Jackson State University Photographer Charles A. Smith got a call from the school’s Executive Director of University Communications with a date and time for a press conference.
“We knew that something was coming up soon but we had no idea,” says Charles, “Football in the South, of course, is anything and everything in athletics, so we really take great care in how we approach imagery from that standpoint and how we go about doing it.”
Over the next week, rumors swirled on social media that Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders was considering becoming a college football coach. By the time JSU’s world famous marching band kicked off the fanfare during the press conference on Monday, Charles had a strong suspicion “Prime Time” might be generating all this excitement.
“He jumps out of the car with his family, and I just go into news mode. I’m shooting everything,” says Charles.
Charles knew immediately that Deion Sanders accepting the job as JSU’s new head football coach would be huge news.
“It’s something completely unprecedented for a school of our size,” says Charles.
The public, historically black university in Jackson, Mississippi, has an enrollment of around 6,000 students.
As a former photojournalist, Charles is always looking for unique angles and ways to be in the right place at the right time. He scans the crowd for reactions from fans, as well as JSU’s band, cheerleaders and mascot.
“I’m trying to cover the bases so when I create a gallery for this, I have told the story of this event, I’ve covered the emotions of this event,” says Charles.
Right away, Charles created a PhotoShelter gallery so his team members and external stakeholders could access all of the photos from the big announcement.
“All I have to do is create content and point it in the right direction,” says Charles.
PhotoShelter makes it easy for everyone to get the images they need in real time.
“It’s kind of my lifeblood, without it I don’t know how I would be doing this,” says Charles. “I just drop it and I go.”
Charles’s photos landed in Mississippi Today, as well as a bunch of other local newspapers and blogs. But perhaps more importantly, they were shared across the university’s website and social media channels, where they have the best opportunity to engage prospective students and recruits.
“We are very proud of our social media team because we find that this the lifeblood of our institution,” says Charles. “We’re talking about 10-15,000 hits on one or two pictures on Instagram and Facebook.”
The Sanders announcement ushers in a new era at JSU.
“We are really optimistic about the future because we understand that with his arrival, it’s going to drive enrollment, it’s going to drive more people to buy season tickets,” says Charles. “It’s hitting so hard and we’re looking forward to enjoying the chaos.”
The buzz brings with it new and exciting challenges for Charles and his team. After months of working remotely, they’re back on site (with social distancing restrictions) and ready to cover the action. They’ve integrated PhotoShelter and Opendorse so they can deliver content quickly and automatically to Coach Sanders, as well as the players and coaching staff.
“We’re having to speed up our processes and how we do things, but I work with talented people,” says Charles. “Everybody brings their own experiences to the table, and now we’re getting tested to see what we’re really made of.”
Now, Charles and his team will set out to capture every moment of their new coach’s journey at JSU so his story can engage the community and inspire new generations of Tigers fans.
“Everybody who works here is a recruiter,” explains Charles. “Everybody is in charge of helping this university grow, so you do your part to get more students interested in the institution, to get fans to rekindle their relationship with the university, and to get the community across the board really interested in Jackson State. What it boils down to is this: we want to paint the town blue.”
Up Next: Watch Charles’s Talk from the PhotoShelter Summit for Brands
Want to learn more about how Charles and his team use compelling photography to engage JSU students, alumni and community members? Check out his talk from the PhotoShelter Summit for Brands below, and watch the full conversation here.