Amanda J. Cain wants to show hockey through a new lens

The NHL’s first Black female team photographer captures art in the fists and fury

I remember being given this assignment and because it was boxing I was like, ‘Cool, should be fun.’ And I got there and then the first thing I remember in this photo, is that art wall behind him; just how amazing the colors were and how it’d be cool to shoot him against that with the [speed bag] in front of him. I mean, it was all about colors. At that moment, it was all about trying to take a striking portrait that had foreground and background but let’s focus intently on him.

Growing up in Detroit, photographer Amanda J. Cain was an avid sports fan at a time when the city was enjoying a successful run with its teams. “When I came out of high school, you had the Pistons winning, you have the Red Wings still in that swing, and you have the Tigers with some momentum,” she recalled. “So it was kind of the height of the Detroit sports scene.”

Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty Images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.

At one point, she dreamed of being a professional athlete with a repertoire that included basketball, track and field, soccer, volleyball and softball. Determined to at least work in the industry, Cain enrolled at Central Michigan University and majored in sports studies. But after one semester of the statistics and math-heavy coursework, she switched to graphic design.

“Art was always something that I loved. I didn’t know much about graphic design until I took a course. I was like, ‘This is cool.’ At some point, you have to figure it out and just get through college and then have the rest kind of happen. And so, I stuck with art,” Cain explained. “I could take sculpture and photo classes as electives to get that BFA in graphic design. Was I the perfect student? Absolutely not. I think my teacher will tell you that, but I’m definitely creative. And I think they saw something [in me] as far as photography even back then. But in college, I didn’t know you could have photography as a career.”

That all changed during her first job out of college as a production artist for a newspaper in New Bedford, Massachusetts. An encounter with the publication’s photojournalist prompted Cain to purchase $5,000 worth of equipment.

“How do I become this expert in something that I never thought could be a career?” she said. “You just gotta keep shooting. So that’s literally what I did.”

That moxie eventually led Cain to stints as a photojournalist for community newspapers in Houston and Clute, Texas, as well as her native Detroit. She is also a pioneer, becoming the first Black female photographer at Eastern Kentucky University, Purdue University and the NHL team, the San Jose Sharks.

Here Cain reflects on her journey to becoming the NHL’s first Black female photographer.

I had never done anything like this before. I remember pointing my camera up at them. They’re huddled up and there’s other people around and there’s other media photographers around me. And I’m like, you know what, everybody’s going high or trying to get above them. And so I went low and this is the crop that I got. It just shows you so many different expressions that I could never imagine just lining up that shot and taking it like this. It was kind of like you’re in the right place in the right moment and your camera does what it needs to do.

How did you get into photography?

A friend of mine asked me to do a wedding. I had a little fancy Rebel Ti or something like that, and that was my idea of being a photographer. I think I charged him $300 to do a wedding. I didn’t know what I was doing, but that was the start. And then with graphic design, that means designing around photographs, so that’s why I bought an expensive camera. Just to mess around with photographs and add to my design.

When was the first moment you remember thinking all this work is paying off?

Occupy Wall Street. I took a trip to New York, a trip to San Francisco, then a trip to D.C., and all those kinds of movement areas. I can tell at that point this is good. I have something here. Did I send it to people? No. Because I was nervous as heck. There’s always that in your career — ‘I think I’m good enough, but other people are gonna sit there and rip it apart.’ I’ve had a New York Times photographer tell me, ‘Use the light within your camera. Turn up the ISO. What are you afraid of?’ I used to be afraid to turn on my ISO because you get grain. Those are the little things that go through your mind when you’re first starting off, trying to be good at something. But once you get all that out of your mind, the opportunities are endless.

Tell me about the first time you felt comfortable showing your photography.

I think the first time was in 2012. I did a small kind of gallery reception at a hole-in-the-wall bar. And then I think that same year, Black+White Photography magazine picked up a couple of my images, and I was like, ‘Cool. This is awesome. I’m getting somewhere.’ Little did I know that it was still the very beginning. There are certain stages of the beginning, right? People think, ‘OK, once I sell something, I’m about to pop off.’ I wish it had been like that more often. And for some people it is, but there are still more growing pains. It’s like I got to a certain point, and then I said, ‘Hey, I don’t think I can make any more progress here.’ That first job decided to part ways with me back in February 2012. That kind of freed me up to be like, OK, if this is what I want to do, then I’ve got to teach myself and make this happen. Now is the time. So I also took a trip to Thailand and took my camera. The world is beautiful, so it was just an awesome opportunity to do some things on my own in my mid-20s. It was very freeing.

I moved to Houston, Texas, in September of that same year. I didn’t know anything about Texas. During the first two months, I got to start shooting music finally. And I was like, ‘Oh, you’re credentialing me to shoot this?’ It was a wow moment. I got to shoot professional sports like the Houston Dynamo. Looking back at it, almost 10 years ago, I’d be like, ‘Why would anybody give me a credential?’ I was just someone that was trying to be everybody else. I’m sitting next to somebody working for Getty and firing off thousands of images. I’m sitting here with comparable gear but trying to understand the best angle or the most important thing to shoot. Like, how do I get to be like these people?

This for me was all about the randomness of movement and how it fills the frame. I’ve always been told to fill the frame. When shooting you’re not thinking about placement or where things are gonna go, especially with sports, you don’t know where the ball is gonna go. You don’t know if the ball’s in the shot. When I’m out there I’m hoping the ball’s in the shot. When I go back and I edit and I see the ball in the shot and between his legs as the shortstop is on defense trying to catch or ground the ball — it’s kind of a perfect moment. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s just that perfect moment being caught.

I believe this was one of the first times I shot lacrosse and so I was unsure about what a good shot was. I’m usually a very crop in type shooter or like to crop in tight. And sometimes that really doesn’t show the action. I think here what I really wanted to show, what I really felt when I was there was how tight can I get a ball in the shot. And it just works perfectly with this because it’s in the stick as he’s being defended and trying to wrap around the defender. So it’s kind of like, ‘let’s see if this will work.’ 

Friday Night Lights has a special place in my heart because the first thing I photographed wasn’t necessarily professional sports. It wasn’t the NFL, never shot the NFL, not to say that I won’t ever. But when people say, ‘I want to shoot this, or I want to shoot that. Where do I start?’ Friday Night Lights is where you start. I think this was towards the end of the season or middle season. I was just kind of catching that flow. It’s like a natural high or a shooter’s high, whatever you want to call it. And so that night, I was just on it. I had a lot of great shots from that night. This shot meant the world to me just because of the action: the feet and the defender on the ground. It just spoke to me. It’s one of those photos that you’re like, ‘Damn, that fast.’

I remember being there, kinda pissed off, because I didn’t think he was gonna hit the game-winning shot. I didn’t think I had the right lens on my camera. I wish I was tighter. And so I had a wide lens on my camera at the time. And it’s funny because I think within this shot it captures every emotion known in the sports world. It just shows you the roar of the crowd and the opponents kind of looking like, ‘what?’ I wouldn’t say it’s a pinnacle moment of my Eastern Kentucky University career. I will say it’s one of those defining moments that you’re like, ‘Yeah, I can really shoot well at times.’

So I would say this is technically a real, ‘oh, my goodness, f—! It’s in focus’ moment. Sometimes, depending on where they are, how they’re coming off the board, and the lens width — I had a 7200 on my camera body — sometimes you catch it late. And this one, I saw it as it happened and I clicked it and it was like, ‘I hope I got that.’ I can remember it like it was yesterday and me being like ‘Holy f—ing s—. Yes! Figured it out. Goodness.’ It was like my first moment of hockey where I said, ‘OK, I can do this.’
So normally it is great to shoot coaches from eye level or either crowd level. But it was interesting as I was up on the catwalk, because every now and then I go for the second period or third period and I just try to find different angles because you never want to shoot the same thing. So I was sitting here for about five minutes, just waiting for something to happen in front of the bench. I was not worried about on the bench. And just magically, I saw [Alexander] Barabanov skating by and coach’s hand pointing out. And it was just one of those moments where I’m just like, ‘yeah, that’s dynamic. That’s different. That’s a killer shot.’
In this moment, literally I was like ‘Really? He’s so tall. And our players so small. Are you really about to fight this dude [New York Islanders defenseman Zdeno] Chára?’ On this night I think he broke a record. It was very special: We had gotten a press release about it the day before. And throughout the first period they are chirping at each other. And then, second period, they just decided to drop the gloves and put on a fight. And I was just happy to be there to capture this iconic kind of player fight our feisty little Jeffrey Viel. I just thought that was awesome. This is an awesome moment. A fighting shot. A hockey shot.
This is before one of the road trips. I think this was the second time that I had gotten them coming onto the plane. And I really tried to focus on getting their expressions and kind of freeze the frame in the sense of ‘what are they doing?’ Making the viewer figure out what are they doing, where are they going. This is just a candid moment that I captured that I love because it has personality, it has multiple players in it, and it’s a well-composed shot.
How did the job with the San Jose Sharks come about?

I periodically applied to sports jobs because [I thought] maybe someone wants a more overall photographer than just a sports photographer. I like to think the more well-rounded you are, the better opportunity you have to get the job and go about it that way. But I’m usually not allowed to go about it that way. So when the Sharks came calling, luckily, the hiring manager for the job, that’s what she wanted. I saw the diversity description. Every job has it nowadays because they feel like they have to, but do you really stand for that. You know, that’s No. 1. I asked questions in the interviews, but I still didn’t know.

It’s hockey. Why would they hire a Black woman to be a team photographer? In my mind, this is not gonna happen. But it’s great practice. So I did research and I took notes. I watched Billie Weiss’ YouTube channel because he’s a team photographer for the Boston Red Sox. Everything you need to know about being a team photographer is on his YouTube channel. So between each interview, I thought, ‘What are they gonna ask? How am I going to say that I can operate remote cameras?’ I’ve never operated a remote camera, but I made it sound like it did. I think you just have to talk the talk until you can actually do the work. And so that’s what I did.

You’ve mentioned trying to change the way that people shoot hockey. What do you mean by that? What’s your vision for hockey?

While researching for this position, I watched a couple of videos about how to shoot hockey. And one of the things one of the guys was saying in that video was, ‘That’s an artsy shot. But we’re not looking for an artsy shot. We’re looking for the complete action sports shot.’ And I was like, why not look for the artsy shot. It presents a different light to something that people have seen one way for so many years. I do shoot it all because we have a quota that we must meet for Getty. But outside of [that], I try to have my take on the game in a separate folder. It’s called postgame edits. And so I edit the way I want someone to see the shot. So they have the same shot in the game day folder, but my interpretation of that shot is sometimes completely different from how my editor of the night has edited. It’s more of, ‘Here’s a blank canvas, now let me work.’ That’s the difference and what I’m trying to bring to hockey.

Being the first in your field makes you a role model to so many. How does that feel?

That’s a tough one. Being a role model can be frustrating at times, but it’s very rewarding. It’s an honor to be a role model to those that look up to me, even though I may not know them. I was probably in their position and couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then I kept working. And this is why I’m here. So whatever I can do to pass on to the younger generation, and even those that are the same age as me or older, I’m always happy to do. But being the first has many challenges. It’s interesting to think that it took this long to be the first.

You’re an inspiration to so many, but who or what inspires you?

Women in sports roles in general. Seeing the other women being successful inspires me a lot. Everything inspires me at certain times. That’s not to say that I like everything, but that you can go on Instagram, or you can go on Twitter and all these other creative sites like Pinterest, and you can just draw inspiration from that. Being a woman who inspires other women has been rewarding and something I never expected. But along my career path, being able to inspire people has kind of been a dream. It’s kind of gone from I’m just a photographer to now being this inspirational Black female in sports trying to uplift others. So my inspiration comes from even the people that I’m inspiring. They post things, and I’m like, ‘Hell, yeah! That’s awesome!’ I think we can all learn from each other, and that’s the good thing about today’s creative community. We can take little things, ask each other questions over DMs [direct messages], and that’s where all the inspiration comes from. It’s just from gaining knowledge from other people, piecing it together, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Amanda J. Cain is a professional photographer raised in Detroit who now calls the Bay Area home, and is the first Black female team photographer for the San Jose Sharks. Her background includes music, sports, and photojournalism. She is passionate about women’s sports and enabling young creatives to find their passion.

Photo of Amanda by Amanda J. Cain | Story text by Nasha Smith

Nasha Smith is a freelance writer from St. Lucia with bylines in InStyle, Forbes, Business Insider, Thrillist, Lonely Planet, Observer, and others. Follow her adventures and passion for potatoes on Twitter @nashasmith.

This Story Tagged: Hockey NHL Photography Folkus Amanda J. Cain