To become an Emmy Award winning sports video photographer, you have to learn how to speak through the camera lens.
The words of the announcers have to match the pictures. Sometimes, the moments are scripted. Other times, a photographer has to find the moment to allow the play-by-play announcers to find the words. Often, no words are needed and the images speak for themselves.
Dianne Cates has won five Emmy Awards without really speaking on the job. When she’s behind the camera, she’s listening to her directors and producers with the understanding that the images are all that need to be said. It takes concentration.
In 2016, that concentration was put to the test far away from a playing field. She was shooting the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton would be named the first major party female presidential nominee in American history.
It may have seemed like a time for celebration, but the events in the Wells Fargo Center were a fitting culmination of a tough, bitter campaign where Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders. The vociferous shouts and scuffles of the Sanders backers against the Hillary supporters grew so heated, Cates was worried that someone would get seriously injured.
“There was so much passion for their different platforms, security had to intervene,” Cates said. “I remember shooting Sanders in close up and he was trying to calm them down from his box seat.”
Then there was the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, two months later, when Clinton squared off with Donald Trump. In politics, image is everything. Representatives from both camps tried to lecture Cates on how they wanted their candidate shot and how.
“I was on the center front platform,” she said. “The mood of the entire hall swirled around me. I just took a deep meditative breath and focused on what I had to do.”
It’s a good thing. 84 million people tuned in, the most watched debate in American history.
Since 1975, Cates has been the eyes of hundreds of iconic moments, whether it happened on a tug of war course in Madison, Wisconsin during the Stanley Cup Finals in Washington, D.C. last June or an intense love scene on All My Children. A five-time Emmy Award winner, her resume reads like a dream list for your average sports addict.
As a technical director or camera operator, she’s worked 13 World Series, 24 MLB League Championship Series, five U.S. Open golf championships, 18 Triple Crown races, several Winter Olympics and hundreds of college football and basketball games.
And it all started with Ryan’s Hope.
Cates, a native of Hillsborough who attended Orange High for two years and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, started working for PBS in Durham and Chapel Hill. In 1979, ABC producers in New York called looking for someone to fill in.
“When they contacted me, I thought it would be for a desk assistant,” said Cates. “But they happened to see all my technical experience at UNC.”
Since some of her teachers at UNC’s Radio, Television and Motion Pictures Department had worked on early television shows like Studio One and Playhouse 90, Cates was more than capable to handle studio shooting.
“I really learned a lot on those soap operas,” said Cates. “Because it was drama, you were doing a lot of dramatic shots. It seemed simple, but it’s really not because you have to help create the drama through your lens. You don’t want anybody to know there’s a cameraperson there, so it’s very subjective.”
In the summer of 1979, ABC sent out a memo looking for staff members to handle its coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
It read: “If you’re interested in going and you’re an expert skier, please apply.”
Cates applied—but she wasn’t an expert skier. Her slope experience consisted of a few college weekend trips with friends.
So she went to a ski shop on West 57th Street in New York to sign up for instructions. In October, she took lessons at the Catskills Mountains.
Nonetheless, she was chosen by ABC for her first Olympiad. Her first event? Men’s downhill skiing, where she paid the price of being the new kid on the block.
Her camera position was so high, producers had to build a platform on the side of the mountain six months before the games started. The equipment had to be hauled up by helicopter because it weighed several hundred pounds.
“Once you got up there, you had to stay there,” said Cates. “There was no café or McDonalds.”
How did she handle nature’s calling?
“I went from tree to tree,” said Cates with a laugh.
It was a struggle, but the coverage earned Cates her first Emmy.
Cates stayed on contract with ABC for 20 years and lived in New York City. She became a technical director as she was about to become a mother while working camera for hundreds of other events, including Monday Night Football during the 1980s with Chet Forte directing and Al Michaels taking over play-by-play duties from Frank Gifford. In 1991, she moved back to Hillsborough to raise her three children Chase (now the Director for Marketing Partnerships with the Washington Redskins), Taylor (Clinic Manager of UNC’s Hospitals Heart and Vascular in Chapel Hill) and Sterling (Senior Associate Producer at E! Networks). She still found herself widely in demand doing freelance.
While she describes herself as a small-town person who will spend the rest of her life in Hillsborough, it was New York where she gained her professional fame. That’s why her most emotional assignment still brings tears to her eyes 17 years later.
On October 19, 2001, Cates was on a plane with the Fox Baseball in route to Yankee Stadium for the opening game of the American League Championship Series between New York and Seattle. It was five weeks after 9/11.
“We flew over Manhattan with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver and the whole crew,” said Cates. “You could still see the ashes rise and the smoke going up from the hole in the ground. It was a very somber experience.”
For game 3 at Yankee Stadium, Cates showed up for the production meeting to find members of the Secret Service lining the hallways. President George W. Bush was going to throw the first pitch.
“I overheard Derek Jeter tell him ‘You have to throw it over the plate or they’ll boo you,’” said Cates. “And he nailed it. He threw it right over the plate.”
New York was still reeling from the loss of 2,996 lives. The entire city was on heightened alert not knowing what to expect. What if another terrorist attack could be launched while the world’s most famous baseball team was going for its 38th pennant?
During a tense pregame meeting with directors, Cates was told she would have to shoot the game while wearing a bulletproof vest. There were plans outlined about where cameras should be stationed in case of a worst-case scenario—like a bomb going off.
“There was so much emotion,” said Cates. “A lot of season-ticket holders had given up their seats to first responders. And a lot of their children were there because they had lost their mom or dad. I had to [capture] their faces and they were crying. But they’re happy to be there and it’s Major League Baseball. It’s very patriotic. I’ll never forget that.”
The game went off without incident, as did the World Series against Arizona later that month, which Cates also shot.
Her son Chase played baseball at Orange for two years, which brought her closer to the game. That’s why her main sport nowadays is baseball. So far this season, she’s handled broadcasts for the New York Mets (a copy of Keith Hernandez’s latest book sits on her desk at home), Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Atlanta Braves for MASN Productions, Root Sports, AT&T Sportsnet and LDM Worldwide.
At her Hillsborough home, Cates avidly watches MLB First Pitch, though she grumbles about being unable to watch the Washington Nationals locally due to a dispute with the Baltimore Orioles and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN). She doesn’t just watch because she’s a fan, but also for preparation. A recent game she worked with Atlanta vs. the L.A. Dodgers serves as an example.
“I like to know the storylines,” said Cates. “I always know the managers, but I want to know who the coaches are in case there’s a given play and it reflects on a particular coach. I have to be able to get that close-up shot. I have to know the storylines.”
There’s a photo of Cates in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio shooting a Super Bowl. She’s also in the background of a photo in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is only fitting since she’s shot figure skating for 25 years. Cates estimates she’s handled events in 49 states. She’s still waiting for her first assignment that will take her to Alaska, but if she gets it, she’ll be prepared.
“It’s like second nature to me because I’ve been doing it for so long,” said Cates. “But you have to know the content. If you don’t know the content, you can’t contribute to the production.”