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Q&A interview with professional NFL photographer Theo Smith

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

(Photo courtesy of Theo Smith)

In early September, I got the chance to do a one-on-one interview over the phone with professional NFL photographer, Theo Smith, also known as “theOvision .. Lenz Griffey” on Twitter and Instagram. Smith is a Miami native and has worked with some of the biggest names in the NFL – working with the likes of Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller. This interview was conducted on Sept. 3.

Q: How did you get into photography?

Smith: I always was kind of into it a little, my dad was into it a little bit. It’s always been around. I got pictures from like when I was in elementary like of cardinals and blue jays, just little stuff like that. I was always kind of taking pictures, but I never even thought about taking it serious. Just being fair, growing up photographers they always kind of seemed weird a little bit, so I always wanted to be in front of the camera more so than behind. But as I got older I realized you can make anything look cool.

Q: How did you get into shooting NFL games and for players?

Smith: My first guy was 84, AB (Antonio Brown), so I just wrote to him one day on Twitter because he had posted some pictures and I really didn’t like them, so I just wrote to him “If you want some pictures someday, hey just hit me up.” He wrote back “Hey meet me at this park this time.” And I went and I killed it. I was currently working at the time, so I couldn’t really commit to it like I wanted to. I went back the next day, killed it again. And he asked, “Do you want to do this full-time with me?” And that’s an opportunity that I couldn’t pass. If you want a job you can find a job, but an opportunity like that, I don’t think that comes around often. So, I shot my shot, man. And also, I knew the job that I was working at it wasn’t for me, I wasn’t happy there. I was working for the city of Miramar doing stormwater, it was a good-paying job and cool and whatever, but I wasn’t happy, man. I love sports so much and I just wanted to be around sports, so I just shot my shot and kept going.

Q: What was it like a few years ago shooting Steelers games and practices and getting to know some of the players on the team?

Smith: It was cool, man. That was the biggest thing that happened to me at the time. So, it was cool having that access and being around the guys and getting to know the guys. Not doing too much, just still out of the way, but you know AB’s a superstar so it was all good being there. Capturing content and creating it for the fans, that’s really what it’s about. Just making these guys seem more human, not everyone is going to be a superstar. That’s why I like what I do because you can bring the human side to things, a player playing with his kid or things like that. Just giving a window to their personal life, I think that’s cool.

Q: What’s it like working with some of the other premier names in the NFL like Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr.?

Smith: Working with those guys is like a dream come true, man. They are the best at what they do, and you get to see these guys training and actually putting the work on the field. I’m working with Von now, that’s my guy. He put so much work in this offseason. We were doing like 2-3 workouts a day, he was going crazy with it. I was just so proud to watch him, you know, just commit to that thing. We read a lot, we were reading all the time. We read the Kobe (Bryant) book. Just basically committing to something, just one time to actually see what happens if we give everything our all and just see what happens. He’s gifted, he has a gift. Tall, fast, strong -- all that. That is just out of the womb and with super hard work just see what happens. It was just dope to document seeing him go crazy. And shooting with “O” (Odell Beckham Jr.), man O just a superstar on and off the field, he’s just a rockstar. He’s just different because shooting with O even the smallest thing can turn it into a 10K post like. He’s just a rockstar. Jarvis (Landry), that’s one of my good friends. I love shooting with Jarvis. I always get on him for not being more open but he’s a tough guy. The way he plays on the field is kind of how he is a little bit off the field. He’s a tough guy, kind of keeps to himself. I like to try to bring it out of Jarvis sometimes. I got some younger guys, Marquise Brown with the Ravens when he was at Oklahoma. We were around each other a lot. It was so dope to see him transform his body and transfer what he stood for and things like that. Seeing him go first round and being able to change his life and the people around his life. That’s what I love man. That makes me happy.

(Photo of Von Miller training by Theo Smith)

(Photo of Odell Beckham Jr. by Theo Smith)

Q: Do you have a certain photography style and what’s the difference between shooting football and basketball games?

Smith: How I do it with photography, it’s really not a controlled place. You literally can go somewhere with shitty lighting, you just never know walking into a place. What I do, I just try to be like what would I want to see? How can I make this cool? Would I like this picture? Not because of who I am or what I did. Would I generally like this picture? Just pushing the bar and hopefully, it comes out dope. The second part, shooting basketball is just so fast. Basketball is very fast. You are shooting, shooting and then you have to shoot at the rim to see if it goes in. With football, I played both, but I played football so that kind of helps me shoot. I kind of can predict where things are going to be a little bit. I’m out there watching them and looking at tendencies and situations, the ball might be coming this way, things like that. That kind of helps me on top of shoots. But also with my photography, I try to bring the human side of it. I try to get the emotion of guys and with their helmet off, to show “This is me also, just not a guy behind a helmet running around with cleats on.” A facial expression after a big play or a high five, just that kind of aspect. I try to be personal as possible and try to be close as possible so it’s like a portrait almost, just to make it artsy a little bit. I guess that’s my style if you want to say that. I try to make it as personal as possible.

Q: Do you have a favorite shot or particular moment in your career?

Smith: My favorite moment was when AB came back from an injury to play in the playoff game against the Jaguars and he was taking the top off with a calf injury. The funny thing about that I actually missed a lot of shots because I was so hyped up about the plays he was making. That’s the thing that I also have to separate a little because I will literally be so hyped sometimes about my guys just doing their thing sometimes I might just miss it because I will be like “Yes, let’s fucking go!” When AB took (A.J.) Bouye up top I just lost it, I was like this guy is going crazy. That was probably my favorite moment. That Green Bay game when he made that crazy toe-tap on the sidelines, I actually have that picture. I actually have a picture of him when he got dragged off in the Patriots game when fans were chanting MVP. Those are moments in time no matter how whatever happens for them or however everything goes, those moments can’t be erased. Those will always be great memories for me and also for him of course. Even having the opportunity to be right there, that was huge for me.

Q: AB is serving an eight-game suspension right now, but do you think he’ll eventually land with another team and which team would be a good fit for him?

Smith: I think so, I hope so. Anybody can use AB from top to bottom. If you could put AB on any team in the playoffs last year, he would probably be the difference between winning and losing. From the Titans to the Patriots to the Saints, you put him on any team that he probably had any kind of interest for them, they probably win. All those teams lost pretty close games and you just think about adding him to the roster or the plays that he would have made, just the first downs that he would have got to keep the clock going, just little things like that because he changes the dynamic of the game. Even the Ravens, any team you plug him in on, there’s a difference. It opens up things for running backs, opens up things for other receivers, tight ends, everything is open because you have to respect what he does. I would pick the Seahawks, but literally any team you add him on he would make a difference. Even if he didn’t go out there and go crazy, just the effect of him being out there and taking coverage away. He has to sit eight games, but that’s a good thing because you know what you’re getting and after that date, he could play. We’ll see where he lands, there are injuries and people get hurt and things like that, so we shall see.

Q: What do you think about the Steelers in 2020?

Smith: The Steelers no matter what those are my guys from (Mike) Tomlin on down. From Joe Haden to Vince Williams to Bud (Dupree), Mike (Hilton) and Cam (Heyward). I still love those guys, I am always rooting for them. I hope they do, of course. They are a solid team. Ben is back, James (Washington) is out there and I see the young receiver out there (Chase) Claypool he is looking good, JuJu (Smith-Schuster) of course and (James) Conner is back there. And (Diontae) Johnson is fast and is pretty good too. They have a loaded team.

Q: How will it work this year for shooting at games with COVID-19?

Smith: It’s going to be tricky for this year. That goes for everyone. If you’re not a team photographer this year or not with the NFL somehow someway, it’s going to be a little tough, especially with the COVID. I should be OK, hopefully, because that’s what I do, but it’s definitely going to be difficult.

Q: What’s your advice for people looking to get into sports photography?

Smith: Getting into sports photography, you have to love it. I love it, I watch sports all day, you follow my Twitter, you see that I talk about sports all day. Being able to capture those moments that’s the best job in the world for me because I love it so much. Once you have a passion for something like that, it’s easy. You got to put the work in, but if you love it, it will come. It’s not even about money all the time, but you do have to get your money. Sometimes I go and shoot at my high school (Miami Central) just because. You can’t cheat it, you really got to put the work in as far as shooting and get your style and get people's numbers, and eventually, they can’t deny you. I’m different. My thing was just different. The social climate was different. What me and AB were doing that was almost unheard of. Nobody was doing that. Everybody can’t do it how I did it. Just being able to capture everything, you saw how the (Michael) Jordan documentary was? Having that full access, like that’s not going to happen for everyone, it’s just not. Not everyone has a superstar like that. So, the pieces just fell perfect for me, but you can’t cheat the work, you have to put the work in. You can’t even get lucky if you don’t put the work in, that’s first. Anytime anyone asks me for advice, I just say keep shooting. I’m talking shooting until you get to the place where they are calling you because they need you.

Q: What was it like going from the job that you were at too working with AB?

Smith: What’s so funny about it is I was still working. I am still calling out every day, I’m sick or whatever as I am still shooting. Funny enough, we go to the ESPYs and my job sees me on TV, so they call me and told me “Congratulations, but we’re going to have to let you go.” They even knew when I was working there it wasn’t for me. The people that work there are older guys and they got their pensions and stuff, they’re set. They’re already set, their minds are made up, but for me, I got a lot of life to live and I want to see and do things.

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