For a sports photographer, there are few things that top getting a shot published in the nation’s most recognized sports magazine.
Many spend an entire career chasing that goal.
Campbell University graduate Will Bratton did it at age 22.
Bratton’s photo of a University of North Carolina lacrosse player going airborne while wrapped around a player from the University of Detroit was featured in the “Leading Off” photo gallery - a full-page photo - of the Feb. 20 edition of Sports Illustrated, which features New York Knicks basketball phenom Jeremy Lin on the cover.
Bratton, a 2011 Communications Studies graduate from Littleton, currently works as a freelance sports photographer, shooting mostly UNC sporting events for print publications and WRAL TV in Raleigh. He said the night he shot the photo, he knew he had a winner on his hands.
“Before I decided to send it to Sports Illustrated, I emailed it to my dad,” Bratton said. “It was only February, but I knew then it would be the best photo I’d take all year.”
The photo is unique, he said, because lacrosse is mostly a vertical sport, and most of the shots he gets are of players running upright. This shot had a little of everything - action, bright colors and painful facial expressions.
“There’s someone falling to the ground while taking a shot; they’re both on their tip-toes; the lighting is spot on … it just made for a really nice frame,” Bratton said.
He decided to email the photo to the magazine the night of the game, a Saturday. Needless to say, he was surprised to receive a call from one of the photo editors the following day.
“I was driving back home from church when I heard back from them,” Bratton recalled. “They told me it was a great lacrosse photo, and they were pretty sure they were going to run it. But it would be another 36 hours before they knew for sure.”
Because of the enormity of it, Bratton kept quiet about the news … only telling his parents that it was a possibility.
“I was scared it wouldn’t end up in there,” he said. “I couldn’t think of anything more embarrassing than telling all my friends I was going to be published in Sports Illustrated, then look like a liar.”
A friend of his saw it first sitting in the waiting room of a law office. Upon hearing the news, Bratton was excited, just not outwardly.
“It was more of an internal excitement, definitely a huge shock,” he said. “I’m 22 and I work with people who’ve been doing this 30 to 40 years who haven’t hit that. I didn’t want to come off as disrespectful.”
Bratton began his education at Campbell as a Religion major, but switched to Communications Studies his sophomore year because of his newfound interest in photography and journalism.
“A good friend of mine at the time played football at UNC, and not being as athletically gifted as he was, I had to find a way to get on the field with him,” Bratton said. “So I started shooting for the local paper at his college games, and it kind of hit me that I knew what I was doing … that I had an eye for it.”
And there were plenty of people at Campbell there to help him along the way. Bratton began shooting photos for Campbell Associate Athletic Director for Media Services Stan Cole. He also credits Jason Williams and Joe Prisco for allowing him the experience of shooting the 20-plus sports he covered while at Campbell.
“One of the highlights for me was shooting one of the softball team’s tournaments in Florida,” Bratton said. “I loved going down there, following the team from beginning to end, getting wrapped up in the personal stories and watching them win that tournament. I’m blessed to have had the opportunities Campbell afforded me then.”
He said Communications Studies Chairman Dean Farmer took him under his wings and helped him grow to become not only a better photographer, but a better photojournalist.
Bratton said he hopes the Sports Illustrated exposure leads to bigger and better things, but he will be careful not to let it go to his head.
“I hope it doesn’t change who I am or change what I love to do, which is taking photos of sports at all levels,” he said.
- by Billy Liggett, Assistant Director for Publications
- photos courtesy of Will Bratton