Finding The Creative Path and Pivoting Because of COVID

Staff Report —

Jennifer Stewart knew growing up she wanted to do something creative. Her career as a photographer specializing in sports and the outdoors started after her parents bought her a Dodge Ram pickup truck in high school and she started sneaking into off-road racing events. We caught up with the Arizona-based photographer and talked to Stewart about her career, her advice for those starting out in creative fields and how she is pivoting her business in the age of COVID-19.

What inspired you to be a photographer?

Growing up I always knew my career would be in something creative. Traditional Monday to Friday jobs never clicked for me as I found being creative wasn’t always something you could turn on or off. My mom talks of how she would find me on the floor in my bedroom ripping out pictures and letters in magazines to make collages or how I was always moving my furniture around to redecorate my bedroom.

Then my sense of adventure and the outdoors grew when in high school when my parents gifted me a lifted Dodge Ram. It was lifted 6 inches, had 35-inch tires and I couldn’t see in the bed of the pickup. I found myself off-roading in the desert with friends. They would ride their dirt bikes and I would bring a camera to create videos or take pictures of the action.

As their riding skills improved and they started to compete at competitions, I began following them to these events where I learned how to document and tell the stories of their days. It was at an off-road race in Vegas where I met another photographer who told me I could actually make a living doing this for wire services.

What type of photography do you like best?

While I have always had a strong passion and love for sports photography, believe it or not graduation portraits sessions are probably my favorite. I love being able to connect with these young adults who are eager and excited to take on the world. Their energy is fun to feed off of, plus they are now the generation who love photos of themselves, so they always make the most of our time together.

Do you feel it was difficult to break into sports photography?

It was difficult to break into the sports photography world as a young female during those early years. While there were women in the industry, we were few and far between. The stigma of a women in sports wasn’t always a positive one if you dressed or acted a certain way. My mentor at the time was adamant about how I represented myself. He encouraged me to keep my head down, work twice as hard and let my photos speak for themselves.

How did you break into the field?

I started by sneaking into various local off-road racing events and dirt bike competitions. Through networking I was able to meet my mentor who helped me learn the ropes of the wire service business where I began covering NASCAR, NHRA Drag Boat and Top Fuel Dragster races.

As my portfolio and experience grew in 2009, I shot my first MLB game covering the Arizona Diamondbacks where there was a bench clearing fight. I remember thinking how exciting this was. All the photographers immediately turned to me telling me how this never happens and how lucky I was to experience this at my first game.

Events were few and far between in the beginning but over time, I continued to build my resume in product and people photography and eventually earned my way into covering all the major sporting events in Arizona on a regular basis.

What differentiates you from other photographers? What do you contribute your success to?

In the sports world I’ve always thought my height was a competitive advantage as I have a tendency to go low to capture a different viewpoint. I’m also not afraid of heights and will venture to the highest point of a venue to capture an over the head view where I can play with different perspectives, light or shadows.

I also think I have a way of allowing people to quickly feel comfortable with me allowing me to capture real and natural moments. Clients will often tell me how I quickly make them feel comfortable or how their kids usually don’t like other people.

What are some fun events, interesting people, or exotic places you have been able to encounter because of your job?

One of my career highlights was being Arizona Diamondbacks Randy Johnson’s photographer when he was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. I had the opportunity to follow him around documenting all the events, celebrations, and moments he experienced.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be a professional (sports) photographer?

I always tell anyone who is interested in a photography career to shoot what you love and do it often. Always be learning, always be open to new opportunities, always be networking and always value your work. For some reason there’s this stigma that it’s okay to work for free when you are starting out and that shouldn’t be the case. Not only is this an expensive field with all our equipment and software costs, it’s also difficult to negotiate from zero.

What are you doing now and what are the next steps for your business?

In the last year, I have been hit in the head three times by a foul ball at MLB games. In 2019 I suffered a severe concussion that put me down for most of the MLB season. In the beginning of Feb 2020, I took a ball to the back of the head where I had a mild concussion that reminded me to purchase that helmet, I was too insecure to purchase the first around. Then at the end of Feb 2020 I was hit, again, this time in the face by a foul ball that came off the bat at 96 mph. It went through the netting of a fence I was using to stand behind. Within a week of recovering from this incident, COVID-19 stopped all sporting events and work I had scheduled for the year.

While this all sounds awful, I am using this as an opportunity to grow myself and my business. I love collaborating with people to create a library of engaging images they are proud of. When COVID stopped most of the work I had scheduled for March and April I began using this time to refocus my attention away from sports and use my ability to quickly capture strong images for brands, graduates, families, and entrepreneurs in one photoshoot.