Imagine striving to follow a compass as far North as you can make it. Every line of latitude feels like a milestone. A hallmark.
Sure, there are setbacks — sometimes geography will force you to traverse sideways before you can keep moving forward. Sometimes, you'll even have to turn back and find a different route. But the progress is definite. And with each new milestone, the clarity of your purpose intensifies.
An irony, that also intensifies, is that the closer you get to the goal, the less your compass actually guides you. Sometimes it wavers and falters in ways that never happened farther back. And once you actually Make It, the direction it points to is… anywhere else. Just not here.
So do you stop, or do you keep moving? And if you move, how can you possibly judge and evaluate your sense of progress? Was finding the North Pole worth it in the first place? Was the compass really guiding you in a direction that mattered? How would life have been different if you had travelled due East? Or West?
What if the compass was meaningless all along?
That's kind of what it can feel like to try to find your path in sports photography. But in sports, they call those lines of latitude "The Big Leagues."
They come in different shapes and sizes, but there's almost always a hierarchy. And regardless of which step you're on, each next step in that hierarchy constantly beckons. More money. More prestige. More opportunity.
And just like that Northern trek, it can be so easy to miss what we lose as we strive to answer that siren call. Usually the Big Leagues also require more sacrifice. More risk. Often, more conformity. Sometimes, less humanity.
I find that there's also often a tendency to become more conservative in those new spaces. The sense that we were admitted creates a peculiar sense of obligation — to reduce our work to the most-easily-accessible common denominator — in order to show that we were worth the risk. That tendency is coupled with a fear — that we might squander that one chance if the most unique aspects of our work don't resonate.
Of course, that's part of the challenge of working in a situation with unknown expectations. How much do you show that you have the skill to play by the rules, versus showing that you have the creativity to bend or break the rules in a way that makes sense? Is there a difference between the work that got you here and the work that would keep you here?
The goal, I think, is to turn a once-in-a-lifetime chance into regular, ordinary work. To reset our standard, as it were.
The challenge is to do so with our soul intact.
Let's be clear, though. I'm not here to give anyone concrete advice. After all, I'm just as in the middle of this journey as any other photographer. But I think it's often interesting to reflect on where I've been, where I am now, where I'd like to go, and the decisions that are tied up in all of this.
Where is my soul?
I've long approached sports photography from the perspective of truth before beauty — my goal is to tell meaningful stories. And if I can do that in a way that is beautiful, all the better. But it doesn't mean that I shy away from telling stories that need to be ugly. And it doesn't mean that I necessarily make ugly stories beautiful, even if the opportunity arises.
One aspect of traditional sports photography that's never quite worked for me is the idolization of individuals. I feel like there's a general expectation for, say, 90% of sports photos to focus on the individual. Here is one person experiencing the thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. And even in the team context: here is the singular person who led this team to victory. Who couldn't stave off defeat. Here's the same picture you've seen a thousand times, but this time with a couple different faces.
But, like, the reason I got away from photojournalism is because there are so many stories that can't be captured in a single frame. Context and nuance matter. I care about telling the fuller, more nuanced, more relevant versions of those stories.
But I feel like the canonical ideal of sports photography is to eliminate visual context at every corner. "Frame tighter. Crop tighter. Blur that background into oblivion. Get rid of useless clutter. Show 'peak emotion'…"
What about the confusion after an athlete does something that they still don't believe? The quiet in-between moments that often characterize the actual experience of competition? The acts of camaraderie that don't make sense in the context of "competition," but make perfect sense in the context of "community?"
What about the tension between an amazing athlete and an environment that wants her out of the limelight?
I think part of my role is to understand that living through those moments is so much of what has made sports feel worthwhile for me, as an athlete. And so, I need to keep noticing and highlighting and sharing those stories, even as stakes rise.
I think part of my role is to recognize if and when I get to a space where the important things aren't valued, and to have the patience and the discipline to change directions, even when the compass is still pointing North.