Everyone has an opinion about Mike, most are not good.
When I got the call from the NYTimes Magazine that they wanted me to photograph Mike Tyson, my first thoughts were of self preservation. It so happened that the call in when I was on set photographing David Blaine, also for the Times Magazine. Of course I said something to David, and it turned out that he and Mike were friends. Even weirder, that David Blaine, Mike Tyson and Michael Jackson were all friends. Go figure. Word was Mike was a total sweetheart, I had nothing to worry about, which is not something I took to heart, as Mike had just eaten a man’s ear on live television.
My assistant and I fly to Maui to meet Mike at his training camp. The first thing is that we have to attend a “media session”. This is when Mike’s PR people (can you imagine doing PR for Mike Tyson?) laid out the ground rules for what was cool and what was not. This was not really meant for us, but more for the 20 or so TV teams that were there. The short version was just keep it to boxing and stay out of Mike’s private life. Yea, right.
Our session was scheduled for the next day, after the TV interviews, which took place every 10 feet or so going around a large banquet room. Everything is fine, Mike going from station to station talking boxing until he gets to the FOX Sports station. They of course are the only ones with a female reporter. The first thing out of her mouth is ” Why do you hate women?”. It escalates from there and within a couple of minutes Mike is screaming, fist raised, quite seriously going to kill the woman. Only 2 very big very strong guys are saving her life. She had been sent there to bait Mike, so that FOX could get a circus moment on the evening news. Mike gave it to them in spades.
Knowing that I was in the very near future going to be inches away from one of the most dangerous men on planet, who was now mad as a hornet, was not a particularly comforting thought. Bad of me I know, but at that moment I was thinking it was a shame about those two big handlers being there to restrain Tyson.
Back to the hotel, we wait and practice what we will be setting up. The call may come at anytime. I was on the phone with Kathy at the Times letting her know the situation. For some reason, they had me pegged as the go to guy for the dangerous, the felonious and the transgressives. Some other lucky photographer was pegged as the movie star shooter, me, I get the toughies.
The call comes in at noon the next day. We were given directions to Mike’s secret training facility. The scene was disconcerting. From the fighting ring, which has been set up in a closed building, we hear loud rap music and the occasional thump of pain. The area outside is littered with huge bleeding men, sitting in stunned silence. I get a glimpse of the Mike boxing. He hits a one of these monsters in the gut with an uppercut and lifts him off the ground. We are talking a 300lb guy. Terrifying.
The writer comes out to say hi mentioning Mike is in a foul mode from the day before. To work it off, he was training particularly hard and had already thrown up once that day. This is not good, not good at all.
About 2 hours and half dozen bleeding monsters later, Mike comes out walking straight towards me followed by a phalanx of handlers. I go directly up to him, show him a polaroid of what we are doing, and tell him this is for the NY Times Magazine. First thing I notice is that Mike has a rather high pitched voice, the second is that he is quick to smile. My anxiety level is reduced from near death experience code red to something more like normal pre-shoot anxiety. But Mike doesn’t want to shoot the picture at the training camp. Because it is the Times, he wants to look sharp, get his hair cut and clean up. Off to Mike’s seaside condo to set up again, a new problem enters my mind. We need to be on an 8pm flight out that night to be in Paris for another job the following day.
We setup and the first thing Mike does is start running his ” I am a very bad man” rap on me. This was a test, but happening 3 feet away it was a very scary test. My adrenals surging, I reach out, slap Mike on the shoulder and say ” Come on Mike, you’re not so bad”. Suddenly the whole vibe changes, I passed the test, and Mike thinks I am ok. Slapping Mike Tyson when not knowing what will happen, is on a fear level with blind bungee jumping. Turns out, Mike is great, super nice and chatty guy. The man is fascinated with world politics. We talk about Mao, about Che, about Osama and Bush. I discover he is covered with political tattoos. Who knew? What strikes me as most unusual about Mike is that he really wants people to think he is worse than he is. Anyone else I have ever photographed, killers to movie stars to politicos, always want me to think they are better than they are. We do 2 setups, quickly, very quickly. At the very end I see Mike in his boxing trunks cradling his 6 month old daughter. A shockingly tender moment, a picture I knew would be worth a lot, and one that I knew he would let me take. But I passed. Somethings are better left alone, and after seeing the FOX baiting, Mike’s private moment with his kid seemed like one of those. The whole shoot took about 30 minutes, then STP, straight to plane.
The lesson I have learned from years of doing portraits is that the bad guys are never that bad and the good guys are never that good. Everyone is somewhere in that grey murky area in the center.
Posts from Blog: David Harry Stewart, Photographer/Director for 12/15/2011
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