You graduated from the University of Missouri, where you studied photojournalism. Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
At age 13 I got my first Polaroid camera and I would mow lawns to get money for the film, which was expensive. It would spit out the Polaroid and you’d see it develop in front of your face and I couldn’t imagine anything in the world cooler than that. That was sort of the fish hook that I bit into, and I eventually got a film camera and it all kind of progressed from there. It was pretty obvious to me that if I could make a living doing it, that’s what I wanted to do.
What was your path like after you graduated?
I had a job offer before I graduated, which was remarkable. My first job was in San Bernardino which is about 55 miles east of L.A. It was really good for news. Every day was a train derailment or a fire or a SWAT team thing ... it seemed like I went on news every day. It was a Gannett newspaper, so I got to go into Los Angeles to do the Grammys and the Oscars. I got to do some cool stuff ... NBA finals with the Lakers.
Was that your first encounter shooting pro sports?
I had sort of set up myself as a sports guy in college, so I hadn’t done pro stuff but I had done a lot of college and high school stuff. Sports was naturally my weather vane of where I wanted to go. Then when I got to LA, I got to do some Dodgers games, I got to do NBA Finals, I got to do World Series.
What was it about sports that captured your attention?
I liked the fact that you didn’t get a second chance at it. You either got the play or you didn’t get the play. When you get it, it’s an amazing feeling.
A lot of people probably think shooting pro football is a glamorous job. What are the challenges?
I remember early on, when I worked in Topeka and I was shooting Chiefs for Topeka, I took my wife to one of my games. One quarter into it, she was like “I can’t believe how much running this is.” It is a tremendous thrill to shoot it, but I’m completely physically wiped out at the end of the game. I have knee pads on and my knees are killing me at the end. You’re sprinting with 20 pounds of gear on and these players that are fully padded with helmets on are coming at you and you have to avoid them. It seems glamorous and I think it is, but it’s also physically demanding and also somewhat dangerous.
Have you ever been pummeled by an athlete?
When I was shooting in California, Troy Aikman when he was at UCLA literally ran me over. The hardest I was ever hit was at a Mizzou football practice and this wide receiver came way out of bounds to try to catch a pass and all my gear broke and my lens snapped.
What’s your favorite city to shoot in?
San Diego. The light in the stadium is divine. Where the sun is and how the stadium is configured, it’s like shooting in a studio. It’s amazing. I honestly wish the Chiefs would play all their games in San Diego, even the home games.
Does how you shoot teams depend on the paper you’re working for?
This paper, and rightfully so, they are very interested in the key plays of the game. They’re not interested in just a random photo of Dwayne Bowe losing his shoe during a play. They’re really into the play of the game, and I think it makes you a better photographer because it makes you ask yourself what is the story of the game up to this point and going forward.
Are there shots you’ve missed that you still think about?
Oh yeah. Everybody misses stuff. You have to have a short memory. I think it’s a little like being a cornerback if you get burned on a play. You have to shake it off. I miss stuff every football game; referees run in front of me or it’s out of focus or I misframed it. The next play might be even better, so I just have to flush that out of my mind and move on.
What’s it like shooting in the rain, sleet, snow, extreme heat?
That’s the downside is the weather. But also the worse the weather is, sometimes the better the pictures are. It’s not just sort of keeping yourself dry, it’s keeping your gear dry. Because obviously if your gear stops working, you might as well walk off the field.
You’ve also shot several Olympics. Is there a big difference in how you shoot the Olympics versus how you shoot football?
The thing about the Olympics is is that it’s all about being organized. You have to schedule out your day. You spend a surprisingly little amount of time shooting and more time sitting on buses, going through security and holding your spot. And it wasn’t until I got there that I realized that.
Any iconic moments you remember shooting at any of the Olympics?
When Usain Bolt won the men’s 100 meter in Beijing. It was like photographing a car. He’s literally running so fast you can’t believe he’s a human being. The thing about the Olympics is that everything you shoot, it’s the world’s best athletes and the world’s best sports photographers shooting it. So it’s a little bit like your own Olympics, you’re trying to keep up with the people around you.
You also self funded a trip to the Paralympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. What was your motivation for that?
In 1988 I saw this little brief in Sports Illustrated, it was just a two or three line thing about the Paralympics in South Korea and I was just like “what is that all about?” So I went to the library because it was before the Internet, and I found out that there was this massive sporting event for the world’s disabled and I hadn’t heard anything about it. And I thought, “I’ve never seen an article about that, I’ve never seen any pictures out of that, what is the deal with that?”
So I applied for a credential for the ’92 games. The liberating thing was I wasn’t shooting for the paper, I was paying for the thing myself. The nice part was when I came back, my photo editor looked at it and was like “We’ve got to get this in the paper.” Everything kind of worked out amazingly well.
What particular photos or shooting experiences throughout your career stand out to you?
The World Series this year was pretty amazing, because I’m a Royals fan and every game was like this emotional bonus where they just kept winning. From a sports perspective, the World Series was definitely the high point here.
Is shooting baseball just like one big waiting game?
Just like any sporting event, you never know if the next pitch or the next running play is going to be the critical thing. So you have to be ready to go on every play. There’s a waiting game of going there and sitting in your spots. In baseball, you just don’t know. You’re always thinking about what is the story of the game right now, and obviously that changes with each play.
Are you able to watch too and know what’s going on?
I always tell people it’s like watching the game through a paper towel tube. You see a version of the game but you don’t get the whole experience. It’s much better on TV.
You also shot in Joplin after the tornado hit in 2011. Did you know what to expect going into it?
I was completely unprepared with the scale of it. I went down at like 3 in the morning so I would get there as the sun was coming up. When I drove into town, I drove right down Main Street and I saw all this damage, and I thought how fortunate it was that I just happened to drive to where the damage was. And so I get out of the car, and I look around and I’m like “Oh.” I could have driven anywhere. It took a couple of minutes for me to get my bearings. I wasn’t expecting a third of the city to be wiped out. I had never seen anything that went on for miles like that before.
How did you get past the pictures of the damage to convey the meaning behind it?
I reminded myself that this was about how the people are dealing with this, it’s not about the amount of wood in the street or phone poles that are down. People get bored pretty quickly of the damage photos.
When you shoot daily news for The Star, how do you still make every day things look fascinating or interesting to readers?
I’ve been here 12 and a half years and I grew up in Kansas City, so it’s much easier to shoot in a new city. It’s harder and harder to make the familiar look spectacular. Some days are easier than others.
What do you shoot on your off time?
I usually photograph funny signs or places, but it’s not people. When I photograph people, it’s mentally work for me.
Is shooting video an added challenge?
It’s almost impossible to do both of them at the same time. For video you have to mic people up, you have to think about movement and audio, whereas in still photography I’m looking for composition and getting that storytelling moment in one thing. It’s two completely different processes, and video takes a lot more time, particularly the editing.