Behind the Lens with Robert Hanashiro

The USA Today staff photographer will hit Beijing in August to cover the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Behind-the-Lens-with-Robert-Hanashiro
Behind-the-Lens-with-Robert-Hanashiro
Robert Hanashiro

The photographic community is incredibly diverse, made up of photographers who shoot from the sky to the sea and everywhere in between. Each month we look at a different segment of the industry, interviewing top professional photographers about life, their careers, and what sets their piece of the photographic industry apart from the rest.

This month we focus on Robert "Bert" Hanashiro, 53, a staff photographer with USA Today since 1989. Known worldwide for his online sports photography community, SportsShooter.com, Hanashiro will join thousands of other journalists in Beijing this August for what will be his sixth Summer Olympics. In anticipation of the 2008 Olympic games, Hanashiro talked with American Photo about the Olympic experience, which can often include 15- to 18-hour workdays and covering four events in a day.

American Photo: What led to your career as a newspaper photographer? How did you end up at "The Nation's Newspaper"?

Robert Hanashiro: To borrow a line from fictional TV anchorman Ted Baxter, "It all started in a 5,000-watt radio station in Fresno, California..."

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and my father Seico Hanashiro ran a small newspaper just outside of Fresno. So some of my earliest memories of my dad involved newspapers and his love for sports. I guess I've always had it in me to be a "newspaper man." I wanted to be a sports writer and went to college with that in mind. But somehow I took a left turn at California State University, Fresno in the '70s and followed one of my best friends Barry Wong into photojournalism. Maybe being a horrible speller had something to do with it -- there was no spell check back then.

As far as becoming a staff photographer at USA Today, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. In 1987 while I was the chief photographer at the Visalia Times-Delta (near Fresno, California), I temporarily worked on the news picture desk at USA Today as part of its loaner program -- other Gannett newspapers "loaned" staffers to USA Today as a part career-building, part staff augmentation thing. I guess I made a good impression on Paul Whyte, USA Today's director of photography at the time and Richard Curtis, the managing editor of the photography and graphics department.

They took me to the Seoul Summer Olympics in '88 and I was offered several positions after that, but they were all on picture desks. In late 1989 they created a new staff photographer position in Los Angeles and I was fortunate enough to be offered the job. So I went from a 20,000 circulation newspaper to a 2 million circulation newspaper! And the rest, as they say, is history.

AP: What type of assignments have you photographed for USA Today? Have you always photographed sports? Do you approach a sporting event or athlete portrait session differently than other assignments?

RH: I cover whatever assignments come up. People think I only shoot sports, but really a majority of my work involves the other sections of the newspaper, particularly the Life section. I cover all of the major entertainment awards shows -- and NO I do not do the paparazzi-thing -- I generally shoot the actual show inside the theater. So basically I've covered every Academy Awards, Emmy Awards, and Grammy Awards show since 1990. I can't say the same with the World Series or the NBA Finals.

I do a lot of portrait work and I take a lot of pride in that, especially lighting. Most people don't know that I've covered a couple of international "conflicts" in my career, in Kosovo and Haiti. But most of my work involves the daily assignments in the other three sections of the newspaper as well as a growing number of video stories. But obviously my favorite assignments involve sports and working with athletes.

AP: With only five staff photographers at USA Today, do you find yourself traveling a lot? Are you ever required to cover multiple assignments in several distant cities in the same weekend?

RH: We travel when the need requires it and once in a while we have to move from city to city for assignments. I think the most I was on the road in one year was 169 days, but I haven't been close to that in a while. I think now it's probably around 75 or 80. Olympic years are higher because we'll be gone for the three weeks of the games plus assignments covering Olympic qualifying trials and athlete profiles we ordinarily wouldn't be doing in a "normal" year.

I will say that travel these days takes a lot more patience and fortitude than it did just five or six years ago. Travel by air is tiresome and frustrating most of the time. I've really come to hate air travel, while just a few years ago I used to love to travel.

AP: You're well known in the industry not only for your work as a photographer, but also as the founder of SportsShooter.com. Why did you decide to create an online community for sports photographers? Did you have any help with developing the site? How has the response been from the community over the years?

RH: Sports Shooter started out about 11 years ago as simple emails I sent out to a few friends and colleagues like Bob Deutsch, Brad Mangin, Peter Read Miller, Ron Taniwaki, Jack Gruber, Wally Skalij, Robert Seale and Rod Mar. From there it somehow morphed -- for a lack of a better word -- into a regular newsletter.

The first official Sports Shooter Newsletter went out because I wanted to rant about a new credential policy the NFL had instituted. Those early Sports Shooter emails got passed around, were posted on newspaper photo staff bulletin boards and all of a sudden I started getting messages from photographers wanting to "subscribe." I said to Brad at one time, "Subscribe to what?" But now we're at issue # 111with 7,500 subscribers and hopefully more to come.

The SportsShooter.com website came along six years ago when Brad, Grover Sanschagrin and Jason Burfield decided to develop my concept of a community for sports photographers and photojournalist into a website. They showed me a prototype and we began serious discussion on different features and services. The entire site is custom designed and programmed by Jason and Grover and it keeps getting better and better. If it were not for the genius of Grover and Jason and the dedication of Brad, there would be no SportsShooter.com.

The response to the website was been wonderful. The diversity of photographers that are members is a tribute to that. Where else can you find a photography community like SportsShooter.com that has David Burnett, Vincent Laforet, Peter Read Miller, and Donald Miralle mixing with photographers from small newspapers, newbies and students?

To me the best thing that Sports Shooter has done is given me the opportunity to give a little something back to a profession that has been pretty good to me. It's exciting that we've also been able to take this Sports Shooter concept and develop it into various educational programs like the Sports Shooter Academy and the Sports Shooter Boot Camp. The workshops are where we do a lot of great things with students.

AP: How does covering the Olympics compare to other major sporting events, such as the Super Bowl or World Series?

RH: NOTHING compares. Period. There is no other sports event that I have covered that extends over 17 days involving multiple events. The Super Bowl, the World Series, the Final Four and the World Cup -- these are events that are just one sport. The Olympics has numerous sports, spread over an entire region.

A typical day for me at an Olympics would be fencing and wrestling in the morning, gymnastics in the afternoon and beach volleyball in the evening. I also edit and transmit images during and after each event. Often just getting from venue to venue is more hassle than you would have for an entire weekend at a Final Four. Olympic transportation is often the weakest link in anyone's coverage.

Most of the time we have to get to a venue four or five hours in advance -- sometimes more -- just to secure a shooting position. The travel between cities when covering a World Series or an NBA Finals is a hassle. But having over two weeks of 15-18 hour days -- there is NOTHING like the Summer Olympics. I love it. But it definitely takes a toll on you physically and emotionally.

AP: Which sports do you prefer to photograph? Will you choose what you'll be shooting in Beijing?

RH: For some reason I became USA Today's boxing expert. I guess it's because Porter Binks (former USA Today sports picture editor, now at Sports Illustrated) assigned me to cover the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials in 1988. Before that, I had shot exactly four bouts in my life. So I usually cover boxing at a Summer Olympics and it is actually one of the things I look forward to. I also enjoy the grace and beauty of gymnastics and was fortunate to cover a lot of that sport in 2004 in Athens. I know a lot of the beach volleyball athletes because I live and work in Southern California, so that's something I look forward to as well. Variety is something I like, so a mix of a few different sports is good for me. I don't know how some wire service photographers take having to shoot the same sport every day during the Olympics. But they do it and they do it well.

The "minor" sports like wrestling, softball, fencing, weightlifting and taekwondo are just as compelling to cover as track and field or swimming and often make great photographs. As far as choosing what I cover, it's up to the assigning editors. In Beijing it will be sports picture editor Michael Madrid and director of photography Mick Cochran. I am at their beck and call! (Note to Mick and Michael: Boxing, badminton and taekwondo would be great -- but how about a few days of gymnastics with Bob Deutsch this time?) However, what I enjoy most is the 10 to 12 months or so leading up to the Olympics because USA Today does a lot of advance features and previews. This gives me the opportunity to really get to know the athletes because I spend a lot of time with them working on portraits and picture stories.

We do a wonderful series of features before each Olympics called "10 To Watch." We run one big feature on an athlete every day starting ten days out from the Opening Ceremony. Four years ago Michael Madrid and I came up with a great concept for the "10" series. I flew around the country photographing 14 Olympic athletes wearing traditional Greek robes on large format black and white Polaroid film. It was one of the most time consuming but most fulfilling assignments I had done in while.

Our final portrait was of boxer Andre Ward shot in front of the Acropolis in Athens. The hassles and finagling Michael had to go through to get us the access to the Acropolis was unbelievable -- but his work paid off and we were the only U.S. organization that was able to shoot a portrait there. It was a great example of teamwork with Michael handling the logistics and access and my USA Today colleague H. Darr Beiser helping me with the shoot.

AP: I always enjoy reading the "In the Bag" feature in the Sports Shooter newsletter -- what gear do you have in your bag? What equipment do you use on a daily basis? What do you plan to bring to Beijing?

RH: It's funny you should ask because it seems to be topic number one among friends of mine that will also be covering the Beijing Olympics. Restrictions on how many pieces and the weight you can bring on a flight is a huge concern. You want to bring everything, but you really can't.

There is also the concern about getting all of your gear not only through the airport once you arrive, but also on the buses going from the Media Village to the Main Press Center and to the various venues to work every day. Carry more than you can handle and you'll bash someone on the head with a misplaced monopod -- as I've seen a New York photographer do on a couple of occasions -- and have trouble boarding and departing buses. If you don't bring enough gear you might find yourself missing something you really needed.

I put a lot of thought into what I am bringing and what I am packing for this trip. So you'll get a little sneak preview of the next Sports Shooter "In The Bag" column. We recently switched to Nikon, so [with the full frame D3] the 600mm becomes a more important lens than it did when we shot with cameras that had a 1.3x crop.

I think my everyday gear will be:
• 2 Nikon D3 bodies
• 1 Nikon D300 body
• 600mm f/4
• 200-400mm f/4 zoom
• 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom
• 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom
• TC-14 1.4x converter
• TC-17 1.7x converter
• SB800 Speedlite

I will have a 400mm f/2.8 plus various remote gear, including Pocket Wizard MultiMax transceivers and various mounting rigging. Also, a MacBook Pro laptop will be with me at all times with the various accessories I use to edit and transmit from the field.

AP: What challenges do you expect to face in Beijing? Will you cover assignments not directly related to the Olympics? How much time will you have to familiarize yourself with the city before the Opening Ceremonies?

RH: I think anytime you're working in a different country there are a lot of challenges. Language is always a concern, as are customs and culture. I am hoping that politics isn't going to be an issue as many journalists predict. I've tried to study as much as I can about China, but you can only learn so much from reading. I've seen so many "ugly American" incidents while covering the Olympics; I try to stay as alert and sensitive to the customs and rules of the host country.

I have been looking forward to these Olympics since it was announced that Beijing was going to host the 2008 games. I think the Chinese people and the government want to put on a good show for everyone at the games in Beijing and watching at home.

I have been to China a couple of times; the last was a trip with the U.S. Gymnastics Men's National Team several years ago as they trained at the Beijing National Training Center. I know there have been a lot of changes since then and I am looking forward to seeing what has happened in Beijing during those years. I hope they haven't built more T.G.I. Friday's, but I'm sure they probably have. I read somewhere they even opened up a Hooters in Beijing and I hope that isn't true.

Unfortunately I fly into Beijing just a few days before Opening Ceremony and leave a couple of days after Closing Ceremony. So I won't have much time to really see China, which is my only regret about this trip.

AP: Besides the obvious SportsShooter.com, what websites or workshops do you suggest for photographers interested in becoming better sports shooters?

RH: I am a voracious reader and read a lot of books, magazines, and newspapers. That's where I get a lot of my inspiration and ideas. I'd rather look at a good book (or newspaper or magazine) rather than go to the web to look at photographs.

Any sports shooter should read as many of the behind-the-scenes books by John Feinstein, particularly The Last Amateurs, The Majors and A Civil War: Army vs. Navy. Checking out any of the books by SI's Walter Iooss for inspiration is always fun. There are a few lesser known nuggets I can suggest, but you may have to look through the used bins for these: The Fights by Charles Hoff; The Sports Photography of Robert Riger; and Photographing Sports, John Zimmerman, Mark Kauffman and Neil Leifer (Masters of contemporary photography series).

I'm a creature of habit, so I tend to look at the same websites all of the time for technical things. Here are a few that I look at:
• Dave Hobby's wonderful strobist site for using small flashes in portrait work.
• Rob Galbraith's site to keep up on what's happening with digital camera technology.

And a very cool site I look at all of the time to see some of the best newspaper sports photography and how it is used: http://sportsdesigner.blogs.com.

Editor's note: Follow Robert Hanashiro and photographers from around the world as they journey to Beijing to cover the 2008 Summer Olympics. PopPhoto.com's Zach Honig will travel to Beijing from July 1 through August 28 to blog about the Games, the Chinese capital of Beijing, and the city's photographic culture. His blog entries will also cover topics of interest to photographers and journalists traveling to the Olympics, including logistical information about the venues, top spots to photograph in the city, restaurants, and more. The Behind the Lens series will continue after his return in September.

Read other interviews from the Behind the Lens series
• May 2008: Steve Winter
• April 2008: Preston Gannaway
• March 2008: John Moore
• February 2008: Martin Schoeller
• January 2008: Brian Skerry
• December 2007: Jasin Boland
• November 2007: Norm Barker
• October 2007: Cameron Davidson

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