A photographer on shooting the gaps
It’s 11:45 p.m. Saturday, May 2. My feet are sore and my belly is full from yet another round of Wick’s Pizza (pepperoni and hamburger — it’s important). The 135th running of the Kentucky Derby is in the books, and I’m remembering the in-betweens.
When you work the Derby as a part of a media crew, you are given a laminated card that offers access you can’t buy from any scalper. With the right combination of stickers — and many of us have lots of stickers — you get to go just about anywhere on the track. You are above the world of torn paper tickets and wristbands. You have access. You’re there for a reason.
The first year your pass seems to glow around your neck. You feel like Superman — all powerful, all important, cocky. That feeling lasts until your first screw up or slap down. You miss a cue, you miss a shot, you’re not where you should be, the director or editor can’t find you when they need you. Comments are made, and one sentence, one phrase from the person that hired you is all you remember. On that day, the ride home feels like a prison bus. You can barely stand being there with yourself.
If you’re lucky, you get to do it again. This time it’s better. You’re not cocky anymore. You don’t spend time meeting up with your friends in the grandstand to play big time with your pass. You stay focused on your job. You shut up, you pay attention; you are in the zone. The end of the day comes and someone says “good job.” This time, you ride home feeling like you’re 10 feet tall.
You have learned the most important lesson: The pass around your neck doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you get to contribute.
If you make it that far and you keep getting to do this, friendships form. You now have peers, people you know for sometimes only one day the entire year. Some are legends — professionals who do this kind of gig every weekend. Some are like you: transients who work one major event every year. Others are noobs, first-timers at the start of their quickening that you may never have met before. All of the faces are connected with their work, their reputations, their style. But beyond the work, you hear their stories — the kids, the vacations, the hobbies. You get to know them on a different level. You start to enjoy the in-betweens with them.
With the Derby, the event is the event. It happens at a certain time and it takes two minutes. It is the coda, and why we’re all here. It’s the beginning of the end. There isn’t much time for bonding; it’s game time, and everyone does a job.
But preceding and succeeding that time there are hundreds of moments — the in-betweens — that you start to remember. You finish shooting a few features and you’re relaxing on a chair when someone comes by to chat. Or they just say something funny as they walk past. Or they tell you a story, ask if you’re grabbing lunch, ask you a question. There’s a meeting, or the side conversation after the meeting, or the funny comment as you walk down the stairs. There’s a shared lunch where not much is said and everyone is just tired or tense.
The in-betweens. It’s a sweaty bus ride back to the car, or a pizza with friends. It’s the shared satisfaction of a slide show of work at the end of the day on a laptop in the middle of a junk-covered worktable. It’s the credits at the end of the show — however fleeting — when they spell your name right. It’s the firm handshake or the funny shared catchphrase or the fatigue-fueled stupidity of a joke that’s not really funny.
It’s those moments — little bits of time between the time — shared with people who are doing the same thing you’re doing that are really unique to this experience.
The gig happens. From the event you get a few memories — a great picture you made, or something you did as a part of the team that helped make it all come together. But as time goes on, I find that I remember the in-betweens with “just a little bit more in focus.”
It’s these moments between the moments that I think about now. Friends. Comments. Jokes. Stories.
And they make me smile.
David Harpe is a Louisville-based photographer, videographer and visual artist. He has been to the Kentucky Derby as a part of media crews for 20+ years. This year, he was one of several photographers covering the event for The Associated Press.