Behind the lens of Dons Athletics: Chris Leung

Every photograph shot for Dons Athletics tells a story. Condensed in albums for nearly every home match, the gallery that spans baseball, basketball, golf, soccer, tennis, track and field, and volleyball captures USF’s athletic history all through the lens of a Sony ILCE-1. 

The NCAA men’s soccer win over the University of California, Berkeley in 2017; Todd Golden’s first game against alma mater Saint Mary’s College of California as Head Coach in 2019; Abby Rathbun’s buzzer beating shot that secured the women’s basketball team’s 60-58 win against Brigham Young University on Senior Day in 2020; the men’s basketball win over Santa Clara University that pushed them up in the West Coast Conference ranks in 2022; these moments stand out to Christina Leung, known by the USF community as Chris, the lead professional, staff photographer behind Dons Athletics.

“Especially after COVID [I learned to] take lots of photos, take photos of everything. That year we were so locked down and photo and video were the only ways families could see their children play,” Leung said. “From then on, I was like, I’m just going to take everything. I’m going to take reactions. I’m going to take funny faces. I’m going to take action. I’m going to take all of it, capture it all.”

A Hawai’i native, Leung attended the University of Hawai’i with a major in communication. Although photography was always a lifelong hobby, it was documenting her son’s Little League sports games that inspired her current devotion to the activity. With the emergence of Facebook’s popularity, she turned to the platform to ask questions in group discussions around camera functions and photography insights. 

This curiosity led her to connect with Brian Foley, founder of College Baseball Daily. Foley assigned Leung an opening day baseball game shoot for Stanford University and California State University, Fullerton. Concurrently, the Bendetti Diamond had just undergone renovation, so the USF baseball team was seeking a photographer to capture their new facilities. Foley presented Leung with the opportunity, and from there the USF athletic director reached out to her to cover the following fall season in 2016.

Although Leung is mostly self-taught, she attributes much of her networking and photography practice to her experience with Sports Shooter Academy in Southern California, a school she’s frequented four times. With teachers in the working field of news and sports photography featured in outlets such as USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and a range of professional sports leagues, she’s found the workshops as a retreat to further her passion for photography.

“I’d never dream I’d be doing this right now, it’s amazing,” Leung said. “So from this I always tell my kids that dreams do come true and work, just go for it. Wherever you put your mind it can happen. Even when you can’t even dream that it can happen, it can.”

Leung enjoys the connection to the athletes and their families in the USF community, and uses social media to interact with them and learn more about how they connect with the world outside of sports. She watched athletes such as Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz grow into their positions from freshmen to seniors, and finds humor in the distinct personalities of the duo. 

“Khalil was the funniest freshman. He wanted his photo taken and he would do all the poses. Jamaree was the shyest freshman, mousy little voice, took one photo and left, and then to see him do a dunk and high-five everyone on the baseline, that is not the kid that came in five years ago,” Leung said. “Just seeing how these kids grow and how they branch out to the community inspires me, like there’s hope for me and my kids, the world’s not so bad.”

As a parent, Leung emphasized how a lot of her work is for the mothers of the athletics’ community. Since a lot of the players on the women’s basketball team hail from Europe, her photographs help bridge the gap between players far from home and parents who wish to see them play. She said she finds these families’ gratitude for her work inspiring. One player that particularly struck her was Volodymyr Markovetskyy on the men’s basketball team, whose mother reached out and thanked her prior to the invasion of his home country of Ukraine, as her photographs were how she “watched” Markovetskyy play some games. 

While Leung prioritizes shooting action in the moment, she finds that the emotion comes out when looking back at each shot. Capturing that flicker of emotion is one of her biggest goals when she picks up the camera. “Like when Khalil celebrates, and I can get that exact moment when he smiles, that’s what I love because that’s the person he is inside,” Leung said. “To show the athletes not only just excelling at their sport, but just showing who they are. That’s my goal.”

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