Fantasy Sports in Prison
Most of my work with USA Today Sports Images is, routine. Not that the games are routine, but I'm showing up to the same venues, seeing the same staff (who are often around much longer than any of the players) and I know my shooting position, what the light will do, and the only thing unpredictable is the game itself. Sometimes I cover "Specials" for USA Today. Tom Seaver at his vineyard, Josh Jackson before he committed to Kansas, A's giving away memorabilia to a kid who lost his collection in the fires, etc. But this one was unique. How Fantasy Football Works in Prison
All I really knew going into this shoot was from the assignment editor:
Feature on Fantasy Sports in prisons. We meet Earl A. Smith (team chaplain for San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors); Manuel Flores (a former inmate at multiple state prisons in California); Terry Williams (spent 38 years in California prisons, most in Pelican Bay State Prison and in solitary confinement).
I googled the given address in Stockton and it looked like a family home. I was expecting either a prison (that the group was visiting) or a center (that the group worked out of) I wondered if I had the right address. Turns out it's a sober house for those making the transition from incarceration while on probation that exists amongst your typical California suburb of single family homes and nearby schools and parks. (Wonderful for integration!)
I met with Chaplain Earl A. Smith's daughter while we waited for him to arrive, and again waited with Terry and Manuel in the gym while Chaplain Smith made a quick trip home to grab some potential "props" to use in the photos (even though while making the drive the reporter called and vetoed props). It was a strange shoot in the request of "Looking for a portrait of the three together, maybe individually also. Anything with the materials they use to do Fantasy Sports." Terry and Manuel are out of prison, so they aren't playing, and Chaplain Smith is the point of contact that connected the writer to current prisoners but isn't personally involved in prison fantasy sports. (I thought maybe this was some sort of Molly's Game with Chaplain Smith heading it up ;))
While we waited for Chaplain Smith to return, I sat alone with Terry and Manuel. I didn't know what they had been incarcerated for. I had googled their names but they were both too common, and ultimately I'm glad. While I learned a bit about Terry through his stories, I was able to spend time with them without the judgement of what they had done, and just sit and have a conversation with them. As I reminded them, I'm not the writer, so what they shared with me wasn't going on record anywhere.
As I took some individual photos of them, Manuel said "oh, let's do a prison pose" I would never have suggested they pose like this, nor would I have suggested it using the term "prison pose", it obviously didn't get published.
I don't think I've ever met someone who spent time in Pelican Bay, let alone solitary confinement. I'm sure if I had told my mom about this shoot (and known Terry was convicted of first degree murder) she would have been worried, but ultimately, it was three people, hanging out, making pictures. One thing I will share from our conversations, was Terry's statement that his joy in life is walking with his grandchild, and how he had recently taught him how to skip rocks. I don't think we need the juxtaposition of incarceration to appreciate the simple pleasures in life, but I do think it offers great perspective on what can really bring us joy. Forget the story about fantasy sports in prison, let's find more stories about people appreciating what really adds value to life.
From a photo perspective, I wasn't too pleased, I always want to tell a story with my photos and I felt the story wasn't developed enough (they weren't even the characters of the story) to create something great. I'm a fan of utilizing natural light whenever I can, but I was quite pleased I had brought a single Elinchrom ELB 500 head so I could light these. Inside they keep most the lights off and blinds closed (to combat the 110 heat) and outside it was a bright 2pm where finding beautiful light is hard and shade isn't very nuanced. Having an on-camera flash would have just bounced off his glasses, being able to move it off center and off camera with a softbox made it a little more dynamic.
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