It was the middle of the fourth quarter, and it had been sleeting heavily for almost two hours. I was dressed warmly enough as I stood on the sidelines of the football field at William Monroe High School, but I had forgotten to bring a hat or gloves. My glasses were soaked, and the eyepiece of my camera had fogged up; the players were mere blobs in the viewfinder. My hands had grown so cold that I could no longer use my left thumb. If that happened on the right hand, I would not be able operate the autofocus function on my camera. So between each play, I sucked my thumb to keep it warm.
And I was there because I love it.
I started my career as a newspaper photographer, where I got to shoot all kinds of sporting events, including bowl games, NBA championships, more NFL games than I can count and, in 1984, the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Been there, done that. But now, 15 years after leaving the newspaper business, I volunteer to shoot high-school football games for Scrimmage Play, a local sports magazine and website that celebrates the athletes of Central Virginia.
Many have waxed poetically about the life lessons of playing football. To these, let me add four ways that photographing high-school football is a lesson in life itself:
First, it’s all about being there. Tweet this and virtual that, most of life still depends on being in the right place at the right time. Shooting football, you also have to pay attention, with the right lens and the right settings at the right moment.
And for access, nothing beats high-school football. A shmoe with a camera might not be able to get on the field, but if you have a valid reason — thank you, Scrimmage Play — you can be there, sometimes standing right next to the players. (For pro and college ranks, on the other hand, photographers are part of a herd, with sideline bouncers ready to prod us back into place for stepping six inches out of designated areas.)
Second, it’s all about second chances. In life, at the end of each day we can review how we’ve done. Thanks to the digital photography revolution, the same is true for shooting football. (In some other sports, the action moves too fast for meaningful review.) At the end of every play, I can see how I’m doing. If I’ve blown it, the next play will offer a chance at redemption.
Third, it’s all about hard lessons. A single blown photo can change the way I approach the rest of the game — or the rest of the season. I would love to show off a portfolio of the images that I have missed. They were great. But all I have to show are out-of-focus, out-of-frame shots, bad settings or bad moments. Some of them still hurt.
Fourth, it’s all about the nobility of craft. Shooting high-school football reminds me of my old life in newspapers, where a project can start and finish on the same day. These days, almost nothing is so clean and self-contained. So shooting football is just about executing my craft better in this game than the last.
Many years ago, when I ran the photo department at a major metropolitan newspaper, I was invited to give the opening talk at the first meeting of the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference in Ft. Worth, Texas. Following me would be the director of photography at National Geographic. I knew his tray of slides would be better than mine, so I tried an unusual approach for a speech at a photo conference: a 45-minute talk that showed no photos at all. The subject was how to avoid burnout as a photographer. It was very well received, but I only remember one of my points: Never stop being an amateur photographer.
For good reasons, professionalism is celebrated these days. But the word “amateur” is derived from the French word for “love.” You do something as an amateur because you love it. Thus I am an amateur husband, amateur father, amateur member of communities of faith. And, some of the time, an amateur photographer.
In any activity, the simplest pleasure comes from doing a job well for its own sake. Such a pursuit ispurely good, requiring no validation from money, nor the approval of others, nor even some utilitarian higher purpose. What we do most purely, we do out of love.
Posted originally in StoryMatters, the online magazine of Journey Group.