Women are rising through the ranks of professional football, occupying positions of power in a space that for too long has been ruled almost exclusively by men. We see more and more women breaking down barriers in sport, but what are the stories beyond the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering these questions is the goal of the Next Woman Up series. While the conversational questions and answers are edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for influential women to share their experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we present to you:
Chanelle Smith-Walker, Carolina Panthers
Chanelle Smith-Walker, Carolina Panthers
How did you start your career in sports photography? Read also : How to watch: Rams vs Cardinals, week 3.
I’m actually a designer by trade. I graduated in communications with a minor in visual arts from Elon University. I went to Southern Miss graduate school and was a graduate assistant for their digital media department, so that’s where I got my start in photography. I was hired full time as Digital Media Manager after three months. I was doing graphic design, social media and photography, and I found that I really loved taking pictures. Then my career took off and Twitter became my best friend.
I got a direct message from the creative director at Baylor University and ended up joining them as the associate creative director of the football program, which is how I met coach Matt Rhule. Then I got another DM from the recruiting director at the University of Tennessee, and I became the school’s creative director. I was the first black creative director at the SEC.
Now I’m here and it’s the first time I’ve focused solely on photography – although I’ve expanded it to more.
What is the job of creative director?
As Creative Director, you are responsible for the appearance of all content. This covers everything from graphics to video and photo content to social media. All of these roles are slowly starting to come apart, but one person did it all when I started.
When I was in Tennessee, I was chosen to be one of the designers for the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship in Miami between Alabama and Ohio State. I’ve been part of a lot of firsts. It was the first time they had a pair of female designers and a black designer. It was fun collaborating on the logo and content for the CFP platforms, designing for these two schools while tapping into Miami culture.
Now that you’ve been doing more photography with the Panthers, what have you learned about yourself?
First of all, I will say that photography is so much harder than it looks. A lot of people think you can just point and shoot, but you have to know the lighting and which strobes and lenses to use depending on the event. I learned so much about which camera bodies and lenses work best in certain situations. I am the only photographer here for the Panthers, so not only do I photograph events or games, but I also archive all photos for the entire organization to have access to.
What are some of the most innovative things you’ve done during your time with the organization?
“My View” is a sponsored series that the Panthers have done over the course of the season, and the most important thing I wanted to bring to it is a behind-the-scenes aspect. I like to talk about what goes into certain sets or how I was able to get a certain shot or why I chose a particular creative decision.
We just had the schedule released, which was huge for us. We did a 1990s theme and we really wanted to show the personality of our players because our fans aren’t just fans because we win or lose; they like the players. I love being part of a creative team that does big projects like this and pushes players to show their personality outside of football.
What is the hardest part of your job?
There are two things. The former tries to balance all aspects of being a team photographer. Like I said, there are so many things that go into it, so much more than just taking pictures. The second is that people take me seriously when I’m on the sidelines. I think there are less than 10 female photographers in the NFL and I only know two who are black — Callena Williams of the Dallas Cowboys and me. Getting people to understand that we are in these roles because we know what we are doing is sometimes difficult. People don’t understand that.
There’s a long way to go to get more women and women of color into these roles, but it’s also about making people more receptive to seeing someone like me on the sidelines. Getting people to respect me and not treat me like I’m incompetent because I’m a woman in this role is probably the biggest challenge. It is slowly but surely getting easier.
How does it feel to know that you are helping to lead the way in this industry for women and women of color?
It’s exciting, but there’s a certain underlying pressure that comes with it. It opened doors for people to connect with me. Many of them want to know more about what I do or follow me. It allowed me to give opportunities to minorities who don’t necessarily have access to filming an NFL game or watching a photo shoot. Four people followed me for our TopCats production day earlier this year, and that was a good thing.
What kind of perspective do you bring to your position?
I’m not going to lie, I’m not a huge football fan. But because I’m not attached to the game in that way, I feel like I can really focus on the personalities of our players and get a real shot that’s different. There are always photographers who will get the classic football shot of the player screaming with excitement, but not everyone will get the guy behind him showing some other emotion. I’m not just focused on the big problem. I also try to find the little moments, and I usually get those moments that not everyone sees. I do research before games by looking at players’ social media accounts to see what’s meaningful to them in this game or game. If it’s a special game because of the awareness month breast cancer or some anniversary game, I’ll know which players have a special connection to that particular game, so I can focus on them.
It’s like the photo of Keith Kirkwood that I took in week 7 last season. It was his first game after being carried off the field during training camp and taken to hospital by ambulance. The emotion in the photo says it all. It’s definitely one of my favorite shots I’ve taken.
What advice do you have for women looking to get into a sporting career?
Don’t be afraid to defend yourself. It’s good to fight for yourself and be confident in your abilities. People might take advantage of people not wanting to defend themselves, so you have to be prepared to do that.
This is great advice. What’s next in terms of what you want to accomplish, whether short or long term?
The most important thing I’ve always wanted to do is give back and help minority creatives and people who just don’t have opportunities. When you look at the creative industry as a whole, there’s a big gap between people who have privilege and access to big schools like Alabama and Texas — schools with really big creative content programs — and people who don’t because they can’t afford it. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t gotten a volleyball scholarship to Elon University, so I want others to have the same opportunities no matter where they’re from or in what situation they find themselves.
I’m in the early stages of a program with the Panthers. It’s a job shadowing, an eight-week program where minority youth can come in and shadow all parts of the department, and it will happen right after the season and through free agency. . They won’t necessarily be doing work, but they’ll be a fly on the wall to see everything that’s going on in content creation so they can see if it’s a career they really want to pursue.
The other thing I’ve worked on is a minority creations workshop. We will take 24 people who will be divided into four areas: social, video, graphics and photo. We provide all necessary gear and equipment. This is a one-day, eight-hour course. During the first three hours they will learn how to use the equipment and the second half is dedicated to mentoring and networking.
I was blessed with the Panthers because they really supported those programs and got them started. We have a very diverse creative team here and I think it shows in the work and the projects we do.
I look forward to hearing how these programs turn out. Finally, what are you most proud of?
(Heartbreaking) I wouldn’t necessarily say everything I’ve done, but representation is so important I would say showing people that you can be like me and be successful in this. I’m sorry, I’m so emotional. I want to inspire and I’ve gotten so many messages from people saying things like “I lost hope then I saw your TikTok”. I use TikTok to educate and guide people on where to look for jobs or how to do certain creative things.
I think my biggest achievement is inspiring people and showing them that they don’t even have to like sports or go to big universities. They can do it. If you put your mind to it, you can find a way to do it. I want to see more black women doing this because there aren’t many of us. I’m not doing this for the rewards. I do it because I love my job and I love being creative, and I just want to help people. I want to help bring more women, especially minority women, into these roles.