UNC Lacrosses Project: Why Do It? And How It’s Going.

After finishing the Andrew Brackman project I wanted to start a new project that provided a good challenge. As early as Spring 2007, I knew the project would be about lacrosse. Lacrosse is such an interesting sport in both the play and the equipment. On the field the action makes lacrosse one the most photographically interesting sports to capture on film. Very fast moving with little time to sit and “chimp” unlike with football where there is more dead time than playing time. (‘chimp’ is a photographer’s term to mean when a photographer is looking at pictures on the back of their digital camera and not watching the action.) Sportswriter and successor to Walter Camp, Grantland Rice, is credited with this often quoted observation about lacrosse:

“Once in a while they argue about the fastest game – hockey or basketball; then about the roughest game – boxing, football or water polo. But when it comes to the top combination the answer is lacrosse – the all star combination of speed and body contact. It requires more elements of skill than any game I know.”

The equipment employed is equally interesting, notably the stick. I’ve started to realize more and more the symbiotic relationship between a player and his lacrosse stick. Lacrosse players have different options for how to string the stick and stringing a stick is an art form of its own. I know of no other sport where there is such a close relationship between a player and his gear, or the ability to personalize their gear to their exacting standards. The action and the equipment combines to make lacrosse a compelling and visually interesting sport to photograph both on and off the field.

After lacrosse became the obvious choice I struggled between going with Duke or UNC. I want to say first I had a great experience with Duke when I went with them to Baltimore for the Final Four in 2007. Coach John Danowski was exceedingly friendly to me both then and to this day. Same goes for the players and sports information director Art Chase. Choosing between the two schools was not an easy choice by any measure. However, below is why UNC made sense for me:

My first “real” experience doing sports photography was my sophomore year at UNC out on the turf of Henry Stadium (back before Henry Stadium was built and therewere metal bleachers in its place) photographing a lacrosse scrimmage on February 14, 1998 vs Radford. I say “real” because until then my only experiences in sports photography were up in the bleachers of Fetzer Field – way too far away from the action to get decent photos. But at Henry there was not as much security at field level as there was at Fetzer, so I sat myself down at midfield on the sidelines and started snapping away. Sitting there could have probably gotten me thrown out of the place, but I never was and got some decent shots out of the game. I had so much fun with the experience that I was hooked both on sports photography and lacrosse ever since. Moreso, I became fan of UNC lacrosse after that. While a student I met a handful of UNC lax players including #43 and current assistant coach Judd Lattimore.

So working with UNC made sense for me. I had been a fan of the team for nearly 10 years now and more importantly I was an alum of UNC. I felt comfortable there and UNC lacrosse was a part of my heart. UNC lacrosse sports information director Dave Lohse is the first person to have ever hired me, so I felt like I owed it to him. Last season I had slowly grown to know a few of the current players so I would not be walking into a situation where I didn’t know a soul — another big plus.

Finally, I wanted to be able to give something back to my alma mater and a team I have enjoyed watching so much. I hope the players will appreciate this body of work when they get older. I also hope it helps bring attention to this team and the great things happening there. Honestly, I would not donate so much of my time to most sports like I am doing now for UNC lacrosse. A long project like this is a huge time commitment for me and for any potential project I have to be excited about the subject before I’ll ever consider picking up the camera. If I were to do this for other sports, it would have taken financial incentives to get me to invest the time to do the project.

Beyond altruistic reasons this will be a great way for me to grow as a photographer. Just as working with Andrew Brackman was a learning experience, so will working with lacrosse team. I will (at least I hope I will) come out of this more creative as a photographer with the ability to find new and exciting angles in a long-term project. Going to the weight room over and over tends to get mundane – it takes some serious creative thinking to find new angles in situations like this.

Now for a mid-year update and reflection.

First, I can’t believe we are already halfway through the year. It seems like only yesterday that I was in Dave Lohse’s office pitching this idea. That said, I am looking forward to 2nd semester because that is when things should really start getting interesting. The season starts and that is where I’m expecting some of the best photos to come from. I was looking back at the photos I did in Baltimore with the Duke team in the Final Four. In only a short period (Memorial Day weekend) I was able to produce a really compelling set of photos. When I assessed at the two month mark where I was with the UNC project, I was pretty disappointed with where I was. I couldn’t figure out why there was so much more in the Duke photos than with UNC. I finally realized there were two contributing factors: First, I’m taking it a little easier and not stressing myself out with producing a body of work in a short period of time. When I was with Duke, the first game I didn’t know if I would be back on the bus to Durham afterwards with a potential loss to Cornell. So I photographed the heck of them in the locker room. With UNC, I’m taking if much slower and doing more thinking instead of shooting. I’m thinking on new angles and ideas to try to make the photos that I take count. Having a long period of time to produce a body of work is therefore less stressful on me. The second reason is there haven’t been the intense pre-game moments with UNC that I got with Duke. Obviously there have been no games, so this is to be expected. I had some great stuff with Duke of players putting on eye black, working on their sticks and so forth. I think these opportunities will present themselves once UNC’s season kicks in gear.

Back to the mid-year assessment, the second observation is that this is definitely taking a lot of my time. I’m fortunate that my job is flexible and I can leave before 5pm. Otherwise, I would never be able to catch all of these 3:30 weight lifting sessions and practices. The down side is I still have to make up that time at work, so when I work with the team, I would have to come back home and put in another 2 or more hours for my day job. Then I have to go through all the photos, delete the bad ones, then caption and archive the better ones. For every hour I’m with the team producing photos, I typically have to take another hour or two editing photos. With making up the hours in my day job, plus the editing it takes, it has certainly eaten up my free time. Not that I had a lot to start with. Us sports photographers usually have our nights and weekends destroyed by commitments. So figuring in my day job, the lacrosse project and my prior commitments photographing football, basketball and other games, my last few months have been busy. If I can survive basketball season, I should be fine.

Third observation, I’m having fun. Despite the hours, I have not regretted the decision of doing this project and assume that life would be much more boring without it. As I sit here over Christmas vacation, I find myself missing the project. I can’t wait to get started again.

Fourth, the guys have been easy to work with. Getting the “behind-the-scenes” scenes requires me to be in the personal lives. I told Brackman that I felt like his stalker at times. It’s the same today with this project. I feel awkward at times picking up the camera and photographing one of the guys while they are in their apartment for example. Or when I was out with some of the sophomores eating out in Chapel Hill. It feels like I’m invading their privacy at times, even if I did come out with them on their own volition. Still, they have been great about inviting me in their lives. Without their trust and access they have given me, the project would not be feasible.

As 2007 gives way to 2008, I’m looking forward to this next half of the project. The ride should be fun.