on your part.
The readers of the Oregonian do not learn much about the team’s culture with the coverage we currently offer. In our photo selection, we try to offer the readers a report of the game. This often comes with an action picture. Even the best action pictures, in time, lose their relevance. Look at any action picture from the Blazers 1977 championship game and compare it with the images all of Portland remembers. It isn’t the action people remember, it’s the images off the court. The parade, the celebration and emotional reactions are the images that we all remember. Imagine the public’s fervor if they were able to see the types of photographs I could make with greater access to the team.
I recognized that the biggest problem was that nobody knew who I was. I had photographed hundreds of Blazer basketball games. I worked hard and did a fine job, but to the organization, I was just another face on the sideline. The players didn’t know me and the management didn’t know me–why would they care about what I wanted?
This needed to change. I came up with three approaches I would try to make this happen.
1. Increase time around the team
The first thing I did was explain my goal to my editors. We have two Blazer beat writers, why not a Blazer beat photographer? So over the past two seasons, I have been the primary photographer for the Oregonian’s coverage of the Portland Trail Blazers. I photographed about 50 Blazer games each season. That alone has helped. I am a familiar face at the games and some practices. That helped me forge a good relationship with the PR staff, but not much more.
The bigger problem is that I am behind a camera. The writers have great relationships with the players and spend hours throughout a season talking with those players, as well as the coaches and managers. I never talked to them; I had no reason to. I also lack that charming Rod Mar personality that can open doors on its own.
I show up early. I stay late. Fifty-three times since October, I claimed my spot on the floor to document the games. This is what is expected of my job at the newspaper. Although I found some nice images by going early and late, I have found this time valuable to get to know the many faces that go into the game: security guards, equipment managers, coaches, and fans.
In addition to the games, I try to attend community events that the newspaper would not otherwise cover. Players are required to makes appearances at community events throughout the season. I’ve found these events offer a little behind-the-scenes access. These are scripted events, but they often do go off script. At one particular event to promote reading, Dante Cunningham and Brandon Roy were supposed to cheer and coach as two students at a local elementary school competed in a tricycle race in the school gym. Cunningham and Roy couldn’t resist. They jumped on the trikes and raced each other. It was a real moment and more telling of these athletes’ personalities than any jump shot photograph.
2. Get face time
After my first full season as the beat photographer, I used Aperture to assemble a book. I carefully edited the book to highlight the pictures that captured images beyond the typical action shots. With the support of the newspaper, I made a handful of copies to give to the major players within the organization.
I set up appointments with each person and hand-delivered each book. This provided an opportunity for face time. I sat in the office of the team’s president, coach, general manager, and vice president of basketball operations and presented each of them a book. I also gave copies to the players on the team that I knew had influence within the organization.
These meetings varied in success. Each time, I emphasized my goal, which was simply to get away from the standard action way we covered the team to a way that showed the culture of the team. I wasn’t pushy. I didn’t ask for anything. I just wanted to let them know who I was and what I valued.
3. Showcase my work
One of these meetings spurred a conversation with GM Kevin Pritchard. He and others within management wanted a “hustle wall,” pictures to display in their practice facility that showed the players hustling. I agreed to provide them with files they could print, but I wanted something in exchange. I suggested that I be given display space in the team’s training room at the Rose Garden, where the players hang out before each home game. I wanted to hang a gallery of my pictures throughout this season.
This idea came from Bryan Moss, my former boss in Evansville, IN. He documented and published a book about a 1992 graduating class at a California high school. I recall him telling me that the kids were not opening up and were uncomfortable as he wandered the halls of their school. He started a gallery of prints in the hallway of the school and changed the pictures each week. It became a huge hit with the students. They began to open up, hoping that their picture would end up in the gallery.
At the beginning of the 2010 Trail Blazers season, the team arranged for a gallery of six images. Throughout the season, I changed out the 13×19’’ prints every other game. There was usually a theme to the edit. The pictures that the players appreciated most were ones that included their families. I had a couple of complaints over the season, but I was just fine with that. I knew they were looking and it caused conversation, and that’s really what I wanted–a conversation.
Of course the response from wealthy NBA players has been very different from Bryan’s high schoolers. There haven’t been any requests from the players to get them into the gallery. I do think they enjoy it just as much, though.
This Blazers’ season will be defined by the injuries suffered by the team. The players have missed a combined 311 games due to injuries this season. One of the most traumatic injuries was when Center Greg Oden’s season ended abruptly as he fell to the court after his patella (knee) broke in half. He was carried off the floor on a stretcher. I went to the hallway and waited to photograph the injured player being wheeled down the long corridor to the team’s locker room.
This was when I knew things were changing. In the past, I am sure someone would have been upset that “the media” was back there and I would have been asked to leave. But that didn’t happen. In fact, a really nice moment happened next and I was there to photograph it. The team’s chaplain came around the corner and met the doctors and Oden in the hallway. While chaplain All Egg prayed with Oden for a minute, I quietly snapped one frame and respected the moment. Then they were gone, headed for an x-ray.
I was curious if there would be any fallout from the Oregonian publishing the behind-the-scenes moment. It worried me that someone on the PR staff would get in trouble for allowing me to stay back there. I didn’t hear much, only that the team wanted to order two large prints of the picture.
This process is all about trust. Now that I am a familiar face and as they become more comfortable with having me around, I’m very excited to see where this takes me.
There is a short list of famous photographers getting behind-the-scenes access in the big leagues that most of us can only dream of. Walter Iooss’ work with Michael Jordan is one of the reasons I am in the business. There are other photographers out there who have better access and better pictures of the NBA world, but this is my reality. I’m not Walter Iooss. I’m not a team photographer. I’m a journalist at a newspaper. The door has been closed for a long time and I am doing what I can to crack it open a bit.