Cheerleaders: A Love Story

When I first started shooting women’s basketball, the instructions from my boss at the publication were to not just bring back action shots from the floor, but shots of fans, cheerleaders, the band, etc. Everything and anything that would capture the atmosphere in the arena.

But he made it pretty clear that what he really wanted was cheerleader shots. That should be perfectly understandable; it’s an online publication, he needs traffic just as much as any other online publication does. And pretty girls equal heavy traffic.

No better place on Earth than to fulfill our need for click bait than the campus of USC, where the cheerleaders are icons of youth, beauty, energy, and style. I’ve seen a lot of cheerleaders, but USC’s “Song Girls” (that’s right, they don’t even call them cheerleaders) are in a class all their own.

But these fabulous ladies strut their stuff at Rose Bowl games played on New Years Day which decide the national championship of college football. (Or they did back then, anyway.) There can’t be any question that sitting on the baseline during sparsely attended women’s basketball games would be on the other end of the spectrum for the Song Girls in terms of the excitement and exposure they enjoy as USC’s finest.

So, in that first season, when a pasty middle-aged male pointed his long lens in their direction as they dutifully performed their Song Girl responsibilities at women’s basketball games, more than once I came away with looks like this.

Beautiful, yes. But I pride myself on being able to read people’s faces and maybe, hopefully, photograph what they might be feeling or thinking at the instant I trip the shutter. This was not good.

Where’s the famous USC ‘V’ for Victory sign? This seems to be teetering dangerously into ‘Hit the Road Jack’ territory and I’m just glad the razor thin depth of field on this shot only captured the scornful glare of Song Girl number one. I don’t know that my ego could have survived all three of them giving me that look.

Okay, I’ve had my fun with this shot. It was just an instant, it wasn’t planned, I know that. But I don’t think the looks being given to me here are at all misleading. After all, I was there before and after this shot was taken. I kind of know.

But I persevered, as a man with a camera is sometimes known to do. I continued to work the baselines of USC and other schools and accumulated my share of pretty good cheerleader shots to go along with hundreds of, I hope, pretty good basketball shots.

It was probably in the third season when I had prints made of some digital images and, just to see how colors in these lighting environments transferred to print, I threw in to the order a handful of the better cheerleader shots.

Well, I really liked the way the cheerleader shots looked from USC. The lighting in the Galen Center is fantastic. Colors were gorgeous, the subjects were stunning.

And far from the somewhat violated look I got from the ladies in the image above, the Song Girls had gotten used to me and went about their business and I went about mine. The images I took of cheerleaders became very good.

So I decided that I should share the prints of the images I took of them with USC’s Song Girls. I put about a half dozen in an envelope, including the image at the very top and the two below, and, I think, it was at halftime one afternoon that I handed them off to the sports information director for women’s sports at USC, who shall remain nameless because she’s a wonderful lady and we subsequently become pals and I don’t want to drag her into any of this.

At that point, however, she really didn’t know me and when I said I had some cheerleader shots that I really liked she kind of gave me a look and muttered something about not being interested in pictures of cheerleaders. But I handed her the envelope anyway and asked her to pass them along to whomever is in charge of the Song Girls.

Never heard another word about my cheerleading pictures. As I said, the SID and I became pals as I continued to shoot USC basketball for the next couple of years. USC even presented one of my shots, blown up large, to a graduating senior. That was a tremendous honor. The SID told me once to keep doing what I was doing, calling it a ‘fine art’ style of baseline shooting. Oh yes, that SID was a pal o’ mine.

But here’s the punch line. Starting maybe the next season, and for the rest of my two or so years shooting USC, I literally could not point my camera at the USC cheerleaders (or majorettes even) without finding them already looking at me. Smiling broadly. I would notice them looking at me as I sat there doing absolutely nothing. It was all so obvious. I told my significant other about it, she agreed it was happening and we would laugh about it.

The USC Song Girls were now very willing subjects for me. Too willing. It was hard to get the spontaneity, the far off looks in someone’s eyes that you only get in truly candid moments. It was no longer sports journalism; it was something else, and the pictures were never quite the same.

And, of course, I LOVED every minute of it.

Anyway. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, as my mom used to say. And I’m not going to be humble regarding the images. I think these shots are almost iconically wonderful images of the USC Song Girls, caught candidly doing what they so cheerfully do for the University of Southern California.

Hope you like them as much as the subjects seemed to.

10 comments

  1. Its a fine line………. and sticking with it can be hard……..it takes a lot of guts to separate how you feel about the reactions you get to you and your camera from your desire to record beauty, life and the world. Great images and a revealing narrative. Thanks very much Donald.

  2. Donald, the images are of course lovely (how could they not be?), but you are as skilled as a wordsmith as you are as a creator of images. Perhaps more important is your insight… about yourself, your subjects, etc. It’s a pleasure to view and read through your posts.

    1. Thank you so much, Peter. That’s very nice to hear. I hope I can keep it up and hold people’s interest until I can begin to amass some actually great 50 Lux shots to show like you so effortlessly show every day. Thank you.

      db

    1. Thank you, Brenda. Not so much. 😉 No really. It wasn’t all that much fun. But I did enjoy some of the shots and using the gear etc. The rest of it could be a real hassle.

      Thank you!

      db

      1. well, games are great. I just tonight attended my third LA Clippers game in the past week. great fun. but as a photog… you must produce shots and your shots will live forever with your name attached to them. for the first few years I couldn’t have told you even the score of games because I was so involved with what I was trying to do.

        Anyway

        thx

        db

      2. Yeah, I guess I can see that trying to remain separate and not miss the shot might be isolating. Thanks for explaining. I’m a curious person, always interested.

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