Before Minneapolis native David Ellis became a photographer, he was a hockey fan. Having followed St. Paul Academy and Summit School (SPA) for some time, David witnessed the better part of a 41-year state tournament drought. When the Spartans fell just short of the championship in 2016, David decided to embed himself with the team and document their 2017 run.
Although a personal project, David received some interest from ESPN in the piece. He wanted to create something different from traditional sports reportage, using his access to show another side of high-school hockey.
The first step was gaining that access. David needed clearance from the coach, the communications department, the parents and the players. Obtaining approval proved easier than he expected:
Everyone was on board. Basically, I would just show up whenever I could.
For the rest of the project, the coach was David’s main point of contact for the team. He kept David in the loop about the games and activities.
He really gave me access to everything. He was the only person on the team who knew there might be the possibility of publishing the story nationally.
As the season began, David truly learned what it meant to be an embedded reporter. Although he spent a lot of his time standing in smelly locker rooms and cold arenas waiting for a photo opportunity, there was never a dull moment around the group of teenagers.
David took a “fly on the wall” approach to his coverage, purposefully not telling the boys how to act in front of the camera.
I didn’t want them to see me as an authority figure telling them what they could and could not do.
Many of the players were surprised that David didn’t shoot more pictures of the in-game on-ice action. Rather than the games themselves, David was more interested in what was happening off the ice. He knew this approach would give the project a better sense of the team as a group of individuals.
I was more focused on the relationships and the emotions of everyone involved—coaches, faculty, fans, parents, players, alums and the activities off the ice.
As the season progressed, David continued to travel with the team, capturing the boys during their rawest and most vulnerable movements. He was there for the team’s triumphs and heartbreaks – for the moments of excitement and periods of boredom.
For David, the toughest part of the whole experience was getting sick halfway through the season. There was a nasty flu going around the team and the entire school. David caught the bug and was out of commission for two weeks.
Through his experience with the team, David couldn’t help but feel invested in the outcome.
I got wrapped up in how the team was playing. I was nervous before games and I really felt bad for them when they lost. I looked forward to going to the different events, dinners, school activities, weekend tournaments, hanging out with the team and the parents.
Although the Spartan’s fell short in their championship bid, David knew that the players would someday appreciate the fact that he had been there to document the season. They would be able to look back at the photos and see themselves during those moments that meant so much.
I gave the parents and the school the entire set of photos—everyone was very appreciative.
ESPN loved the photos David came up with. They ran the story online using David’s pictures and text. You can check it out here. The project was so well received that one of David’s photos appeared in Communication Art’s 2017 Photo Annual and the PDN Photo Annual ’18.
See more of David at davidellisphoto.com!