Not Your Typical Gig: Sports Photographer

In this recurring column, Not Your Typical Gig, we interview men with out-of-the-box careers to get a glimpse of what goes on behind-the-scenes of their unusual jobs. 

NAME: Chris Elise
AGE: 49
CITY: Leipers Fork, TN. Bozeman, Montana.
COMPANY: Freelancer

How would you describe what you do for a living?

As a professional sports photographer, I try to narrate—not with words but with images—the history of sports by documenting the drama of them, in a Greek tragedy sense. Beyond the action; transcending the emotions, the intensity, the chaos, the “dance” athletes practice in their craft. The beauty of people, moments, places.

How long have you been doing this?

16 years.

How did you get into this line of work?

After a professional life as a writer, specifically an IT journalist specializing in Information Security technologies, I wanted to be more contemplative in my next line of work, and tie this to my lifelong love for sports. Photography was also the medium for working in the USA without the handicap of English not being my mother language. I wasn’t comfortable competing with American journalists with my correct-but-not-perfect mastery of English. I changed jobs when I decided I would pursue a dream of mine: migrating and living in the USA.

What kind of skillset does it take to break into this line of work?

Resilience and perseverance! And a will to never quit. In a practical way, photography is not such a complicated skill to acquire. Learning the rules of composing an image, the rules of photographing, the technical part of cameras, the editing on computers of images, is simply a matter of time and practice. The difference will be in what I call self-marketing; you need to sell and pitch yourself to clients, as much as your work. There are millions of people who can take good photos—amateurs or professionals. Making a living off it is based on the requirements of delivering results, good ones, no matter what. And finding your own way, your niche, and your own eye on the subjects you cover.

Sioux Falls, SD – APRIL 8 2018: J.B Mauney gets bucked during Championship round of the 25th Professional Bull Riders Unleash The Beast at Denny Sanford Premier Center. Photo by Chris Elise/Icon Sportswire.

What does your workday look like from the time you wake up?

In my line of work, no two days are truly similar. But in a typical day, events start late afternoon or during the evening. So most of the first part of the day, I prepare my equipment, check to make sure everything functions, charge the batteries, create my folders and caption files templates for the day on my laptop, and set my workflow. I like to get to the arena plenty of time in advance. I then get my cameras ready, pick the few lenses I want to work with, and refresh my knowledge on the athletes who are going to compete this day. Then, time to shoot the event. Followed by a couple of hours of editing, captioning and uploading photos to my stock archive or to photo agencies’ servers.

What is the most exciting, if possibly dangerous, part of your job?

Can’t say there’s ever been a dangerous moment, and I am fine with this! The most exciting moment is when you know what just happened in front of you was part of the history of the sport. Us photographers are lucky front-row witnesses of the history of the sports we cover. We have the obligation to not miss these decisive moments which write this history.

Photo by Chris Elise.

Favorite part of the job?

The opportunity to not only witness live exploits, but to also capture them and then having those memories, in my mind and in photos, forever. I have shot 6 NBA Finals, shooting players who will be in the Hall of Fame. Went from the first battle between Kevin Durant and LeBron James as the Heat defeated the Thunder, to the time they met again with Durant dominating with the Warriors. I covered so many games of Kobe Bryant, with the Lakers and also with Team USA at the Olympic Games in London in 2012.

In PBR, I’ve shot some of the first sports events back in competition under COVID protocols and witnessed the incredible 2020 season of Jose Vitor Leme up to the ride inside AT&T Stadium that made him the World Champion. It was truly a season for the ages!

I’ve shot the rise of charismatic young bull rider Ezekiel Mitchell who has the potential to be a crossover superstar, while my cowboy idol J.B. Mauney keeps showing the young riders how cowboys do it.

Chris Elise
Chris Elise on the job

Least favorite part of the job?

The depreciation of the value of photography the last 20-25 years makes this job a constant struggle just to keep working. It involves much more than just taking pictures. You are very dependent on the worth clients put on the art of photography. And it has not much to do with how hard you work or how good your photos are. The constant self- marketing you have to do as a photographer can be time and energy consuming.

How has the pandemic affected your job?

I am just starting to get perspective on the real consequences for my job at a personal level. Like many, I simply started to lose a lot of income, not having the opportunities to work. But in a curious way, it actually became a blessing in disguise. Not being able to cover the NBA for 10 months to this day—January 10—I could focus on immersing myself more in the Western culture, and shooting much more PBR (Professional Bull Riders) the last 7 months than I could ever do since I started covering bull riders more than two years ago.

The pandemic gave me clarity at every level of my life: what matters to me, who matters to me, the sports and athletes I really enjoy shooting the most.

LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 6: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes for the dunk during a game at the Staples Center. 2020 NBAE. Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images.

Please tell us about a moment that made you love your job even more?

The first time I was back at work during the pandemic was in the PBR bubble, in Las Vegas at an event closed to fans, only for TV. Seeing the genuine warm welcome back of everyone working in the organization, and the sheer enthusiasm and love of the riders to be back at it—during these still uncertain times—was probably the best moment of my career. I was not only grateful and immensely happy to be back at work, but I feel incredibly blessed and proud to be part of this world.

I’ve been covering sports all over the world for more than 15 years. I have experienced working with professional leagues, major ones and smaller ones, on two continents. As I met people in the organization, I was pleasantly surprised to see how authentic everyone is, from every worker setting the infrastructure, to the top with the CEO. In a little more than 2 years covering the PBR, I have truly made friends with a lot of members of the organization. 

SIOUX FALLS, SD – JULY 11: Tyler Bingham gets bucked from Wileywood Blue during the Monster Energy Team Challenge at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center. Photo by Chris Elise/Icon Sportswire.

The values PBR communicates – for their marketing campaign, “Be Cowboy” for instance – are not just a marketing trick. They actually live by these values. Cowboys are hard workers, tough individuals, true to the core, genuine, solid, family-oriented, loyal people you can count on, who judge and appreciate you for who you are, and the way you treat people. They couldn’t care less about the color of your skin, where you were born, what you believe in, or vote for. In our day and age, it is pretty refreshing. Beyond the PBR organization, the fans share these values, turning every event into a very pleasant environment. And all of this community share the same love I have for this country.

Every time I cover a PBR event, I am surrounded by great people I came to love, respect and esteem, shooting cowboys I admire, appreciating every minute of it. I work hard to be up to the magnificence of these beasts, the bulls, and to the bravery of these men, the cowboys. And I know the PBR community is grateful for the effort.

Are there aspects of the job that ever make you think—this is crazy, why am I doing this?

Not really. I would be very ungrateful to think like this. This job is truly my dream job. The downside is as much as I love shooting cowboys and bulls, I always terribly miss my wife and my boys. I can find myself in crazy situations, though, when I stay behind the steering wheel 11-12 hours a day to get back to them as fast as I safely can to make it home when the job is done!

CHEYENNE, WY – JULY 23, 2019: Bullfighter Cody Webster protects Cody Teel during the Championship round of the Professional Bull Riders Last Cowboy Standing at the Cheyenne Frontier Days. Photo by Chris Elise/Icon Sportswire.

What does the job require you to wear?

When you cover the NBA, the franchises give photographers a colored jacket for us to wear in order to be in the same neutral color sitting on the baseline. But that’s it. For PBR, I can wear my Lucchese boots I wear in every situation anyway in everyday life! 

What essentials does the job require? 

A range of quality lenses, a few cameras – two at least – good laptop, external hard drives for backup and redundancy.

Chris Elise’s style game is strong.