When I volunteered to write a blog about the MLU Championship game, I had a good idea of what I wanted to talk about. I wanted tell a story about what it meant to be covering the league’s first championship game as part of a team of four great photographers and memorializing the event for all time. I wanted to talk about shooting with a great crowd in the background, and striving to not just get the perfect action photo, but to cover the entire championship atmosphere: fans, the band, the player introductions, the half-time locker room speech, the great venue, the trophy presentation, and the victory celebration that would surely follow.
And then sometimes the story takes itself in an entirely unplanned direction.
You don’t have the luxury of taking half a round to warm up when photographing a single game. Fortunately I was shooting alongside UltiPhotos’ photographers Brian Canniff, Sean Carpenter, and Jolie Lang. We didn’t have to wait long for the thrilling plays to commence. On the first point of the game Teddy Browar-Jarus got a sick D right in front of me; when I got the shot, I knew I was in the zone.
When shooting any event, you have to be prepared for the unexpected. And that moment came in the third quarter when Andrew Hagen of the Dogfish made an incredible catch between two Whitecaps flying in from opposite directions. The ensuing collision left a Whitecaps player on the ground with a serious-looking injury.
I was shaken by what I had seen through my lens. When an injury such as this occurs, it can become difficult to bridge the gap between the personal relationships we have with the athletes on the field and our roles as photographers covering the event.
With a lump in my throat, I recognized the player on the ground as MLU and Whitecaps star Jeff Graham. I have known Jeff since his mixed club team, the Ghosts, competed at the Chesapeake Invite; he is not only a phenomenal player, but is very friendly and approachable off the field. My thoughts leapt to his parents. I had just chatted with his father earlier that afternoon, joking that if the team bus was late, we’d have to suit up and start for the Whitecaps. I could only imagine what they were feeling in the stands.
I thought about the teammates who never left his side, and the rest who were visibly upset. And I was thinking about the league. The MLU, in its inaugural championship game, was facing what could be a league-defining moment from a freak collision on the field. It seemed patently unfair that the worst-looking injury I had ever seen in 17 years of playing and watching Ultimate would occur during this historic moment.
But also racing through my mind was a classic photographer’s debate: “Should I lift my camera and take a picture?” Out of respect for the injured player, I wanted to keep my camera lowered, but a photographer’s role is to document the event in its entirety. Photojournalists might have a different filter on what’s acceptable than event photographers, but ultimately, we all face an ethical decision on what to post. I made the decision that I wasn’t going to post a photo of Jeff lying on the ground in those circumstances.
But the photographer in me wanted to capture the larger story in as tasteful a way as possible. I didn’t want to regret missing an image that could be the silver lining in a situation like this. And I really hoped for Jeff’s sake that there would be such an opportunity. Thankfully, the chance came as the medical staff raised the stretcher and Jeff raised a thumb in the air to indicate that he was okay. I took a photo of the moment and breathed a sigh of relief.
Only later did I notice that this image was a tale of two Jeffs. On the left side of the frame is Jeff Snader, a respected coach before becoming the league commissioner. He was at Jeff Graham’s side the entire time. In the image you can’t see his eyes, because for just the briefest of moments, he has let his guard down, holding his head in his hand as a mixture of relief and lingering concern washes over him when the other Jeff raises a thumb in the air.
Jeff Graham gives the thumbs up to the crowd.
This story has a happy conclusion. We were glad to hear at the post-game party that Jeff was itching to get out of the hospital to join the celebrations. And when he did arrive, he walked in as the captain of MLU’s first championship team.
UltiPhotos is made possible by the collaboration of dedicated photographers whose shared goal is to showcase the amazing action and wonderful moments experienced in the sport of Ultimate. This blog shares their perspectives on the photos they take and provide updates on UltiPhotos plans and initiatives.