After a fourteen year career as a print journalist, Chris Elise says he decided to “use the image and not the word.” Now a successful professional sports and portrait photographer, Chris has coverage many of the world’s major sporting events. He describes his work as moving beyond the description of the sporting event, focusing instead “on the gesture, the intensity of both situations and people.” He is a member of PhotoShelter, the leader in portfolio websites, photo sales, marketing and archiving tools for photographers.
Hi Chris, thanks for chatting. Tell us how you found photography after a 14-year career as a print journalist
I’ve been a sports fan as far back as I can remember. Actually, I fell in love with baseball when I was 11 years old, which I know is weird for a Frenchie, born and raised in France. And I’ve loved basketball since the day I met, as a kid, one of my dad’s childhood friends who played for France National Team.
My career as a journalist was totally satisfying. I specialized in Information Security, was travelling a lot in the USA for IT Conventions, interviewing CTOs, CSOs, CEOs, writing about new technologies, cyber threats, etc. But in my thirties, I was eager to pursue my childhood dream of living in the USA; I wanted to be close to the professional sports I grew up watching on old VHS tapes, and reading stories about in magazines and games reports (most of the time, months after they were played).
Plus, I always loved photography, and admired the work of Sports Illustrated photographers for years. I quit my job, bought the proper equipment, and started to learn by myself. I was covering professional basketball in France and still working as a freelancer for magazines to pay the bills. I became more relevant after about 3-4 years. While still covering IT conventions in the USA, I had the opportunity to shoot a few NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL games pretty early. The rest of my life was obvious: I was meant to keep doing this.
Changing careers after such an established time in a particular field is a brave move. What advice would you give those looking to do the same?
I would say be honest with yourself. The market has been pretty rough for years. And it’s not going to improve soon. This job must be your passion. Be prepared to lose income. If you’re not single, it’s a move you absolutely can’t do without the total support of your partner. Have a plan and stick to it. Don’t expect to make it because everybody tells you your photos are great. Good feedback is wonderful, but it’s a requirement to get good results in this job - you have to be willing to work hard, make and keep connections and honestly, sacrifice for your craft.
You’ve covered many sporting events over the years. Do you have a most memorable or favourite?
My first MLB game at the AT&T Park in San Francisco. The moment I entered the photo spot next to third base, through the Giants dugout… it was surreal, like a dream. Second favorite moment was the 2009 NBA Finals in OKC vs Miami. I was at last a decent professional photographer and was really prepared to work; I was focused and confident. I produced a lot of photos and enjoyed every minute of the Finals as a photographer. And, frankly, it was the good times when a foreign photographer could get a floor spot during the Finals. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get floor spots again, but those coveted spots mostly go to the top three agencies. I covered last season’s finals from almost the worst spot possible in the arena, behind standing fans. But I was still happy to be there, living my dream and I still love covering the Finals. I work all season long for the playoffs and the finals.
What makes great sporting photography that stands out from the rest?
You need to be prepared for everything, but can’t plan anything. It’s all about the game. The storytelling is all about drama. In sports, there is a winner, and a loser. Figuratively it’s about life and death. Second place doesn’t matter. We remember the NBA Champions, the World Series Champions, the finalists… yeah sure… but still. Every game, event minute, is unpredictable. It’s a rush, exciting, thrilling. And the challenges are constant: lack of light, players, referees, obstructing your view, ruining your shots, etc, etc. It’s as challenging as playing sports in a way!
Do you have a photographic philosophy?
It’s not about talent but about work and luck.
Where in the world are you and what's next for you?
I am now based in beautiful Santa Monica where I live with my American born and raised beautiful wife and her two sons (my sons from another father), both teenagers athletes who love and play sports (my wife LOVES sports too, how lucky am I?). Next is the start of the NBA preseason, then the NBA season I’ll cover in LA, with a few trips in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Indiana to start the first half of the season.