Decade

I’ve always struggled with “best of” lists, looking back over the work of the past year and compiling a gallery of ten or so photos that I consider the best.

What, exactly, constitutes a “best” photo? How much does the importance of the story pertain to the photo? Would a mediocre photo from the Super Bowl be considered better than a great photo from a high school game? It’s such a subjective thing and in the end, you end up picking photos that are a little bit of everything: Big story, great elements, personal preference…

This year, I made it extra hard on myself with a decade in review. Looking back on the past decade seems to fit. It encompasses the time I was employed at the San Antonio Express News, and when I had the most growth as a photographer. Looking back through the photos reminded me of how good the decade had been to me. I had career’s worth of assignments during this time.

This isn’t meant to be a complete list, and not necessarily a representation of my “best” work. These are photos that have meaning to me. Let’s take a look:

2000:

Lightning at the Tower. I believe this was my first front page photo on the Express-News, shot as a freelancer. The Director of Photography came and shook my hand the next day. Sweet!

I was on my way to dinner one night when I noticed how the light was cutting through the buildings downtown and reacting with the street dust. I didn't stop then, but returned the next day around the same time to make this photo of this horse and buggy.

2001:

I remember being surprised that San Antonio College had a mortuary sciences school. Here, students are practicing facial reconstruction techniques. I like this photo on some level, but I wish it were better. That's a common theme with my photos.

At the San Antonio Zoo, whooping cranes are raised without any human interaction, so that when they are released into the wild, they have a healthy fear of humans. On this shoot, I had to crouch in the bushes behind a tarp-covered fence, shooting through the chain link.

2002:

I was downtown taking a mug shot of a building when an editor called and had me go to a nearby address that police were responding to. A mailman on his rounds discovered blood dripping out from under the front door. Inside, three people had been murdered. This was early in my career at the Express-News and I was still trying to find my place on the staff. Everyone was better than me and at times I wondered if I belonged. This is the first photo I remember having a sense of accomplishment about. A photo that could capture people's attention and win contests.

The infamous "Hawaii Trip." Lackland's Critical Care Air Transport Team cares for a two-day old baby at Tripler Army Hospital in Hawaii. It was about a 24-hour trip that had me on the ground in Hawaii for about 5 hours (overnight). I never left military property. All anyone could say was "Ooh, you got to go to Hawaii!"

Shot as part of a year-long project chronicling the restoration of San Fernando Cathedral. They took just about everything out of the church during the renovations. One day, I was talking to the job foreman and he mentioned in passing that all the relics for stuffed in the basement of a nearby building. He let me go down to check it out and this is what I saw. It was almost pitch black down there, so I ended up setting my camera on a trash can to stabilize it, opened the shutter, and 'painted' the relics with a flashlight. I really liked the way the photo turned out. Even when you're not prepared, you have to find a way to make the photo.

2003:

I could easily fill my ‘decade’ list with photos from the invasion in Iraq. There really aren’t enough adjectives to describe the experience I had being embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division. But for all Iraq was, it was also perhaps my most frustrating assignment. While nobody ever prevented me from taking photos (there were a few half-hearted attempts), there were times I felt held back. Sometimes it was because of my own failure to take advantage of opportunities (or my ignorance in realizing those opportunities existed). Much of  the frustration came from the nature of the assignment. There were safety issues, of course. But beyond my own safety was making sure I didn’t do anything to jeopardize the safety of the soldiers I was with. Also, I was with a small group for the entire time, which limited me from doing any sort of ‘big picture’ reporting. Soon after the troops reached Baghdad, I had hoped to leave my embed position and do more reporting on the Iraqi people. Instead, I was pulled out and brought home by my paper. I still feel rather incomplete in that sense, and have been wanting to return since then.

A Task Force 3-69 infantry soldier runs between tanks during a battle for a critical bridge north of Karbala.

An Iraqi soldier killed in battle. The Iraqis had rigged a bridge with explosives and detonated it as the U.S. troops approached. The Iraqi soldiers then attacked. In their Kia minivan.

Highway detail. Once the highway was secured, U.S. troops collected and buried dead soldiers and civilians alongside the roadway. There was no attempt to identify the bodies and I'm not quite sure how or if they marked the burial sites. In the documentary "War and Truth" Army Times photographer Warren Zinn talks about 'that folder' on the computer with the war photos that will never be published. Lot's of the photos from this shoot are in my 'that folder.'

This photo made my name into a verb. I wasn't credentialed for the 2003 NBA Finals, so for game six I was assigned to shoot fan features outside the arena. Quite frankly, I wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea, as there really wasn't anything going on outside. So I snuck inside. I stood in the upper press row, photographing the second half and post-game celebration. During the trophy presentation I moved into position to make this photo of David Robinson in his last game with Tim Duncan. I filed the photo and then made my way to the photo workroom. The other photographers and photo editor on site didn't know I had made the photo - or that I was even in the building. Being there without any expectations freed me to take chances with my photos, and this was the result. From then on, when I'd show up to shoot an event with multiple photographers, they always joked about "getting Sobhani'd." This photo didn't run in the paper (they wanted a vertical for the cover), but did print in the commemorative book.

2004:

I did a whole lot of traveling this year. My excitement at achieving Marriot Rewards Gold status was quickly tempered by my wife’s reaction when she realized I had been gone more than 50 days in 2004.

For a story on Canada's migrant worker program. During certain times of year, small Canadian farming communities swell with Mexican workers who earn money to send to their families back home. I was interested with the dynamic of colliding cultures and how the laborers — who live on the farms — interact with the locals on the weekend. I found Aron Solis enjoying a dance with one of the bar's "Bud Girl" after exchanging three beer tops for the honor.

I've shot too many military funerals. Part of the challenge with them is going beyond the photo of the grieving family and finding the unique elements to their life. I think I did that with this photo of Marine Staff Sgt. Gene Ramirez being carried to his gravesite as mariachis play. Photos like this are very dependent on how the media is accepted in these situations. Many families don't want us there. Other's accept or even welcome our presence as an extension of community support.

2005:

It was a good year.

The Minuteman Project in southern Arizona.

I had covered NBA Finals games before. This was my first time covering the entire Finals series. I will always remember this as the Finals that wasn't in Miami. I watched the Eastern Conference Finals game 7, hoping the Heat would win and we'd be spending a week in South Beach. No such luck, as Detroit came from behind to win the series.

Millions of bats emerge from the Frio Cave.

For a story about the city's GLBT community, I spent the evening at a local club, documenting the dancers.

2006:

San Antonio's first Hasidic Jewish wedding. One of the funnest assignments I've ever had. I was only supposed to be there a couple of hours, but ended up staying for the entire event. Somewhere out there are photos of me dancing with the father of the bride.

I waded into the Guadalupe River to make this photo of a river baptism. The light refraction was an unexpected bonus that made the photo work.

Another military funeral photo. This was a very hard photo to take.

2007:

The 2007 NCAA Final Four. San Antonio hosted a boatload of Men's and Women's NCAA regional and national championships. This was during the 2007 Final Four. The only problem was, it was shot in the first half of the first game, so by the time all was said and done, the photo kind of got lost in the shuffle. Oh, well.

Monarch butterflies make their annual migration. This was a fun assignment, as my editor cut me loose from the schedule for this one assignment. I ended up in Uvalde, crawling through Cooks Slough Nature Park. This is the resulting photo.

Many San Antonians will argue Spurs/Lakers or even Spurs/Mavericks as the best San Antonio rivalry. I'd argue that in the last half of the decade, Spurs/Suns were the best. Every time they played it was entertaining. The Spurs would transform from a defensive-minded, grind it out team to a potent, high-scoring, running team. The games were also contentious. In 2007, they played what would become one of the most controversial series in recent memory. It started with Steve Nash missing the final minute of Game 1 with a gash on his nose (Steve Gash?). Then, as the Suns reclaimed home court advantage in game four, Robert Horry provided this hip-check to launch Steve Nash into the scorer's table. The ensuing skirmish got two key Suns players suspended for one game and Horry suspended for two. The arguments quickly started as pundits claimed the suspensions were unfair and virtually gave the series to the Spurs. I didn't care. I was just happy I had the sequence of shots as Nash went airborne.

2008:

One of my favorite photos from the past decade, taken at the local election watch party. I've rarely seen such unadulterated jubilation as when Obama was announced winner of the presidential election..

Another Spurs/Suns photo. This one from the 2008 series opening game, where the Spurs won in double-overtime. The game that saw a designed play that had Tim Duncan shooting a last-second three pointer to force the second overtime. This photo of Manu Ginobili scoring the game winner is a classic example of it being better to be lucky than good. The fan's flash going off at the same moment that Manu reaches full extension makes the photo one of my favorites.

2009:

I was laid off from the Express-News in early 2009 and re-embarked on my freelance career. It’s been a welcomed challenge. I have a lot more freedom in what I do and I’ve been expanding on the variety of what I shoot. I’ve been shooting more weddings and fashion, along with some editorial work here and there.

Rob and Dani's wedding at the Justice of the Peace.

Hair and fashion. Together again!

Foam Party.

Well, there you have it. I’m constantly reminding myself of all the wonderful opportunities I’ve had over the last decade. I’m confident the next decade will be even better!

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