Confessions of a Fan Photographer

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The author on the job. 

I.

A couple of things that ran through my mind as I was pressed to the man-breast of a drunken Rangers fan.

Why did I lower the camera between me and his nipple? The camera was the only valuable thing on my person, and if the lens got damaged, there goes the easiest job in the world. But my dignity was also slowly evaporating along with the mix of beer and sweat that was beading along his soft areola. His friends laughed and there it went; my self-respect, mixing with the asbestos and dust, floated away into the damp air of the arena. He released me and I handed him a card. He could find the picture of his bosom approaching my lens in gallery 42.

I walked out of the dim and crowded 400-level of Madison Square Garden and furiously wiped my face with my lime green shirt.  Back in the arena, the crowd chanted the name of its enforcer, BOOOOOOG, a man already deep into a death spiral of concussions and painkillers. The camera that was entrusted to me dangled safely from my neck. I still had 20 pictures to take before I got paid.

I resolved to never work another Rangers game.

II.

I had graduated college, moved home, and found an AmeriCorps job at the Department for The Aging (truly as exciting as it sounds), when I suggested to a friend that we should go and see a Knicks game. My friend peered over his glass at the beer garden in Astoria, smiled wide, and asked, “what if I told you we could get paid to watch them instead?”

Early the following Thursday, I found myself making an excuse to the aged of New York, asking off of work so I could go through my orientation as a fan photographer. MSG had contracted with a company that ran similar photography operations around the league. My supervisor—an incredibly kind, shy, and Polish individual named Sebastian—explained the position. I was to go around the arena during pre-game, timeouts, and halftime, and ask for permission to take photos of fans. When the fans consented, I would take the photo and hand them a card that contained the number of an online gallery where they could find their picture and buy it in packages upwards of $30. The fact that MSG had instructed that we were not to take pictures during play was astounding to me—I could just stand there and watch the game I love.

That offseason, the Knicks had signed Amar’e Stoudemire, a perennial All-Star. He claimed to be part Hebrew and wore goggles. He was instantly beloved. Another acquisition, Raymond Felton, signed to run coach Mike D’Antoni’s late-capitalism version of offense, looked like a Knick from the mid-nineties—lean and angry. Add to the mix a Russian seven-footer with hands of steel, a draft pick from Stanford who hustled like he actually wanted to be in the NBA, and a Frenchman who was half-man, half-wizard (and now, sadly, a Wizard), and the Knicks had something they hadn’t for over ten years: an actually likable team. For the few seasons prior, Knick teams had been assembled based on their expendability. To be a Knick fan was to become acquainted with a fatalistic worldview—your team was born to die. But this new team seemed alive. For the Madison Square Garden Corporation, this was a huge relief. They had just begun a haphazard and complete renovation of their arena (a “transformation” as they put it), which would be funded by an obscene hike in the price of tickets for the next season. To have this succeed at all, they had to have fans come back to the Garden for the first time in a decade. Their outdated arena had to offer the amenities fans were receiving in other, newer arenas, like a pep squad, like fan photographers.

III.

At the end of the orientation tour, we were shown to our “office,” a small nook located directly off of the 200-level concourse that was also an active construction site. Sebastian demonstrated how to use our XLR cameras while construction workers removed the building’s exterior wall behind him. Looking for Sebastian, I once opened the door to our office only to find myself staring at around a fifty-foot drop to street level. Our original office had "transformed"—and our new office was now behind the Steiner Sports Collectibles Booth.

We were given lime green shirts, press credentials, and set loose upon the Garden, whose attendance was burgeoning as hoped for. My coworkers were not fans like me, elated for this backdoor into games. They were the same crowd you would find at any other service-industry job: students, burnouts, the debt-ridden, immigrants. For a “big game” against the Miami Heat that December, we were specifically instructed by management “not to look poor.” It was a tough proposition, as we were all working two jobs, trying to hustle free chicken fingers from generous concession workers, and wading through a dimming economy.

I would get out of work an hour before call time, so often I would arrive to the job early, just to sit in the Garden alone with everything. One day before a Mavs game, with Dirk Nowitzki shooting free throws only feet away from me, the Garden alit in all its pregame splendor, John Starks taking pictures with VIP’s at center court, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, wearing most of a cow’s hide as a suit, setting up for analysis, I would look up at the famous pitched roof, sagging under the weight of all those dismal Isaiah Thomas years, and find solace in the empty arena, well before the fans were allowed in. In Landry Fields’ practice shots, I found an escape from my day job, away from the underfunded social services system. I could believe that the Knicks had found a way out from years of embarrassing mismanagement.

WarmupsNF

I would be roused from this calm by a little gremlin of an usher.

“You can’t sit here! Do your job!”

“No one’s here yet,” I’d respond. I would motion to the empty, hallowed, bowl of vacant seats.

She had sunken eyes and a red bow attached to the side of her dyed-blonde hair. She had targeted me at my first game, and since then, I was a marked man. She was old and demonic, the bane of all the fan photographers, who would wave out in warning to each other as she approached. She knew that none of us really did our job. Possibly she disliked us because we were not only bad at our jobs, but actively avoiding her and hiding our ill-begotten chicken fingers. I believe she thought that a certain standard of service was being sullied by our presence, a standard she worked hard to maintain, and it probably was.

If I shot 200 photographs, I got paid for the day. By the time the regular season was underway, I was able to get 200 pictures before the game even started. I would haunt the corridors that led to the court, standing behind an usher, fiddling with my camera, watching the game from the equivalent of $150 seats. Most ushers were fine with this, and some even enjoyed our company, snidely confiding in me when a fan gave them attitude or a particularly attractive woman walked by. They were sturdy union men with theories on things. In their break room (I had snuck in for some free coffee and hot dogs), I overheard one explaining that the reason the weather was erratic was because the moon was getting closer to the sun. The other ushers nodded in agreement.

While working Knicks games was a way to pause my own life and become completely immersed in the event, Rangers games were the opposite. A slovenly, heterogeneous group, the fans would fill the arena to capacity, so one could see exactly how many people in New York cared about the Rangers—just what was in the building, and no one else. The Rangers fans heckled and clawed at me, and by the third period most would dissolve into blubbering, hollering beasts. Not the type of individual you would want to ask to take their picture. I mostly wandered the corridors, found empty seats in obstructed views, and wondered whether this was still worth it. They cheered as two men clubbed and concussed one another.

By mid-February, my pre-game basketball meditation had grown to a group of ten other photographers, all watching Kobe stretch and shoot only twenty feet from us, arriving early and somehow getting paid, a stagnant sea of lime green. MSG employees can be broken down by a uniform color of shirt. Ushers wore red blazers (except the gremlin, a supervisor, who wore a black one), concession workers in purple, and waiters wore light blue. Customer service was clad in mustard yellow. We sported a delirious green. The only exception was the 7thAve. Squad, and they suck.

If the fan photographers were a lazy, indulgent, apathetic group couched within the corporate kingdom of James Dolan, then the 7thAve. Squad, with their chipper attitude, t-shirt cannons, and overall fitness, were the energetic shills for the regime. They ran around, dressed in the t-shirt of whatever corporation sponsored that night’s game, asking the crowd to not only cheer for our New York Knicks, but also to go gamble at Foxwoods and sign up to become season ticket holders. Their unending enthusiasm didn’t frustrate me; I respected that they kept in shape and were not secreting hot dogs. But while I would be working a section, getting closer to the magic 200, winning over fan after fan with my lies about the photos appearing on the Knicks website and possibly the big screen at half-court (they wouldn’t, not ever), the section would suddenly erupt into a chorus of “Here! Here! Me! Me!” because the 7thAve. Squad was giving away t-shirts again (they had one trick, and they leaned on it pretty hard.) My photographic renderings were now of little importance to the fans as they clamored for free clothing that would transform a section into a moving, breathing advertisement for Chase Bank.

Who did this Knicks team belong to? Nominally it belonged to James Dolan, who managed the team so poorly that the commissioner had to strongly suggest a seasoned hand, Donnie Walsh, to take over as president of the team.

Walsh’s reasonable plan was working. Following the lead of Amar’e Stoudemire, the Knicks had charged to a winning record. They would never win a championship as presently constructed, but they could compete on most nights. There was energy about the team, a genuine lack of ego, no better personified than the stoicism of Wilson Chandler, a young talent that the Knicks hadn’t managed to trade away or misuse in his four seasons with the team. On the other end of my lens, I saw an enthusiasm for the Knicks that I thought Isaiah Thomas had forever extinguished.

I was photographing fans that were finally seeing a real team, a team that was not built to fail, and they were so happy. For every fan I made uncomfortable, for each who caustically dismissed me, I captured a moment of total fascination with an almost forgotten spectacle. Knicks fans wanted to believe that this team was not going anywhere except up. They, tragically, felt a sense of ownership.

IV.

To say that the arena was poisoned sounds like lurid poetry. Except that it was completely true. After canceling a game in November because of an Asbestos-related accident, a general dustiness began to settle. It was, after all, an active work site. A vendor I had struck up a friendship with, one who was in charge of the cotton-candy maker, disappeared in early February. When I found him, back behind a beer concession, I asked him what happened to the cotton candy. “Too much dust,” he said. “Bad to eat.” For profit and future viability, the fans’ and workers’ physical health was being sacrificed. For the same reasons, James Dolan sacrificed their mental health as well and blew up their beloved team.

After the Rangers incident on the 400-level, I began to go to work only occasionally. The Knicks fell in the standings, but still made the playoffs. They were swept by the hated Celtics in the first round. I watched the final seconds tick off next to Sebastian, as he patted me on the back and said I was a great employee. I wasn’t and I never tried to be. I remember Sebastian making a heroic speech in front of one of the owners of the fan photography company, expounding in us the virtues of getting good photos and being part of the fan’s experience. He only stared at the floor and at the company owner. He was incredibly shy, even more so because he knew that not a single one of us who truly cared about what we did. It was a job, it was a sham, and it never made any money.   

The Knicks’ motto for the season was “You. Us. We. Now.”  “You” was questionable—they had done everything possible to alienate their fans. “Us” was variable—they had shipped off the popular half of their team. “We” was impossible—there was never enough time or trust to make the proper bond between fan and franchise. “Now” was never. Never again would we, me, the fans, the team, have it so good.

They discontinued the fan photography service after just one year. As the team sulked off the court after losing to the Celtics, I prepared to take off my camera for the final time. A panicked father stopped me, clutching his young daughter. “I paid a fortune for these tickets and I never got a goddamn picture for my wife.” He held up his offspring, offering her to the camera. “Would you mind getting me and my daughter courtside?” I assented and followed them down, the father tightly clutching his daughter, thankful for the documentation of this shared experience. The daughter began to cry. As I handed them the card, I said, “Well hey, don’t get too upset, there’s always next year.” Her father set her down and added, “And the year after that, too.”


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