She gets the photo: A Michigan State University student’s journey to becoming a sports photographer

I’ve always been very proud to be a woman. When I first got into sports photography during college, I saw my gender as an opportunity to prove more.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every two women employed in sports, there are, on average, just over seven men. This stat backs up the sports industry’s history as a “boys club” — because women don’t know anything about sports, right? No, very wrong.

I grew up playing different sports my whole life. Being from Chicago, I’ve had the joy of having several professional sports teams with cult-like supporters in my city. All of my life I’d rather go to a Cubs baseball game than to the mall or any other activity that would be labeled “girly.”

This early fan base cemented my love for the sport from an early age. When I entered college, I knew I wanted to work in sports. I just didn’t know where I belonged in the sports industry. However, two years after arriving on campus, I discovered my love for sports photography.

Sarah Smith photographed during a 2022 MSU football game.

The first sport I photographed was baseball – my favorite sport. I was a team photographer for the Kane County Cougars, a minor league baseball team based outside of Chicago, and I was scared. I not only threw myself into a new job that I had previously only considered a hobby, but also into an industry that is extremely male-dominated. At first I was shy and shy and scared of getting in someone’s way. I was afraid people would wonder what a 20-year-old woman was doing on a field with professional baseball players. While I was limited to the safety of the photo fountain for the first few games, I was starting to get bored with the photos I was taking.

One of my biggest photography mentors was Brad Repplinger, another photographer for the Cougars. One of the most important pieces of advice he gave me was, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”

One of the first photos I ever took of a sport. Dark, miscropped and soft.

I soon found that my skills and access had nothing to do with my gender. I started stepping out of my comfort zone and looking at the players from different angles before and during the game. Finding new seats in the stands created new angles that allowed me to interact with the fans. Not once was I asked about my skills. I even ran to the center of the field between innings to get unique views of the pitchers and catchers warming up. As my confidence grew, my content improved. The players knew better where I was with my camera so I could take really fun pictures of them posing. That brought out their personalities for fans on social media.

Coming back to MSU after my time with the Cougars to start my junior year, I knew I had to find a way to become a sports photographer at MSU. A friend of mine was involved with the WDBM-Impact website and I asked if they needed sports photographers.

The answer was, “We don’t have sports photographers.” Well, now they have. I knew this was my opportunity to continue my newfound passion for sports photography. I became Impact’s sports photographer and photographed every sporting event I could come to. With every game I shot my photos got better and better and I realized I could really do this.

One of the most recent sports photos I’ve taken. A huge improvement.

I tried to be as confident as possible in MSU sports shooting, just like I learned from my time with the Cougars. At smaller sporting events I learned how everything works and made connections.

It wasn’t until I photographed my first men’s basketball game that I realized why women are so reluctant to get into the industry.

I was nervous and shy as I walked through the Breslin Center’s media entrance and had to ask a few people for directions to the media room. I checked in with anyone I needed and was made aware of the assigned shooting ranges on the floor at basketball games. I found Impact’s spot (which I only had for half the game) and set about setting up my camera gear before the game started. When I returned to my seat, a middle-aged man was sitting where I should be. I asked him if he could make some space for me since that was my space, to which he replied by telling me to find space on the other side of the floor. I got pushed around and let it happen. There’s no way of knowing if he made that comment because I was young, a woman, and a college student, but it’s pretty safe to say that that wouldn’t happen if I were a man.

Sarah Smith with the National Championship trophy at the NCAA Photos Men’s Final Four Workshop.

I didn’t really tell anyone about this experience because it seemed insignificant to me. I continued to work for Impact for the next two years and was even promoted to a paid position as a sports photography coordinator. I’ve socialized, I’ve honed my sports photography skills, but most importantly, I’ve felt extremely valued as the only woman on Impact’s paid sports team.

The incident at my first men’s basketball game seemed minor at the time because I hadn’t really felt what it was like to be respected by my teammates. My photos speak for themselves and it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman who takes them.

My camera has taken me to some pretty cool places during my time at MSU. I was lucky enough to photograph Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl 2021; 2022 Champion’s Classic; the first, second and third rounds of Men’s March Madness 2023 and the NCAA Photos Final Four Workshop. A common theme of all of these events was that I was the only or one of the few women on the floor taking photos.

There will always be male photographers who think they can court female photographers based on gender alone, but one of the great things about being a woman in the industry is the network of supportive women around me.

I no longer have to try to prove my skills to anyone. What remains of my four years at MSU is a desire to prove where my skills can take me. I feel so fortunate to be in a place where I feel valued by my peers and this validation will help me move forward. My hope is that every woman who steps onto the court or field can emerge from the East Lansing sanctuary as a strong woman in a male-dominated industry, trusting in my skills and experience.


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