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|| News Item: Posted 2005-10-31

The Biggest Man on the Field
By Thomas E. Witte

Photo by Thomas E. Witte

Photo by Thomas E. Witte

Bobby Martin of Colonel White High School in Dayton, Ohio talks with his coach on the sideline during warmups prior to Saturday nights game against Belmont High School.
It all started so innocently really; an article in the local newspaper, an idea and an email. As quickly as I set the ball in motion, the story became one of the most moving, inspirational and educational stories I've ever had the privilege of photographing.

When Robert Hanashiro first asked me to write this story, we couldn't figure out what I should key in on, so I'm just going to talk about it all in hopes that you gain something from it. Be it a more compassionate approach to photojournalism, learning how to submit a story proposal or the complexities of embargos and exclusivity clauses when it comes to maintaining your copyright.
It was just another day. I was sitting in Dallas waiting to board my flight home and decided to surf the web for a few minutes. Rarely do I check my hometown newspaper's (The Middletown Journal) website, but that day I did. On the sports page, there was a story that caught my eye and immediately grabbed my attention. It was the story of Bobby Martin.

The story in a nutshell involved a rather stubborn and defiant young man by the name of Bobby Martin who was born without any legs. His three-foot tall body starts at his pelvis and that's it. Never knowing a life with legs, Bobby from an early age just adapted to using his arms and the pendulum motion of his body for movement. And after perfecting this method of locomotion for 17 years - and seeing it first hand - I can tell you this kid can move with the best of them. This is the ONLY life he's ever known.

So when he wanted to go try out for the football team that was perfectly natural to him. Like any man his age, he wants to be active and play sports. Football would be one answer. (Bobby also wrestles and is a shot putter.) The article went on to explain the absurdity of why Bobby was disqualified in his fourth game of the season (after playing in three without incident) for not wearing shoes, knee or thigh pads.

"What the... Are you seriously kidding me?" I thought to myself. "These idiots would probably throw the Headless Horsemen out of a baseball game for not wearing a batting helmet too."

Before I even finished the article I thought of Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly. I knew that we both share the same disdain for indubitable stupidity; only where he excels with the pen I just stomp around in circles and shout expletives. "Rick will have a field day with this", I thought and promptly fired off an email to two of the Sports Illustrated picture editors I'm close with.

Photo by Thomas E. Witte

Photo by Thomas E. Witte

Bobby Martin of Colonel White High School in Dayton, Ohio chases down the Belmont High school punt returner during Saturday nights game.
Submitting a story proposal to anyone can be a tricky task, especially at this stage in my career. I don't want to come off too brash and I don't have enough (any) clout to come off sounding like I know what stories they should be covering. It's a time to set your ego aside and in your neutral - yet still confident way - say; "this is pretty cool, what do you think?" This is also a time to have steady and regular contacts.

I'd been talking to Sports Illustrated picture editors Jimmy Colton and Maureen Cavanagh for at least six years, sending regular emails, promo cards and phone calls. They're the first two people I poke my head in to see when I stop in the office. One of them is even a reference on my resume. Along with them though, I've also worked with several other editors a handful of times. Which editor in this situation is going to be the best person to talk to though; the one I constantly try to stay in touch with has seen my work consistently and worked directly with me, or the one I've only worked with once or twice a year? Exactly, the one I know well. Go to you regulars. At this point I'm four for six pitching to them.

So I sat down and penned an email to Jimmy and Maureen saying:

Moe and Jimmy-

I wasn't sure which of you two would appreciate this more, and I'm sure if Reilly caught wind of it he'd have a field day with the refs decision. (URL and story description went here.) Anyway, I thought I'd pitch the idea to you guys to see what you thought. It sounds like this could become a pretty big story.

I got a reply back almost immediately from Maureen saying they loved the idea and were going to pass it along to Rick. By the time I landed back in Ohio, Rick replied saying this was going to be his column that week and that I'd be shooting Bobby the upcoming weekend during a game. We at this point planned for it to be a web only gallery with the offset chance that they'd run a tiny 1/8th page photo on Ricks page. "Sweet." I thought.

I showed up to the game about an hour early with assistant Tyler Barrick of Ohio University. I sought out Bobby on the sidelines and squatted down to be eye level with him. I basically said "Listen, I know you're probably getting sick already about the media attention so I'm just going to be a fly on the wall tonight. You won't even know I'm here. We'll do a portrait at half time then I'll probably take off so I don't draw any more attention to you." He simply replied, "That's cool, that's cool." I wished him good luck in the game, shook his hand and then thumped him twice on the shoulder pads.

Photo by Thomas E. Witte

Photo by Thomas E. Witte

Bobby Martin of Colonel White High School in Dayton, Ohio chases down the Belmont High school punt returner during Saturday nights game.
I had every intention in the world to do a complex portrait of Bobby but something felt to sensational about it. Ever since college I couldn't stand it when people who would shoot stories about cancer patients or whatnot because they never showed the person in "ambiguous mode" as I called it. They were always photos of the subject in the hospital or otherwise blatant about pointing out that this person is not healthy/normal.

No matter how subtle the pose I sketched up, the portraits were just going to look way to literal and they would also not include Bobby on the field or in action. They would have accidentally downplayed Bobby's ability on the field by putting him in a static situation when the story was about him being able to play. At all costs, I did not want to sensationalize Bobby even if sacrificed a pretty photo.

Two things happened that really caused me to reevaluate what I was doing there. The first was during the third photo of the night. I was on a diatribe to Tyler about how freelance basics need to be taught in schools, looked over and saw Bobby catching passes from his coach while the rest of the team huddled at the end of the field to prepare for drills. I fired off 10 shots and chimped. I liked what I saw, looked at Tyler and said; "well, we can take off if you really want to". Something about the shot looked so surreal. It's one of the only ones where his jersey totally touches the ground all the way around his body and it just looks like he's growing out of the ground. It also didn't draw attention to the fact that he has no legs like a few of the portraits would have. It made you look at the photo twice, maybe three times, and go; "what the?" It captured his normalcy.

The second was during a punt in the second quarter. I was tracking Bobby on punt coverage duties, (what's funny is the other team disregarded him as a threat) and he ran unobstructed towards the punter as he just missed blocking the ball. Then I heard a condescending, over pronounced laugh... It was coming from the punter laughing at Bobby. For what reason I'll never know.

Bobby was out there playing the game exceptionally well all things considered and this idiot had the gall to laugh in his face while his punt went an astonishing 16 yards. I fought the urge to walk over to the other sideline and give him a piece of my mind but noticed Bobby didn't even bat an eye at the insult. I realized he was the biggest man on the field, and decided to make my photos reflect that.

The next day I called Moe to ask her if all the photos made it. She replied with an emphatically yes and that I'd probably be getting another Leading Off out of it. "Wow. Double sweet." I thought to myself. Sports Illustrated's contract is space versus rate, meaning that if the day rate is $500 and a double truck is $1000, I'll get paid the higher of the two values. Coincidentally I also signed the contract with SI Picture Sales, which operates essentially as a stock house for assignments shot for SI. This is where the story takes an interesting turn.

Photo by Thomas E. Witte

Photo by Thomas E. Witte

Bobby Martin of Colonel White High School in Dayton, Ohio cheers on his team during a long rush attempt during Saturday nights game against Belmont.
Normally I'll handle any stock photo distribution for the first 4-6 weeks through PhotoShelter. As was the case with Bobby, inquiries came in only hours after the story went online. The first few requests were manageable but then things got interesting. A request from the American Embassy in Kuwait came in a few minutes before a request from ZOO magazine in the UK and a few minutes after a request from France. I sat there for a few seconds looking at the emails wondering what to do when the phone rang. It was my new buddy Prem from SI Picture Sales asking if I had any other photos I could send because they were working on a two exclusives.

You've all seen the special notes on some AP photos saying (for example) "USA OUT" or whatnot. That's essentially saying that someone in the USA has that photo as their exclusive. Well what was happening was, some magazines in other parts of the world had contacted SI wanting to reprint the photo, but they were willing to pay extra if they were the only magazine in their country to run the photos for a while. This could be good or bad. Yes we can command a higher price for ONE sale but what if five magazines want the image? Then we need to charge a high enough price to offset the lost sales as well. It's a tricky balancing act and I was more than happy to turn over international sales efforts to SIPS. I on the other hand focused on North America.

The newspapers were pretty easy. I know that a paper in Florida isn't going to conflict with a paper in Missouri. The smaller magazines on the other hand were a little more complicated. They were still willing to pay a premium rate knowing that the photos already ran in Sports Illustrated, but they wanted to secure the photo in their market. One magazine wanted to be the only one to run the image in any physical therapy magazines while another wanted to be the only high school sports magazine to run the image. Each time a new inquiry came in, I had to check with the other licenses and sometimes contact previous buyers to make sure that my selling to the new inquirer wouldn't jeopardize the contract and/or license agreement.

At the moment of writing this, the combined resales of what I sold and my split from SI Picture Sales total a few bucks shy of twelve grand... for a photo from a high school football game. If that's not reason enough to maintain your copyright, I don't know what is.

(Thomas E. Witte has been a full time freelance photographer based in the Greater Cincinnati area and Midwest for the past ten years. His clients range from Sports Illustrated to Business Week to Getty Images.)

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