The Itinerant Lens
This isn’t a story about fighter pay. This isn’t a story about the financial inequities – perceived or actual – in the business of sanctioned fighting. This isn’t about how someone should be compensated for their services, or about how life can be unkind to those who are diligent and hardworking. This is a story about Keith Mills, who, at 43-years old, has been covering the sport of mixed martial arts since before it was even called that, since before there was “The Ultimate Fighter” and live events aired on FOX, since before the bald guy in Las Vegas began issuing forth profanity-laced tirades and made what was once spectacle into a billion-dollar industry. For over eleven years, Keith has been aiming his lens and capturing shots of mixed martial arts competitors in action. His work appears regularly in everything from mainstream outlets ESPN and Sports Illustrated to top MMA news websites Sherdog.com and MMAWeekly.com to the United Kingdom magazine Fighters Only and the Japanese magazine Gong. He’s been flown out to shoot fights in such locales as Costa Rica, Hawaii and Russia. And for the last two and a half years, Keith has been homeless.
When you look at him it makes sense, the Devil, as they say, residing right there in the details. There’s his Abraham Lincoln-esque beard and missing front teeth, his tattered, patchwork denim jacket and the Full Contact Fighter magazine logo tattooed on his upper arm, all contributing to an appearance akin to some Amish/outlaw biker hybrid sans menace, his friendly demeanor the only indication that he won’t hit you with a tire iron when your back is turned. He’s the Octagon Generation’s version of Vietnam War photojournalist Sean Flynn, a figure of stylized eccentricity, shooting pics of combat not from the berm of a rice paddy but from the edge of a cage.
There’s a whole world of MMA events out there that never make it to pay-per-view or broadcast television, regional-level affairs taking place in casino ballrooms and civic centers – really, anywhere a promoter can get away with erecting a cage and setting up rows of metal folding chairs in concentric circles around it. Far away from the glitz and glamor of the UFC’s extravaganzas of pomp and circumstance, that’s where these events are found and where you’ll find Keith. Though he gets credentialed to shoot those big UFCs, the bulk of Keith’s work is done in the minor leagues, where nearly every weekend there’s an event for local heroes to carve out small, private chunks of legend for themselves.
A decade of working alongside Keith, of knowing him by the overpowering odor of stale cigarette smoke that permeates his clothes, his jovial laugh, and the confidence that, while I’m writing from cageside, his camera would be there too, targeting whatever I’m seeing from another point along the circumference of the cage, and the first I learn of his living arrangements comes in a throwaway conversation. We’re at an event called the Cage Fury Fighting Championship at the Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., and I ask him how long it took him to drive up from his home in Maryland. He doesn’t have a home, he tells me. He lives in his car, and has been for a while.
This isn’t the first time Keith has been homeless. At 17, he lived “around the University of Maryland” for six months, and when he was 25 he spent two years around Baltimore, splitting time between a storage shed and his car. But this stretch has lasted for two and a half years, precipitated by a layoff from his day job at a Borders bookstore in Friendship Heights, Washington, D.C. in December, 2009. “I think of this as ‘working poor’,” he says.
All possessions not in his Honda Civic are kept in his sister’s garage in Newark, Delaware. He keeps some food at his girlfriend Amber’s place in Takoma Park, M.D., and when not on the road, he sleeps “around Columbia, Maryland”. “Amber has multiple sclerosis and her health insurance is so high that she has a tiny place,” he tells me. “There’s not enough room for the both of us.”
Sherdog is footing the bill for his motel room for his Cage Fury Fighting Championship gig, which enables him to process and send along his photos as well as crash in an actual bed. “I’ll stay with Amber tomorrow,” he says, laying out his schedule for the week, a week that will culminate with another event – this one called Ring of Combat – in Atlantic City. “Tuesday to Friday I’ll sleep at rest stops on I-95. Saturday I’ll get another motel from Sherdog to process Ring of Combat photos. Repeat and rinse.”
In 2011, Keith grossed an average of $1,749 per month. But there’s no set season for MMA competitions, just periods of varying frequency, and it is there, in the depths of inconsistency, that Keith often finds himself struggling to stay afloat.
“I pay for gas to get between cities,” he says, and goes on to describe how fueling his car can cost $200 one month (like this month, for example, where he’ll only trek to West Virginia once and New Jersey twice) and maybe $1,000 the next. In addition, he pays $35 a month for his cell phone and $140 for car insurance. And last but not least, there’s the food he must buy.
Keith paints a picture of the near future, of a March and April that will have him driving to Kansas City, K.S., Hammond, I.A., Bossier City, L.A., and Laredo, T.X., luxuriating in a motel once a week and residing at rest stops and truck stops the rest. “I have an atlas where I’ve circled the rest stops that have electricity, to charge batteries and use my microwave. I plan my travel accordingly. I also have a book which lists truck stop locations.”
With all that travel and no real home to come back to, it’s a grueling existence, but when ESPN and Sports Illustrated use your photos, and when the UFC is calling you to request the rights to various pictures of fighters they’ve acquired, fighters you’ve shot when they were toiling in the minors… to some, it’s probably worth a bit of suffering in hell. “I’ve stuck with it because it’s natural to me, is a constant challenge, rewarding – emotionally, anyway – and it gives me a tremendous sense of purpose. I always grow an inch when my Japanese editor says, ‘I appreciate you.’” He goes on to add, “It’s not about money. It’s about doing something with your life.”
“It’s not too bad,” he says. “I have a microwave in my trunk to cook at rest stops and motels, and a refrigerator in the back seat that’s powered off the cigarette lighter.” He lists the blanket he keeps in his car as another asset. “I have a yearly Internet account at a truck stop chain called TravelCenters of America – Internet is the biggest challenge, not finding a place to sleep. I despise WalMart’s employee practices, but their website has a store locator and most are open twenty-four hours for groceries.”
“The biggest issue is no health insurance,” he says. “If something goes wrong, like when my knee blew out in Austin, or when the car breaks down in Richmond, I’m fucked. Also, when editors pay me late, I sometimes get stranded in places like Gainesville, F.L., for a couple days.”
For every homeless person wandering the streets or stuck in a shelter, it’s assumed the glittering brass ring that dominates their hopes and desires is a place to call their own. That assumption holds true for Keith. “The goal is to get Sherdog to pay for plane tickets,” he says. “I figure if I improve every quarter what I’m capable of, eventually I’ll be worth plane tickets, and then I can use the money I now do for travel on a place to stay.”
And so it goes for MMA’s homeless photojournalist, the Flying Dutchman of the fight circuit, doomed to steer a course for anywhere he can park his car and microwave his dinner while the rest of us sleep comfortably in our beds. Once, long ago, when I asked him why he’d gone into the business of shooting fights, he reasoned that it was a path to become a photographer for the Associated Press – something that had been a dream of his.
“Actually, I look at this as a budget version of the wire photographers at the Associated Press,” says Keith. “At least I’m not sleeping in a foxhole in Croatia or being shot at.”