Michelle V. Agins has always wanted to be a prize-winning photojournalist. But a part of her also wanted to play basketball. Recognizing she had no future in the game she loved, Agins thought, “Well, if I can’t shoot it, at least I can shoot it.” So it is with particular pride that Agins has covered the WNBA for the New York Times since the league’s inception.
Now she can count herself among the elite of journalists: her photographs accompanying the Times’ series. “How Race is Lived in America” earned her a Pulitzer Prize. .
It’s an honor she’s earned against the odds.
Growing up in Chicago in the mid-sixties, Agins laughingly remembers wanting to be the “black Lois Lane.” The grandmother who raised her would try and explain why there was no future in photojournalism: “You know colored girls don’t do that,” she’d say, even as she gave Agins a dollar to put film in her camera.
In the 1970’s, a Chicago editor echoed those sentiments, telling Agins, “Not now, not tomorrow, not ever will we hire a black woman photographer.”
So in 1983, when Agins convinced newly elected Chicago Mayor Harold Washington to hire her as his official photographer, her argument was quite to the point. “It’s about the history for the children of the city of Chicago,” she told him. “You’re the first black mayor, and that means I’m the first black woman photographer for the city of Chicago – and I’m responsible for the History – not for us, but for them.”
That same sense of history infuses Agins’ work on women’s basketball.
She’s always covered sports, but her perspective changed in 1996 when she spent a week covering University of Connecticut sophomores Nykesha Sales and Rita Williams. “It made me really connect with women’s basketball and their struggle,” explains Agins. “These women don’t have anywhere to go, and they love this sport.” With rumors of a new professional women’s league in the wings, Agins thought, “If I keep shooting stuff like this, maybe it’ll give someone the bug to get it on.”
She didn’t have long to wait.
When the WNBA started in 1997, Agins knew it was her time. The memory of walking into the Garden for the first time is still vivid. “I got chills. I had no idea it was going to be like this – all those people.” She distinctly remembers not wanting to let the players down – of needing to capture the game in a powerful and evocative way to earn the women press coverage.
Agins admits she feels an “unprofessional” closeness with the New York Liberty. It’s not surprising, especially considering her experiences with the team in 1998. Assigned to do a short photo essay, she was to travel with the Liberty for 10 days. But things started off poorly — the team was losing, the mood was poor and Cathy Ryan, the Times Sunday Magazine photo editor, phoned Agins to kill the piece. Agins pleaded for one more day.
After the call, and trapped on a plane with the team, Agins vividly recalls her desperate attempt to keep her composure. Then Kym Hampton, the Liberty center, tipped up her sleeping mask to look at her “What’s the matter?” Hampton asked. “Your coach mad at you?“
“Well,” explained Agins to Hampton “they thought I’d have better access and you guys are shutting me down. It’s been kind of embarrassing. This was my shot, and I’ve blown it.”
Hampton paused. “Well, what do you want?” Before Agins knew it, once closed doors flew open.
“It was like the team came together for me,” recalls Agins. “It was incredible. That was the one time I felt like I was no longer a photographer, I was a team member. The camera disappeared. I had this invisible ball. I had my own play I had to run in order to tell the story for the team, and that was what I did.” When she returned to the Times’ offices, Ryan had filled a room with blowups of all the photographs she’d taken in a 72-hour period. A three-page essay had expanded into a 10-page story and a Sunday Magazine cover.
She knows that winning the Pulitzer will pull her away from the WNBA. But when she reflects on the work she’s done, she can’t help but be proud of how she’s impacted coverage of the games. “I’ve made all the other photographers jump. I come to the game now and I have to look for a position. I used to sit all over the floor, I could sprawl out and bring a lounge chair,” Aigns laughs. “I come in now, and I have to tell people to move the hell out of the way. I feel good, because I felt like I helped transform that.”