SportsMonday Column: Behind the lens of two female sports photographers

Sunday, March 24, 2019 - 7:56pm

Katelyn Mulcahy and Alexis Rankin served as co-Managing Photo Editors in 2018.

Katelyn Mulcahy and Alexis Rankin served as co-Managing Photo Editors in 2018. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Alexis Rankin & Katelyn Mulcahy

In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its second annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports photographers on staff. We continue the series with this story from the 2018 Managing Photo Editors Katelyn Mulcahy and Alexis Rankin.

 

An old issue of The Daily hangs in the photo closet. Every time a Daily photographer walks into the closet to check out equipment to shoot, they are reminded of its presence.

On it, there is a photo of Sara Krulwich on the sideline in the Big House, with two of her football photos included.

Krulwich was the Daily’s first female photographer in 1969, and that photo captures her during her first time on the field, as the first woman to do so. Standing there smiling and proud, she encourages us every time we go out to shoot, knowing that we’re following the trail she blazed for us.

As Managing Photo Editors in 2018, we both came into the job with different experience levels and different goals with sports photography. Katelyn, who will be working for Major League Baseball as their live content creator after graduation, knew that she wanted to pursue sports photography from the start. At first, Alexis didn’t even know if she wanted to shoot sports at all. But now as a second-year MPE, she has had the opportunity to shoot at countless basketball, hockey and football games with the intention, and desire, to do more.

It’s an intimidating experience to photograph sports, especially “the Big Three”: football, basketball and hockey. It’s even more intimidating for a woman working for a student paper with minimal experience. But like the writers on the Sports section and the rest of The Michigan Daily staff, we take the job as seriously as any other professional. Because that is what we are — professionals in our craft.

Since we both started at The Michigan Daily, we’ve practiced and learned from each other’s confidence, experience and support. We didn’t always consider ourselves sports photographers, and many other people still don’t. But when we step onto the court at Crisler Center, walk through the tunnel leading into the Big House, or take a seat at a photo hole against the glass at Yost Arena, that is exactly what we are.  

When either of us sets up our laptop and unpacks our equipment in the media room, we have to believe that we deserve to be in that room as much as any of the other photographers there, because if we don’t believe it, they never will.

It’s telling that no matter our amount of experience, sometimes we still get treated as if we have none. So, when we step out onto the field, the court or the ice, it’s easy to feel small.

The job is strenuous. We carry two, sometimes three cameras, that make our arms sore the next day. We stand, kneel and crouch through rain, snow and freezing temperatures. We dodge football players that run off the field and basketballs that come flying toward us, and keep our cameras focused on the action when two hockey players slam into the glass in front of us. It’s stressful and intense, but we never complain. It’s part of the job and we love it. We barely even notice anymore.

But everyone else seems to think we do.

It sometimes feels like we’re at a disadvantage right as we step in the room. When one of us goes to an event, the event staff is often unintentionally condescending. Like when one of us was in an elevator and someone referred to us as “sweetie.” In an elevator full of men, it served as a reminder of who we are in a male-dominated profession. He didn’t mean ill by it, and neither do the people who make comments about our cameras being bigger than us or other similar remarks, but they are all reminders of how we are viewed differently as young women in this profession.

But the people who’ve told us we’re “overcompensating” by having two cameras or a 300mm lens don’t mean well. It sometimes feels the same way with the overly helpful male photographers who stand behind our computers while we’re ingesting photos, giving unsolicited advice and comments. We’ve had men take photos of us while we’re busy shooting, only for them to show us later and comment on what we’re doing or the way we look. We hear these comments and have these experiences almost every time we shoot, and while it’s frustrating, it also makes us work harder. We know we don’t need to prove ourselves to the boy making snide comments from the student section — who has probably never picked up a DSLR in his life — or to the sideline photographer who thinks we can’t handle our equipment.

While the negative experiences sometimes outweigh the positive ones, it’s important to recognize the support we’ve received as well. Many of the photographers we’ve met at games have welcomed us, anything from chatting during a media timeout to giving us freelance tips. Sometimes something as simple as a comment, like or retweet of our photos online goes a long way.

Our sports writers are equally as supportive, retweeting our content and texting us to tell us how much they liked our photos. And we find allies in the other women out there with us, whether it’s another Daily staff photographer, an editor from the Michiganensian or one of the few experienced, professional women photographers.

The encouragement we receive makes up for the microaggressions and outright insults that we sometimes experience. We knew going into sports photography that it would be difficult. We heard stories from editors and photographers before us about the comments they received while shooting. For example, a former MPE was told, “You’re only here to get closer to the basketball boys, right?”

Wrong.

He said it with a laugh, probably thinking it was funny, but it was a comment that lingered and was passed down to us as managing editors. So while we appreciate the support and advice we’ve received from some of the other photographers, we know that we have to work twice as hard every time we shoot. Every time we pick up a camera, we are building a reputation for ourselves and for the other women on our staff, as talented, dedicated photographers.

We’ve come a long way since Krulwich stepped out onto the field as the first female photographer to do so. Stories like hers push us to keep going. That’s why we’re proud to be women on the sideline, to even out that imbalance. To show the girls in the crowd that they could be us someday, too, just like Sara Krulwich did for us.