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Just Keep Swimming: How One UCI Alum Found His Way to the Rams

by Jessica Resendez
When Jeff Lewis graduated from UCI in 1998, he never imagined he’d be back in 2016 working as the official photographer for the Los Angeles Rams. Decked out in head-to-toe Rams gear, he took time off the field to lecture a summer photography class about how to fuse passion with art — the same way he did when he attended UCI. Proud to be back at his alma mater, he reminisced about the times he too was a student at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts — working with old-school film cameras, getting used to the idea of digital art, and trying to disprove the notion that sports photography couldn’t be considered art.

“I just loved photography; loved making pictures of athletes, but people in the school didn’t really make art like that [back then]. They didn’t see the art in sports,” said Lewis.
Originally from LA, Lewis grew up with a knack for preserving memories. As a young boy, he used to carry around a camera in his pocket in hopes that he would “never lose the memory” of life’s tender moments. At 8 years old, Lewis’ father bought him season tickets to an LA Raiders game, where he became “hooked” on everything football. Taking his love for sports and art to college, Lewis joined the football team at West LA Junior College and joined the track team when he arrived at UCI. It was here that he decided he could finally combine everything from his world growing up to take on a career in sports photography.

“My dad ran track at UCLA, so sports [ran] in our blood, but it wasn’t a situation where [he] pushed me in any direction. [My parents] let me do whatever I wanted to do and I kind of gravitated toward sports and art.”

However, the freedom to express his passion for sports and art was no easy feat. In college courses that seemingly focused only on theory and art history, Lewis often found himself lost among people who knew nothing about sports — constantly leaving him to argue its artistic validity to a group of high-brow artists.

When other students in his class saw what Lewis had been photographing, they suggested that he “explore” different subject matter by shooting something more avant garde than football fields.

“Well, there’s no athlete there, so why would I want to do that?” Lewis told them.

For Lewis, the sports field was his creative space and when other students told him he needed to “discover” himself, he never packed up his bags and called it quits. Even when his art professor told him to let go of his athletic mentality, he still managed to push back by challenging his professor’s perspective during almost every class period. After “fighting it the whole way,” Lewis learned to incorporate artistic lessons he learned from his professor into his own photography — helping him to create images that stood out from the rest.

“After a few years of having [that professor], I finally kind of got what he was getting at. I think because of him, he probably made me a better artist.”

Learning how to balance the two worlds, Lewis set out after college to kick-start his career. He got a job working as a youth football and baseball photographer in Tustin, where he had his first real-world lesson in networking. During one of his little league photo shoots, a man in his early-forties came up to him on the field and introduced himself as V.J. Lovero. “Hi,” Lovero said. “I work for Sports Illustrated.”

Lovero had been well known in the industry at that time. In the early eighties and nineties, he worked as the official photographer for the Mighty Ducks, photographed the Anaheim Angels all the way up to their World Series win in 2002, and had nearly 39 cover photos featured on Sports Illustrated magazine — not to mention his own set of insert cards in Upper Deck’s baseball cards.

Lewis, incredulous, responded, “No you’re not. You’re too young to do that!” After Lovero reassured him that he was in fact the real deal, Lewis tried to hide his embarrassment and accepted a gig Lovero offered him at an upcoming Anaheim Angels game. One year later in 2004, Lovero would succumb to cancer at the age of 44 and Lewis would make it a point to pay his final respects to the man that gave him his first big break.

“I went to his funeral, but then everybody who was in Sports Illustrated [was] there [along with] a whole ton of other photographers!”

Lewis, feeling slightly star-struck, wasn’t sure how to react to the situation. Here he was, surrounded by all of his career idols, at a funeral — quite possibly the worst place for professional networking. Nonetheless, Lewis hesitantly introduced himself to Lovero’s friends and, by some miracle, managed to befriend several people who would continue to open doors for him in the industry.

“It was a good lesson in, ‘Hey, get out there and meet people!’ You can be as talented as can be, but you have to know people [too],” he said.

More than ten years later, Lewis has had the chance to work with some of the industry’s best. From hamming it up with Reggie Bush, to photographing Super Bowl 50, Lewis says his biggest accomplishment has to be “becoming the Rams team photographer.” Beating out photographers from all over the country to land the position, he takes pride in discussing his journey with others. Displaying his portfolio of helmet-crashing action shots to a group of Claire Trevor photography students, Lewis has come full circle in his career. Teaching students that art can be found through passion and determination, he likes to remind them of his favorite movie quote from Finding Nemo.

“Dory said to ‘Keep on Swimming!’ … Keep doing what you’re doing and never give up, never stop. Because once you stop, it’s over.”