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KC Chiefs Photographer Documents Sports History in the Making

All in the Game for Steve Sanders

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Above image credit: The Kansas City Chiefs' official photographer Steve Sanders documenting player introductions before a game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Contributed | Steve Sanders)

Even a pandemic can’t stop the NFL. 

With the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs taking on the Houston Texans in the NFL season opener tonight, no one will have a better vantage point to view the game at Arrowhead Stadium than Steve Sanders.

Since 2012, Sanders has been the official Chiefs team photographer, placing him on the sideline for all the team’s contests as well as numerous off-the-field events. Sanders’ job has given him the opportunity to capture everything from the Chiefs historic Super Bowl win earlier this year, to the Chiefs’ cheerleader calendar shoots in exotic locations, various charity events and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions. 

“My title is team photographer. However, being a photographer encompasses a lot of different responsibilities,” Sanders said. “I am a team historian, a record keeper, an archivist and really someone that tries to tell a story about everything that goes on with the team through photos.”

Not a bad gig for a kid from Raytown who took up photography as a hobby.

Chiefs team photographer Steve Sanders.
Steve Sanders working the sidelines for the Chiefs. (Contributed | Steve Sanders)

“I remember picking up the camera around the house and shooting some pictures but nothing formal, just for fun and not even thinking about it,” Sanders said. “I enjoyed it in high school, and I entered a photography contest and I got recognized at the state level.”

At 16, Sanders got a job at a one-hour photo operation “and that’s when I got immersed in photography.”

Working at the store Sanders met a variety of people that proved influential in his budding career. One customer, who photographed concerts for a living, invited Sanders to help him shoot several concerts.

“Here I am this high school kid and this guy makes a living doing this and I thought ‘that’s so cool’,” Sanders said.

He also met another local photographer, Tim Ross, who happened to be covering a Lee’s Summit High School football game and asked Sanders to tag along.

“That was my first (time) shooting sports and I started doing freelance jobs for the local Raytown paper,” Sanders said. “As time went on, I met back up with Tim, who was a wedding photographer, and I hung out with him and learned how to be a professional photographer.”

Sanders ventured off to college at Colorado Institute of Art in Denver earning a degree in photography. He returned to the Kansas City area and went to work with a gentleman who owned a local photography store. 

By 1995, Sanders opened his own photography business in Lee’s Summit focused on shooting weddings, family portraits and senior pictures. That same year, Sanders got his first opportunity to photograph at a Chiefs game as a freelancer.

“It was through the Don Bosco Center that was the benefactor of a pre-season charity game,” Sanders recalled. “I got to shoot them getting their big check donation and shot the game. I really developed a liking to it and started pursuing it through folks I had met at the game. I started shooting for various departments.”

Sanders kept his own business and in 1998 he was regularly freelancing for the Chiefs organization. By 2010, he was a full-time contractor with the football club taking photos at games as well as community and corporate events. In 2012, Sanders was named chief photographer and he has been on the sidelines ever since.

“It’s my 22nd season of consecutively covering events for the team,” Sanders said. “I love being here and being around the people…. I grew up in sports and I love that team feeling.”

While the football season itself is about six months long, being the Chiefs team photographer is a year-round position. Sanders said off season for him is organizational time.

“We start narrowing what we keep and make sure that is captioned and sorted,” Sanders said. “There are a lot of events for partnerships, community relations and cheerleading. July is reset month and, once we get into training camp and the season, we’re off and running.” Post-game days are for editing and sorting. 

Shooting a game is hard work and makes for long days. Sanders arrives at Arrowhead about five hours before kickoff and doesn’t finish until about an hour post-game. Sanders and his team of independent contractors are out and about photographing various pre-game events and activities – on average they have about 25 assignments.

Kansas City Chiefs photographers
Steve Sanders works with a large team of independent contractors to document the Chiefs. (Contributed | Steve Sanders)

Game time is when the photography team really ramps up.

“I try to have four additional shooters on the field and one in the stadium roaming to capture all the action including fan reactions,” he said.

Before a game, Sanders talks with his team and assigns his photographers to four quadrants, goal post to bench. Each is responsible for everything that comes to them in their area.

“I roam around,” Sanders said. “We will talk about things with social media and what they need. It’s an evolving plan. I always try to challenge them to shoot something differently than they have before. Football is a lot of repetition, so we try to think of interesting ways to photograph them with light and shadow.”

In addition, Sanders has two digital photo card runners who take images to two editors throughout the game. Images are then passed off to the social media team for posting. On average, there are as many as 10,000-15,000 images shot on game day. 

For the past few seasons, the card runners have been Sanders’ two sons – Evan, a redshirt sophomore playing football at William Jewell College, and Ryan, a senior at Northwest Missouri State University.

“I got to take them both to the Super Bowl and it was great,” the proud father said.

Steve Sanders poses with his sons Ryan (right) and Evan (left). (Contributed | Steve Sanders)

Wife Sara has an important role – sitting in the stands supporting team Sanders.

As the roaming photographer, Sanders is prepared for anything, going to the sidelines with several cameras on hand and three or four lenses – medium, wide angle and telephoto.

“I set each camera for what may come toward it,” Sanders said. “What I have learned over the years is you can’t chase pictures. You have to put yourself in position for success — put yourself in the best spot and if the picture comes to you, you have the right lenses,” he said. “You have to stay on the play to see what celebration, reaction or emotions happen.”

Sanders doesn’t see a lot of the shots he’s captured until after the game, “but as a photographer, you have a good idea of what you shoot and what works. We can mark on camera some of those during the game,” Sanders said.

There have been images that surprised him.

“One example was the no-look pass that Pat (Mahomes) did a few years ago. I didn’t see it until Tuesday or Wednesday that week,” he said.

In all the games that Sanders has covered, he has never gone down in a play. 

“I have been run into a couple of times, but I like to think of myself as sturdy. I try to avoid it,” he said.

Whether it’s 10 degrees above zero or 110 degrees on the field, Sanders and his crew have to shoot under all kinds of conditions.

“We work in an outside environment and we try to incorporate that into our images,” Sanders said. “The last two years I had magnificent snow games and I never had that opportunity before. It added so much texture and light to those games.”

What role do the fans of Chiefs Kingdom play? 

“The louder they get, the more into it the players get, and they feed off of those emotions. It makes the game more fun. The crowd is always fun to photograph,” Sanders said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of fans that will be allowed at the games will be greatly reduced this season — about 17,000. Even so, Sanders believes the fans will still play a key role.

“I think the players will embrace the fans that are in the seats and feed off their energy just the same,” he said.

Things will be a little different this season for Sanders and his photography team. They will have to comply with COVID-19 restrictions such as wearing masks while they shoot, practicing social distancing in the various settings they cover and keeping close track of all of their equipment. Other than that, Sanders anticipates getting great shots of all the Chiefs’ action on and off the field.

Over the years, Sanders has gotten to take part in some adventures. He has traveled to a number of exotic locations in the Caribbean and elsewhere shooting the Chiefs Cheerleaders Calendar. He’s also covered the inductions of several Chiefs players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Then there are the Super Bowls. Sanders has shot eight Super Bowls, including this year’s historic Chiefs historic victory.

Known by others as a friendly guy, Sanders got to all of the other Super Bowl games by making connections. Sanders met Ben Liebenberg, the NFL’s director of photography, at a Chiefs-San Diego Chargers game on the West Coast.

“He said, ‘If you need anything, let me know,’ which was great,” Liebenberg said. “Later that year we talked about his helping out the Super Bowl in New Orleans because we knew the Chiefs were out. I snatched him up to help with our needs at the league level,” Liebenberg said. “He is a really great photographer and gets along with everyone.”

Liebenberg said Sanders knows where to be during a game and will do anything for the team.

“I can tell him to go to the end zone and park down there and he says no problem, and he gets great shots,” he said. “Steve’s a great action shooter, he has a great eye and he looks for different moments. He’s always looking around shooting things. And he has a great relationship with the players, and that goes a long way in this business.” 

Sanders said this year’s Super Bowl with the Chiefs is the highlight of his career. Shooting previous Super Bowls with Liebenberg and others helped him immensely this year.

“The Super Bowl and the week before are entirely different than photographing a regular game. It is quite a production. It was great to have some knowledge beforehand,” Sanders said.

However, this year was different because it was Sanders’ own team he was shooting.

“There was the anxiety of winning and losing but still needing to get all the photos you need to get,” Sanders said. “As the game was getting closer and was more in hand for us, I knew I wanted to get a picture of Coach (Andy) Reid, who was probably going to get drenched by Gatorade. Once the players dumped the Gatorade, I think I jumped up or down three or four times and then went right back to shooting.”

Next up was the Super Bowl parade in mid-February — one of the coldest days this past winter in Kansas City.

 “It was amazing,” Sanders said. “We were in the buses, on the ground, and the crowd and feeling all the energy. It was one of the highlights of my career.”

Steve Sanders celebrates during the Super Bowl parade. (Contributed | Steve Sanders)

For Sanders, it’s all about capturing the emotions of a moment like the Super Bowl parade and sharing it with others.

“I’m passionate about photography because it’s unique,” he said. “Not everybody can see how the end product is going to look in their mind. It’s difficult to capture the play, the action and the lighting. I’ve learned how to do that, and I think I do it well. I love photography and have loved working in this industry.”

For Sanders, being the Chiefs photographer is not just a job in the typical sense of the word.

“When you come in here every day it doesn’t feel like I’m coming to work,” Sanders said. “It’s about being able to do what I love.”

Ruth Baum Bigus is a Kansas City-based freelance writer and nonprofit communications professional.

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