What’s it like to document a football team when you know nothing of the sport? 

You realize that football is more about what happens off the field than on. At least that’s what Jintong Wu, a UNC-Chapel Hill photojournalism student, says.

Wu, who is from Chongqing, China, shadowed the Orange High School football team during their recent fall season, attending practices, snapping pictures during pre-game locker room pep talks, and standing under Friday night lights. Wu is still unsure of how scoring works, but he seems to have a grip on the passion behind the beloved American sport.

“I used to be a very non-sports person, so going into this assignment, I was stepping out of my comfort zone,” he said. “When I started to see their passion about football, about winning, and their support for each other and their friendships, it just made me understand why people like sports so much.”

Wu, a senior environmental sciences major and photojournalism minor, moved to the United States for college. In his photostory class, he was assigned a project to document a Triangle sports team. Thousands of photos would be taken, but less than 15 would be selected to tell the story of three months time.

Little did Wu know, Orange High School football isn’t just football in small-town Hillsborough. His task was daunting. How does one capture the feeling of a crosstown rivalry with Cedar Ridge High School, the pulsing sea of Orange shirts in the stands, or the nostalgia of players past?

In Wu’s series of 12 photos, a football is pictured in only three images. One close-up shot shows the hands of a player sticking a Panther paw print decal on his helmet, another, the spikey and sweat-drenched hair of Jonathan Carter illuminated by blinding field lights after a win at home against Southern Durham. 

An Orange player works to secure a catch in one action shot. Players sit with chins rested in their hands preparing for a tough game ahead, an image redeemed by a later photo of a huddle of beaming players, roaring into the night.

“They work very hard in their practice and some of them are seniors, this is their final season,” Wu said. “I feel like there’s so many emotions going on. It’s intense and emotional, so I feel like there are a lot of great moments that I can capture. It makes sense to me why people are so excited about football, why this is such a predominant sport in the United States.”

According to Wu, international sports, such as soccer and basketball are popular in China, though badminton and table tennis garner a large fan base and a similar favoritism.

Unfamiliar with the vehemence behind the sport, Wu was initially hesitant about entering the team’s spaces, especially the locker room.

Forming relationships with coaches and players, he was granted access, a key element in the success of his photo essay.

“There are so many interactions in there,” Wu said. “People just catching up with each other after school, or they would listen to music. This camaraderie, supporting each other, the ‘in this together,’ type of feeling is something that I got out of this that I really appreciated.”

Wu was inspired by the passion displayed throughout the season, and is even more so moved by the power of visual storytelling.

Gifted a Canon DLSR camera from his father, he gained a love for photography, though it wasn’t until entering UNC’s Media and Journalism school he realized its importance. 

Throughout the semester, Wu has had the opportunity to tell stories through photo assignment topics such as caregivers, teachers, labor, and others. 

His final project will combine his love of photography and his major studies.

Wu will focus on the solar industry in North Carolina, the second largest in the country. His photo essay will attempt to encapsulate the interaction between “policies, businesses, and the people who are impacted by the solar industry,” he said. 

“It’s just fascinating to me how you can take a photo that tells the story of the people in the photos without setting up a shot, or being staged photography,” Wu said. “That storytelling quality for me is very interesting.”