Michael Reaves, a sports photographer, says photography isn’t his job. It’s his passion.
Part three in a three-part series on the unique and vital role of photographers documenting the every day and the history-making moments.
If you’ve met Michael Reaves, you’ve probably noticed he almost always has a camera in his hands. Whether he’s on a golf course or fishing with buddies, he’s always the one making hard-to-forget photos.
But even just 10 years ago, he would have never guessed he’d go on to work as a professional sports photographer, capturing images of the world’s top athletes. Reaves says he kind of stumbled into it.
As a kid, growing up just outside of Louisville, Kentucky, he loved sports. He would print pictures off the internet to trace and color in — ironically, most of the images were from Getty, who now purchases many of his photos.
“I always loved Sports Illustrated. But never once did I say, I want to take photos of athletes,” he said. “But then in high school, I saw friends’ parents take photos at games. I’d look over their shoulder and say that’s kind of neat. Then I bought a camera and took my friends’ senior pictures. I was just trying to figure out what I was doing.”
He went on to study at the University of Kentucky. Three days after he moved into the dorms, he emailed the Wildcat’s team photographer to see if he could help work under him and learn a few things.
“Honestly, I was trying to figure out how to get into the games. I was surprised he wrote back and said ‘come on in.’ So I brought in this cheap, kit camera and started shooting games. And it grew from there.”
At just 25 years old, Reaves’ portfolio looks like a seasoned photographers’ who’s been at it for a lifetime. He’s photographed the MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, U.S. Open tennis and UFC sporting events for Getty Images. His photographs have been published in nearly every major publication, including New York Times, Time Magazine, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. And, yes, his childhood favorite, Sports Illustrated.
His assignments look different these days, as the coronavirus pandemic has brought most sports to a halt. But Reaves still has his camera in hand.
“Photography isn’t really a job. It’s what I do no matter what,” he said. “I truly, truly love it.”
We caught up with Reaves as he drove from his home in Miami to cover a tennis event, the UTR Pro Match Series. We asked him about his career path, how the pandemic is impacting his work, and how he’s staying upbeat. Here’s what he had to say.
Artistic Fuel: Was there one moment when you realized COVID-19 would dramatically impact your work?
Reaves: Yes, it was March 11. I had a full slate of assignments ahead of me. I’d been busy covering baseball spring training, golf, NASCAR, tennis. Spring is the heat of the season for sports in Florida. So the morning of March 11, I covered baseball spring training. And that night I covered the Heat-Hornets game.
I’m sitting on the floor, shooting photos, and the news comes in that Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert has COVID. Then all the sudden, news comes over that the Jazz-Thunder game is canceled, right before it was about to start. Then, the third quarter of the Heat-Hornets game — boom. The news came through that the NBA season was suspended. It was like a wave came over the stadium.
Right away, I put my news hat on. I thought, I have to tell this story. This might be the last NBA game for a long time… I looked for people on their phones reading the news. There was hand sanitizer all over. I photographed ushers wearing gloves, scanning people’s tickets. Players whispering to each other. I handed in my photos that night and thought, this might be it.
After that, things just slowly started to drop. I’m a freelancer, so the reality is life looks a little different now. I have to really budget. It’s been interesting. The first four weeks were probably the toughest. I’d think, man, today I was supposed to be shooting the Masters. For us, we live for the rush. You look forward to the next thing. And it hit us like a wall.
A|F: How did you get such great assignments so soon after graduating college?
Reaves: I thought I’d have to go work at a marketing company for a while. (University of Kentucky doesn’t have a photojournalism degree, so I earned a degree in marketing.) But I couldn’t get an internship at any of the marketing companies, which was really disappointing at the time. I applied to 42 the first year, 35 the second and didn’t get a single call.
I finally got a call from the Dallas Morning News, and it’s kind of crazy how it happened. They said our HR team needs an intern by Friday and all the other interns have been taken. So I show up. I’m 20 years old. The only work I had was at the student newspaper. I walk in and they said go to this address and shoot. It’s a four-car wreck into a house and six people died. A lot of photographers have a growing process, but I got thrown in the deep in. I had a front-page picture on the first day. All that goes to say, none of my path was traditional. That was the first day I thought I can probably do this as job.
A|F: Who had the greatest influence on your career?
Reaves: The No. 1 most influential person on my career was David Stephenson. He was the advisory at the Kentucky student newspaper. When I walked in there, he asked, what do you want to do with your photography? I said, ‘I don’t know. I just go to games and take a few pictures.’ But he had me dive in head first…he gave me assignments to shoot anything and everything.
Every day I went in and said I’m going to an assignment. Say, they’re throwing balloons. So I’d ask him how to make a really great photo. Then I’d bring my work back and he’d critique it, say what I could do different and better. That was super beneficial…He told me to immerse myself in pictures. So I did…I looked at photos from AP, Getty, anywhere I could, to learn from the best.
A|F: As things begin to reopen, how have your assignments changed?
Reaves: I covered the UTR Pro Match Series, men’s and women’s tennis tournaments. It felt good to be back, making pictures. It was different wearing gloves and a mask.
I have countless colleagues on front lines, documenting nurses and patients. For us, we try to bring a sense of comfort and compassion through a smile. It’s disarming, when you’re trying to take a photo of someone. But the mask takes away that human element. It feels like there’s a wall, so that’s tough.
A|F: Do you see anything positive come out of this time?
Reaves: I’m finding just how important community is. I help out at a church here in Miami and our pastor says just because you’re in quarantine doesn’t mean you have to be isolated. So I started a weekly zoom call for sports photographers. I launched it and at first we got 40 people. Then 60. A couple times we’ve had 80 people on the call.
It’s an hour-long call, and we just get caught up, and see faces of people who can relate to one another. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten after a call saying that’s the highlight of my quarantine.
More Artistic Fuel:
- Each week, we’re spotlighting the art of photography. Here’s why: Photography: Art for the Masses and the Maestro
- Photography Preserves Human History: A Photojournalist on His Coronavirus Images
- Photographer’s Shark Images Put Great Whites in a Better Light
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.