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She gets the shot: One Michigan State student’s journey to becoming a sports photographer

 Sarah Smith taking photos of the Kane County Cougars during pregame warmups.
Brad Repplinger
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Sarah Smith taking photos of the Kane County Cougars during pregame warmups.

Sarah Smith’s talent for sports photography has taken her from the NCAA tournament to bowl games. But her journey has involved facing down sexism and her own self-confidence.

I have always been extremely proud to be a woman. Once I started getting involved in sports photography during my time in college, I saw my gender as a way to prove something more.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every two women employed in sports, there are on average slightly over seven men. This statistic backs up the history of the sports industry being a “boy’s club” - because women know nothing about sports, right? No, very wrong.

I grew up playing various sports my whole life. Being from Chicago has given me the joy of having multiple professional sports teams in my city with cult-like followings. My whole life, I would rather go to a Cubs baseball game than to the mall or any other activity dubbed “girly”.

This early fandom solidified my love for sports at a very young age. When I came to college, I knew I wanted to work in sports. I just did not know where in the sports industry I fit into yet. Two years after I first arrived on campus, however, I discovered my love for sports photography.

 Sarah Smith taking photos during a 2022 MSU Football game.
Kelly Branigan
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Sarah Smith taking photos during a 2022 MSU Football game.

The first sport I took photos of was baseball - my favorite. I was the team photographer for the Kane County Cougars, a minor league baseball team outside of Chicago, and I was scared. I was not only jumping into a new profession I had only ever thought of as a hobby, I was entering an industry that is extremely male-dominated. I was timid and shy when I first started, scared to get in anyone’s way. I was scared people wondered what a 20-year-old woman was doing on a field with professional baseball players. Confining myself to the safety of the photo well for the first couple games, I started to get bored of the photos I was taking.

One of my biggest photography mentors was another photographer for the Cougars, Brad Repplinger. 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, cropped incorrectly, and soft.
Sarah Smith
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One of the first photos I ever took of a sport. Dark, cropped incorrectly, and soft.

I soon discovered that my ability and access had nothing to do with my gender. I started to step out of my comfort zone and get different angles of the players pregame and during the game. Finding new spots in the stands created different angles, allowing me to interact with fans. I was never once questioned about my ability. I even ran out into the middle of the field, between innings, to get unique angles of the pitchers and catchers warming up. As my confidence grew, my content improved. The players were more aware of where I was with my camera, so I was able to take really fun images of them posing. That brought out their personalities for fans to see on social media.

When I came back to MSU to begin my junior year after my time working for the Cougars, I knew I had to find a way to be a sports photographer at MSU. A friend of mine had been involved with WDBM-Impact’s website, and I asked if they needed any sports photographers.

The answer was, “We do not have any sports photographers.” Well, they did now. I knew this was my opportunity to continue my newfound passion of sports photography. I became Impact’s staff sports photographer, shooting any sporting event I could make it to. Every game I shot I found my photos getting better and better, and I realized I could really do this.

 One of the most recent sports photos I took. A vast improvement.
Sarah Smith
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One of the most recent sports photos I took. A vast improvement.

I tried to carry as much confidence as I could while shooting MSU sports, just like I had learned from my time with the Cougars. At smaller sporting events, I was getting the hang of how everything works and making connections.

It was not until I photographed my first men’s basketball game that I experienced why women are so hesitant to get into this industry.

I was nervous and timid walking through the media entrance of the Breslin Center, having to ask some people for directions to the media room. I checked myself in with anyone I needed to, and was made aware of the assigned shooting spots on the floor at basketball games. I found Impact’s spot (which I only had for one half of the game) and went to set up my camera equipment before the game started. When I returned to my spot, there was a middle-aged man sitting where I was supposed to be. I asked him if he could make some room for me since that was my spot, which he answered by telling me to find room on the other side of the floor. I was being pushed around, and I let it happen. There is no way of knowing if he made this comment because I was young, a woman, and a student, but it is pretty safe to say that would not happen if I were a man.

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

I never really told anyone about that experience, because it seemed minor. The next two years I continued working for Impact, and even got promoted to a paid position as Sports Photography Coordinator. I made connections, I improved my sports photography ability, but most importantly, I felt extremely valued as the only woman on Impact’s paid sports staff.

The incident at my first men’s basketball game seemed minor - at the time - because I had yet to truly feel what it was like to be respected by my peers. My photos speak for themselves, and it does not matter that I am a woman taking them.

My camera has taken me to some pretty cool places during my time at MSU. I have been lucky enough to shoot the 2021 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl; 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 between all these events was that I was the only or one of few women on the floor taking photos.

There are always going to be male photographers who think they can push around female photographers solely based on gender, but one of the things that is most special about being a woman in the industry is the network of supportive women all around me.

I no longer have to try and prove my ability to anyone. What remains from my four years at MSU is a desire to prove where my ability can take me. I feel so lucky to be in a place where I feel valued by my peers, and that validation is going to take me places. Leaving the shelter of East Lansing as a strong woman in a male-dominated industry, confident in my skills and experience, is something I hope every woman who steps out onto the court or field can experience.

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