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The Itinerant Lens, Part 2

In 2012, I wrote about Keith Mills, the intrepid photographer who had been covering MMA action from cageside since before Zuffa, LLC bought some failing company called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Keith had seen it all. From fists thrown within the Octagon on down to knuckle sandwiches traded in the name of nearly every thriving and dying minor league show out there, his lens had captured everything. Yet for all his photos printed in accompaniment of Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Sherdog articles, and paid-for trips to Russia and Costa Rica to shoot shows there, somehow – someway – Keith was homeless.

I wrote about Keith’s plight because as MMA media goes, he’d always been “one of us”, which in plain English means he was eccentric as hell and dedicated beyond belief. I also wrote about it to dispel illusions, to paint a truer picture of the reality of fight journalism. Mostly though, I wrote about it because it was important, the epitome of a story that needed to be told. And while the piece invoked no sweeping changes in the industry when it came to skilled photographers earning a decent wage, it did have at least some impact – for old pics used, Keith got a tank of gas here and a chunk of change there, and his name began appearing on photos more and more as outlets grew amenable to crediting him.

So what’s up with Keith now? He’s still a fixture at fight shows, of course, and still looks like a friendly Amish/outlaw biker hybrid. But life has thankfully gotten a little more stable. “Since then I married my girlfriend Amber and moved in to her studio apartment,” he says, which means he gets to sleep in a bed in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Takoma Park, M.D. instead of some anonymous rest stop on the road. More or less, at least.

“I still travel to shoot an average of three shows a month,” he says, “and still drive everywhere, so how often I’m at home depends on what shows I’m shooting. When I’m traveling, I get a motel room on nights I’m working, which now that I’m doing more gym stops means the majority of nights. The last trip for instance I was on the road for three weeks, only two nights of which were spent sleeping in my car while the rest I was doing some sort of work at a motel. We figure about six more months and we’ll have a one-bedroom apartment.”

Is he still a photojournalistic version of Jack Kerouac, minus the booze and Benzedrine but forever on the road? “I don’t travel nearly the same range,” he says. “Since ‘ending grad school’ (a term my former college teacher wife doesn’t appreciate but I think is fitting) I stick mostly to the Central and Eastern time zones. The last trip was DC to Tampa to Dallas to Wichita to Kansas City to St. Louis to Memphis to Charlotte to DC.” He adds, “A more recent change is doing ‘gym stops’ along the way. This has only been going on about two months but is a key turning point in making a living at this. Up until this I’ve been keeping my head above water financially but living paycheck to paycheck; the last two months we have actually been able to save a little.”

“Bellator always treats Sherdog well, always treated me well even before I started shooting for Sherdog,” says Keith when asked for some industry insight on who he sees and interacts with. “Back when I shot Strikeforce and EliteXC for Gong, I saw the same ‘big’ photographers from the same ‘big’ outlets, but I hardly see them or their outlets at my shows now, not even at Bellator. The photographers I do see tend to be a mix of traditional press (local newspapers, etc.) and amateurs who aren’t invested in the right equipment. Each market usually has one or two photographers who stick around and upgrade equipment or try hard, but their travel radius’ are usually (to me) very small.”

Has Keith ever come across fight photographers who may have been in similar dire financial straits? “I run across a lot who say they can’t afford to travel more or do more work, that they have to have a day job and that such is their priority. I don’t see any others doing what I did. I also don’t see the ‘big’ ones much so don’t know how many of them are struggling or to what degree. Basically, I’m kinda on my own out here, sustainable but somewhat isolated from the ‘other pros’.”

And so it seems that, for the most part, the days of crashing out in his car most of the week, and dining on cheap ramen noodles cooked up in the microwave oven plugged into his cigarette lighter, are behind him. Looking back, does Keith have any regrets? “I don’t consider myself a writer, I just have to write sometimes to support the photos,” he says. “Twice I upset fighters with bad writing, mis-transcribing interviews (thought one said “crappy” when he said “crafty” for instance). I regret those mistakes.

For Keith, doggedly pursuing MMA photojournalism has been far from the easiest path to follow. Is there anything he would change if he could do it all over again? “As a photographer?” he says. “NOT ONE!!!  Closest I could say is I wasn’t able to take MORE chances!”