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|| News Item: Posted 2009-10-04

Are you building relationships or only taking photos?
Matt Brown says relationships are the backbone to everything we do. Starting building and never stop.

By Matt Brown

Photo by Matt A. Brown

Photo by Matt A. Brown

Cal State Fullerton Titans baseball player Jared Clark walks off the field with former teammate Jon Wilhite after a game in Fullerton, Calif., Saturday, June 6, 2009.
It's September and it's that time of the year for me to start building. I have been building relationships for over 20 years with my subjects. And let me tell you, good relationship building doesn't happen over night.

When I was a young pup, I watched other photographers like Andy Bernstein, Bruce Strong or John McDonough create relationships that would last for a lifetime. Andy Bernstein would walk through the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles, and would know everyone, from players to ushers to the guy sitting in Seat 7, Row D, Section 202. Bruce Strong is also amazing with people. He could walk into a room and within seconds have a subject eating out of his hand. I'm still in awe when I think about it. And I could be with John McDonough in Little Rock, Arkansas shooting football and he would remember a coach from a photo shoot taken 10 years ago. For an example of what can come from having a good relationship with someone, just check out the stuff he did with Dennis Rodman.

Now, I'm married to a wonderful woman and have three boys. My home is in motion 24 hours a day, 7 days a week-think "high shutter speed" to see anything in my house. Photos are taken in my house all the time. Nobody even looks up at me any more when a camera is near their face. In some ways it's like a photography Nirvana. I don't have to ask anyone if it's OK to take a photo, nor do I have to pitch ideas to a PR person. I just click and take a photo. I can snap away all day 'till my hearts content. You just can't do that in the real world. That is where relationships with your clients can be huge. With that said, now I can talk about relationship building.

One of my clients, Cal State University Fullerton, has over 300 student athletes. I will have face time with all them throughout the school year. Like must schools we do posters, schedule cards, programs and media guides just to name a few things. I'm around these student athletes so much that it's actually like having another set of kids-300 of them. I do my best to build a relationship with everyone of them-from the time I take their first mug shot I start to commute with them.

I have had Cal State Fullerton as a client for over 10 years. This means I have dealt with a lot of kids. My first time meeting with them is usually in their freshman year for their mug shot. I always introduce myself and ask how they like Fullerton. I'm on campus a lot and anytime I see one of my athletes I say hello, ask how school is going and how are those grades. During a photo shoot I might take five minutes just talking school and classes. Maybe it's the parent in me, but I just don't want to come across as a guy only caring about their jump shot or on-base percentage. I want my kids to graduate and be successes in life. When my athletes are going to turn pro, whether it's with baseball, basketball or wrestling, I give them a little talk about media. I tell them to be on time and patient with the media and always be nice to the photographers.

Photo by Matt A. Brown

Photo by Matt A. Brown

Former Los Angeles Shaquille O'Neal in 1999 with a Super Man jersey I had for him. He kept the jersey and took me to lunch.
But why make relationships with your subject? For one thing, it will make your life a lot easier. If you think about it, most athletes fear the camera, just as most people do in daily life. I ask a lot from my subjects during a photo shoot. The extra time I need from them during the shoot or when asking them to jump 40 more times could be accomplished a lot easier the better they know you.

As you may know, five minutes into a photo shoot most people are done-tuned out and ready to get the hell out of there. My relationship with the athletes at Fullerton has grown to the point that the athletes actually want to sit for me. They know it will be fun and pain free.

I have former athletes who are the best beach volleyball players, NFL players, Major Leaguers, MLS soccer players, play in the NBA and more. By building a relationship early, you establish a connection with that person. It's not rocket science. I have been given jobs because the athletes have asked for me by name. That doesn't just happen because you have a nice website or write a cool blog. It happens by building early and often during the relationship. Over time, I have shot former players' graduations, holiday photos and weddings.

Relationships can be made at any time of your life. I was working at the Orange County Register in 1996 when I was given an assignment to shoot the new, youngest men's basketball head coach at Fullerton College-Dieter Horton. All I was thinking about was that I was going to shoot like it was going into Sports Illustrated. I wanted full access to the coach. I wanted to light the gym. I wanted to make a name for myself. I walked up to him six hours before the game asking for the moon and he said yes to every one of my requests.

I didn't hang lights-no lift. But I did hang all over the coach like white on rice. I was in the coaches' office, a room so small only three people could be in it at a time. I was in the pre-game meeting. I was in team huddles with the coach during the game. I had great access. The team was down some 20 points at the half, and that was a break for me. I took a very nice photo of Dieter with his hands on his head just outside the room where the players were waiting for their trainers to ice them and coaches to give them a pep talk so they could get out of the hole.

Some eight hours later I had covered his first game from start to finish. The newspaper ran three photos the next day with the story. I later dropped off a half dozen black and white prints to Dieter, and a friendship was made. One year later I got the job at the Fullerton College as the team photographer with the added support of Coach Horton. In June of this year I photographed his wedding. I would say busting my butt at his first game, dropping off prints and having a great working relationship with him over the year has paid off.

Relationships can present themselves quickly, and you have to be open to them when they do. Also, some relationships can start off with more pain then you really need or want. The 1996-97 NBA season was a great time for me. I was given the assignment by the Orange County Register to shoot the Los Angeles Lakers media day. I had to shoot some rookie name Kobe Bryant. He was scared to death during the shoot. I did all I could to make him relax, but nothing helped. However, it was just the start of something big.

As the season went on, The Register sent me to almost every Lakers home game. I did 38 of 42 games during that year and had a blast doing it. I also found myself shooting the NBA playoffs with a good friend and Register staff photographer, Michael Goulding. Sunday April 27, 1997, during Game 2 of the Lakers vs. Trailblazers playoff series was a major relationship builder for me. Michael and I shot the first half of the game, but he was getting blocked by the referee the entire time. So we switched sides during halftime.

Photo by Micahel Greenlee

Photo by Micahel Greenlee

NBA basketball player Minnesota Timberwolves and former Cal State Fullerton basketball player Bobby Brown, left and CSF Team Photographer Matt Brown during a photo shoot.
A few minutes into the fourth quarter, the Portland Trailblazers' Arvydas Sabonis fouled and pushed Lakers Center Shaquille O'Neal. With a click of a shutter, I found myself being run over by the 7-foot-1, 325-pound Mr. O'Neal. You might still be able to find the collision on YouTube. It was played over and over again for months at local sports bars. After the game, the Lakers PR asked to get my phone number: Shaq wanted it. The next day he called asking if I was ok. We talked some more during the Utah Jazz series. He took me out to dinner after the playoffs and that's how a relationship was formed. I'm able to call him up at anytime and do photos shoot with him at anytime with the relationship that was made from being run over by the big man.

Some relationships can scare you to death. On April 8, of this year after a long opening day at Sports Shooter Academy 5, I drove through the intersection of Orangethorpe Avenue and Lemon Street in Fullerton, just 20 minutes before car crash that killed Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson. The lone survivor from that car was former Cal State Fullerton baseball player Jon Wilhite. Jon was one of my former athletes and always smiling and happy. I could always count on Jon running out of the dugout first to high five a teammate after scoring a run during a Titan game.

It was tough to hear about the shape Jon was in after the crash. Getting updates on Jon was difficult. Little was being released about his condition, as the large part of the media attention was given to pro pitcher Adenhart. I talked to some Cal State Fullerton baseball players later in the day, and they said Jon was responding well to doctors. Jon was never a star player on the national power baseball teams during his time at Fullerton. One of my best memories of Jon was during the 2007 season. It was before Game 2 of the Super Regional against UCLA. Jon told me to make sure I got his good side when the team rushes the field for the dog pile on the pitchers mound.

I never got his good side during that dog pile. However, I did get his return to Goodwin Field for Game 2 of Super Regional on June 6 of this year. Just two short months after his near- death experience, Jon walked back on to the field watch his former teammates reach another College World Series. I don't usually get emotionally tied to my photography. But I did get choked up that day watching Jon, someone I had built a relationship with, make his way on the field to be with his former teammates.

Relationships are the backbone to everything we do. Starting building and never stop.

(Matt Brown is a freelance photographer based in Southern California. He is the co-founder of the Sports Shooter Academy workshops. You can see his work at his member page: and at his personal website:

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Wanna see some cool golf shots me! ::..