Stephen Wilkes Enters the Real World of Las Vegas Sports Gambling
The Race & Sports Book at Westgate Resort and Casino in Las Vegas is the premier sports gambling spot in Sin City. A veritable arena of big screen TVs, lounge chairs, and stacks of cash means there’s no better place to watch, win, and lose your money at the behest of Lady Luck. The space is expansive, dark, and electric with emotion. Anxiety, excitement, and stress culminate into a pool, wadeable on the betting floor. ESPN Magazine was hungry to capture this tinderbox of sports fans and commissioned Stephen Wilkes to step in and bring it back for us all to see.
To capture the breadth of what goes on in this cavernous room, Stephen took a three-pronged approach. By capturing the space, the energy, and the people in their own contexts, his glimpse gives an exposure as authentic to the real time experience as could be expected. As Stephen explains it, the Race & Sports Book at Westgate “is its own separate world within the casino.” That unique feel is exactly what they were striving to capture.
He started by taking a sweeping photograph of the entire space. “ESPN was hoping to capture the energy of the place,” says Stephen. “So, we got a scissor lift in there and I was able to do this picture from above.” The lift placed him 30-35 feet above the action, offering a towering look at the whole scene. Then, he moved down into the fray, as it were.
Each gambler that comes to The Race & Sports Book brings their own story and excitement. Stephen and his team sorted through everyone they saw and culled out the biggest characters they could find, pulling them aside for portraits. “We were looking for people who fit the bill,” Stephen explains. In so doing, Stephen and his team met people you might not expect. There were the fans, and the casual gamblers, sure. But there were some that would surprise even a seasoned environmental photographer. “We met one very lovely young lady, and this is what she does for a living. She’s a professional sports gambler. She understood everything on a level that few people do.”
After capturing the cast of characters, Stephen needed to grab photos of the action. When he and his team were behind the scenes setting up, he found that there was a fraction of a delay between the game’s live feed and what showed up on the big screens in the main room. He decided to use the technological anomaly to his advantage. “I had my assistant go into the room and I was on my cellphone and he would literally say, ‘Patriots scored’ and I would know about a second and a half before the score happened on the big screen,” Stephen explains. “I used that delay as a tool to position myself to get a really full on moment in a situation where you never can get that.” By using this tool he was able to get authentic moments that would normally happen too quickly to capture. Ultimately, this kind of environmental work allowed Stephen to operate in a more journalistic/street photographer way, running the gamut of all techniques.
At the end of the day, getting the breadth of experience that he did made the project that much more fulfilling. “I really did three very different things for one project which is always fun for me,” Stephen says. By using all those different modes he’s able to communicate exactly what it’s like to be in that room, even if we all can’t make it to Vegas.