Pro Athletes Turned Photographers: Is It a Problem?

Pro Athletes Turned Photographers: Is It a Problem?

There is a history of actors becoming directors, models become designers, and, more recently, athletes becoming photographers. Isaac Rochell, defensive end for the Los Angeles Chargers, is one of the latest to step up to the lens. More often than not, the photography of these second career artists focuses on their first career: sport. What do you think about second-career photographers?

Whenever the conversation turns to athlete photographers there are, rightfully so, questions about access. For example, does Ken Griffey Jr. deserve to be given field passes and an assignment by ESPN at the Fiesta Bowl? Does he deserve this in light of all the working photographers that would have benefited from this chance? I'm sure being Randy Johnson helped Johnson get access to certain NASCAR pits. Similarly, it's likely that Rochell's status as a professional athlete facilitated his recent shoot with Maurice Hooker, current World Jr. Welterweight boxing champ. To be honest though, all three seem to have a knack for it. 

Personally, I appreciate how they use their platform. Griffey Jr. has taken time to ask his massive followings to look at the work of other photographers.

Rochell has been using his platform to highlight the mental health dangers of social media, something that comes up here on Fstoppers time and time again. Check out the #seeyouonsunday hashtag. 

I think that as we enter into this discussion it's important that we remember that the world is not a meritocracy. Who you are, where you are, and when you are, are as important to success as talent and hustle. 

Getting access to sporting events or to other athletes isn't different than the kids of soccer and pop stars being given advertising campaigns, is it? In fact, I'd suggest that athletes being given access to sporting events for photography requires much more work than being born to famous parents. These athletes have spent decades learning their sport and being involved in sport generally. 

In these sport cross-over cases, the new photographers at least have a deep understanding of sport that helps to facilitate the photography. They're going to understand the rhythm of the game much more than most. Their insights will be different than even those who have been shooting sports for decades.

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Had to flick this man up. @samoromeo

A post shared by Isaac Rochell Photo (@isaacrochellphoto) on

Don't get me wrong, I'm still a fan of Walter Iooss's ability to capture the action (I had The Catch on my wall as a teenager for almost a decade):

And see the poetry in sport:

The photography first photographers often have a touch of art to them that second career photographers would be best to learn and hone before showing up at important sporting events to shoot. But, these athlete photographers do bring something unique to the table: an understanding of the effort it takes to be on the field. Something that comes through in their photography.

A recent article on Rochell by Eric D. Williams, a staff writer at ESPN, sheds a a bit of light on Rochell's hobby.

What I did find interesting about the ESPN article is Rochell's understanding that photography is work.

But this, Rochell adds, pointing to his subject, drenched in sweat [...] He's training and you have to find unique ways to find a shot that people would enjoy.

I know pro photographers that don't spend this much time thinking about what they're shooting. Spray and pray can be the mantra. I find Rochell's desire to learn admirable.

What do you think?

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48 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

Why would it be a problem?

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

There has been a lot of noise made about athletes being given access to certain events to be the photographers for the event without all of the experience. I'm saying that I don't think that that is a problem. The sixth and seventh paragraphs.

Michael Jin's picture

Seems like people just being salty.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I think people are protective of how they put food on the table. I'm just asking that they take time to think (or read).

Michael Jin's picture

That's fine, but it isn't as if all photographers are on equal standing either. Photography isn't a meritocracy like that. Even among photographers, people have different connections and will leverage them for access so anyone who is angry about this is probably just gong to be an angry person overall because life's not fair.

Alternatively, they're always free to go become sports stars themselves if they think it's an easy way in.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

"Alternatively, they're always free to go become sports stars themselves if they think it's an easy way in." Well put!
I couldn't agree more that photography isn't a meritocracy.

Yes, why would that be a problem?

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

There has been a lot of noise made about athletes being given access to certain events to be the photographers for the event without all of the experience. I'm saying that I don't think that that is a problem. The sixth and seventh paragraphs.

Xander Cesari's picture

This is just a very exaggerated case of photography in the social media age; it's not just what you know and who you know anymore it's also who you are. It's similar to a photographer with 150k followers vs one with 1500 followers competing for the same job but in the case of an athlete they have a fame and credibility that extends even beyond their follower count and social engagement.

High quality photography has gotten continually cheaper and more accessible with advancing technology. I think one of the coolest effects of this is the dual-expertise photographer. Photography anddddd... whatever else someone is passionate about. People are getting so good at sharing their unique experiences and lifestyles.

I know this is controversial to people who are solely passionate about photography or professionals who feel pushed to be personalities. I have sympathy for that situation. But I also love seeing amazing photos showcasing my non-photography passions from the inside. I think this pro-sumer style of photography as a second vocation will only get more popular.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I agree. This 'seeing it from the inside' certainly has major benefits for those that are passionate about the activity itself.

Tony Clark's picture

As long as he’s not giving it away or lowballing, talent is always welcome.

So uh... why is this a problem?

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

There has been a lot of noise made about athletes being given access to certain events to be the photographers for the event without all of the experience. I'm saying that I don't think that that is a problem. The sixth and seventh paragraphs.

Yes, I read the first and second times you typed that exact response; I'm just messing with ya

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'm a little slow on the up take sometimes!

Rob Mitchell's picture

I know an ex International professional cyclist, always had an interest in photography so when he got to the end of his career, he switched to photography of cycling related stuff. Of course he has access to that world, of course he uses it, why on earth would anyone have issues with that? He's billing them the same as anyone else in that niche.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

There is certainly a group of photographers that aren't necessarily big fans of 'second career' photographers. I think it's an interesting phenomenon and I tend to like it.

Rob Mitchell's picture

If they can cut it and can deliver, their clients are happy, they are happy. I think it's great.

Steve Molder's picture

Why not? I have always intermixed my photography with the sports I was interested in. On days when I want to “take it easy” I will choose to pick up the camera to photograph my friends in action. Depending on the sport we may not always be physically able to participate, but we can still involve ourselves in the action by documenting and capturing our interests & passions. If they have an eye for it, and people are willing to pay...more power to them!

Benton Lam's picture

A lot of photography requires access; Ted Forbe's interview of Laura Wilson states that she took her time to gain trust with the Hutterites so that eventually they'd let her take photos of them.

Landscape photographers often spend time trawling over maps, looking over weather charts, to find the right time and place for that amazing shot.

Frankly, being a pro athlete is a rather circuitous way to cultivate access to sports photography. It seems like in the examples, their work stands for itself.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I couldn't agree with that analogy more!!!

Mike Gillin's picture

Can they be photographers? Sure. Will they be successful? That's up to them. A lot of photography is about access, and there's an old adage about access that says it's 'who ya know'. That's true in a lot of fields. So yeah, being famous, can help make those connections, that is life.

Personally, I don't see an issue, and think that can bring a different viewpoint based on their experience.

Daniel Medley's picture

"I think that as we enter into this discussion it's important that we remember that the world is not a meritocracy. Who you are, where you are, and when you are, are as important to success as talent and hustle."

I believe it's more nuanced than this. Sure, at first, the initial access is not based on meritocracy, but so what? It's always been that way. However, after the access has been granted, whether you're successful or not is absolutely based on meritocracy.

Personally, I place a high value on the perspective of those who come from within.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

"Come from within" is a great way to put it. There is something to be said for "the knowledge." I agree. I don't agree that clients walk away from bad photographers who have giant social followings. I think we're close to being on the same page though.

There is, I believe a lot to be said for someone who's played the sport to be photographing it.

And I'm not bothered by their access. That's part of what you get paying years of dues in the field. And I don't see an 'obligation' to be a stepping stone for others (though sometimes it's nice). Like everything else in life, you play the cards you're dealt..if your work is good enough to keep the audience (and sponsors happy), do the job.

Andrew Morse's picture

I see nothing wrong with this at all. It's no different then when athletes transition to other parallel roles i.e. coaches, GMs, commentators etc. All of those roles benefit from their experience in the sport but require some additional skillsets. Many transition to those roles and fail - it shouldn't be any different with photography. Their past experience may get them in the door, but if they can't do the job then they'll be out like anyone else.

I would think that a well-respected athlete whose transitioned to photography may be able to get images that could be tougher for other photographers to get. The history/reputation of a retired athlete/photographer may encourage other athletes to be more candid or open than they otherwise would.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I never thought about the candid and open aspect. Nice thought!

“Don’t get me wrong”. I thought the article had a number of back handed compliments and a touch of jealousy. All successful photographers have some sort of advantage that they exploit. Lenny Kravitz (access to pop stars /models).does it and so did Ansel Adams (access to parks etc) . An awful lot of photographers are ex something else. Nothing wrong with sports people doing the same. Professional sports is often a short career.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I'm not jealous. I'll take exception to that. My article actually went on to talk about how I appreciate the gaze of the former athlete.
I really do appreciate the view of former athletes. And I do agree, professional sports may be highly paid, but the career is short, we agree on that.

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