Epic football image garners Jess Rapfogel ’19 several honors

The Elon University graduate captured a thunderous collision between Tennessee Titans safety Theo Jackson and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley, leading to recognition in competitions hosted by Pictures of the Year International and the National Press Photographers Association.

Jess Rapfogel ’19 captured this awe-inspiring photograph in August 2022 of two players losing their helmets during a mid-game collision. The remarkable image has received several accolades in recent months, including recognition in the Pictures of the Year International competition, billed as “the oldest and the most prestigious photojournalism program and competition in the world.”

Jess Rapfogel’s photo of colliding members of the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans is jarring – both literally and figuratively.

The players’ helmets are floating free in the image, a moment that lasted just a split-second but was captured forever by the Elon alumna and her camera. The image – taken for USA Today Sports – is certain to leave viewers in awe.

It also has the same effect on judges.

Rapfogel works with most of the professional sports teams in Washington, D.C., as well as with The Associated Press, Getty Images and USA Today.

Rapfogel was recently recognized as a Sports Action category finalist in the Pictures of the Year International competition, which Senior Lecturer Kelly Furnas called “probably the most competitive professional contest out there.” Additionally, Rapfogel’s image won first place in the Sports Action category at the 2023 National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photojournalism competition.

The Pictures of the Year International competition is the oldest photojournalism contest in the world and is hosted by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. The competition recognized winners and finalists from 34 different categories, ranging from International News and Science & Natural History.

In addition to her work for USA Today, the photojournalist has produced images for The Associated Press and Getty Images while chronicling professional sports teams in the Washington, D.C., area. As a freelance photographer, Rapfogel said she has harnessed the ability to be reliable yet flexible while “maintaining a high level of professionalism needed to adapt to whatever situation” lies in front of her.

Rapfogel called it a “huge honor” to be recognized alongside some of the best photographers in the world. In the past year, she has started working with different wire services, adding political news to her professional expertise. She said she hopes to continue expanding her range in the photojournalism industry.

“It is a nice boost of confidence I can bring with me as I expand my work beyond sports to also include politics and news,” Rapfogel said of the recent accolades. “On a personal level, I am often the only woman in the photo room at sports games. Despite the lack of representation, having my work recognized reaffirms the hard work I put in to earn my place in that room.”

Rapfogel credits Elon for providing her with plenty of opportunities to gain hands-on experience. “I was able to build on my photo skills and network with others to get more sports photography opportunities,” she said.

As for the iconic, helmet-less image, Rapfogel snapped the moment during an August 2022 game between the Ravens and the Titans. It just so happened to be her first professional football game as well.

While at Elon, Rapfogel was a communication design and strategic communications double major, with an emphasis in sports photography. She said her time in the classroom provided the skills she needed to begin her career, while her experiences outside of the classroom – working as a photographer for Elon News Network, Elon Athletics and The Burlington Times-News – helped her find her passion.

“My camera has taken me to places beyond what I could have imagined,” Rapfogel said. “My main focus has been sports and it feels very rewarding to bring the game’s action and energy to fans and help tell stories of athletes who seem larger than life. I also get to share the sidelines with some of the best photographers in the industry, and I am thankful for their guidance and the doors they have helped open as I grow in my career.”

To see more of Rapfogel’s work, visit her website, www.jessrapfogel.com, or her Instagram account, @rapfotos.