Cousins Mike and Jim Lisa on nearly a quarter century as the track photographers at The Meadowlands.
by Debbie Little
Cousins Mike and Jim Lisa of Lisa Photo have been shooting at The Meadowlands for 23 and 22 years, respectively. But growing up, these Jersey boys didn’t picture that this was their future.
“I was always into art, drawing, painting,” said Mike. “Photography came later. In grammar school, they’d always ask, ‘What do you want to be?’ and my thing was a football player and an artist.”
“I always took pictures since I was a pretty young kid, but I did it for fun, I never thought about doing it professionally,” said Jim.
Mike, 65, found his way to The Meadowlands through his older brother, James, who worked at the track for Bill Denver’s Equi-Photo. In 1999, the brothers became the track photographers at The Big M and formed Lisa Photo.
The first time Mike shot in the winner’s circle without his brother, it left quite an impression on him.
“I’m standing there and the race is starting and it was Luc Ouellette in the 10 hole and all of a sudden his horse jumps the rail, flips and lands right at my feet,” said Mike. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! Is this what I’m in for?’”
Only a few months into their new gig, Mike’s brother moved to Florida to become the track photographer at Calder Race Course and since Lisa Photo is a family business, in 2000, Mike recruited his cousin Jim, 60, to fill the void.
“Jim is a great photographer,” said Mike. “I don’t have to worry about anything with Jim.”
For big events, Mike’s son Jason is also part of their team.
“Usually, I’m on the line,” said Jim. “Mike is usually around in the winner’s circle and Jason is usually up from me getting what we call the angle.”
Since there’s always so much to shoot on a big day or night, when available, they also have their friend Mike Lizzi help out.
“I met Mike and Jim while shooting the 2008 Breeders Crown for Horseman & Fair World,” said Lizzi. “This was right after I became the Yonkers Raceway photographer. The Meadowlands was not my home track, but they made me feel right at home. They are both great photographers outside of the track as well. But at the track, they are the best at what they do.”
Hambletonian Day is definitely one of the busiest on their calendar, but over the years, the Lisas – both lifelong residents of the Garden State – have been kind enough to share their vast knowledge with college students from the Clyde Hirt Journalism Workshop.
Amanda Johncola, a student at La Salle University at the time, was one of the lucky few to be mentored by the Lisas.
“Mike Lisa was great to me from the beginning,” said Johncola. “He was incredibly kind and gave me advice to improve my photography. His trust in me also increased my confidence in the skill. When I worked with him, during the Hambletonian in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, the whole family was welcoming and helpful and eased any stress I had of shooting a live sporting event and also shooting horse racing for the very first time. Jim was also helpful when it came to where to stand in the winner’s circle on Hambo Day. I’ve missed working with the Lisas the last two years, but I’m looking forward to the next opportunity I have to work with them.”
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, several neighboring tracks furloughed or laid off their photographers, but that was not the case with the Lisas. Meadowlands chief operating officer/general manager Jason Settlemoir had been a track photographer in his native Ohio for Conrad Photo and he understood the value of that position.
“I think the track photographer is important because if an owner, trainer, driver or groom wants a picture, they’ll be able to get that picture and have that memory,” said Settlemoir. “The other part of it as well, is that it adds to the whole atmosphere of the horse coming back to the winner’s circle and having their picture taken. And Mike provides the pictures that Dave Little sends out in his recap at the end of the night and those pictures are able to be used on the different trade sites.”
For as long as they’ve been doing this, the Lisas have not allowed themselves to become stagnant or complacent.
“I’m nervous every Hambo Day and my wife is like, ‘You’ve been doing this for 20 years and you always get a good shot,’” said Mike. “But the night before I’m like I just hope I get that shot. For Hambo, I used to always shoot from the infield just to have that different angle, but now everybody’s doing it.”
“You’re always learning,” said Jim. “You always try to go to different places and see how it works out. If it doesn’t work out that time, maybe the conditions will be right that another night it may work. A lot of times you try things dozens of times and then things will line up. You can’t really force things.”
The Lisas don’t look at what they do as a job. For them it’s fun, and surprisingly they enjoy it most during bad weather.
“If it’s raining, I’ll be out there more,” said Jim.
“Someone asked me, ‘Don’t you hate shooting in the rain or the snow?’” said Mike. “Absolutely not. That makes for something special to happen.”
Jim doesn’t have a favorite photo because he’s very critical and always thinks it could be better, which he believes is a good trait. He has never entered anything for the George Smallsreed Awards for excellence in harness racing photography, even though people tell him that he should.
Mike has a few photo favorites, including one of then Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. making a famous one-handed grab. He rarely enters the Smallsreed competition, but he did win in 2013 for a shot of David Miller in the snow.
Looking through a lens isn’t the only thing that the Lisa boys excel at.
Following the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, Jim joined the Erskine Lakes Volunteer Fire Company and was there for 13 years. He also spent 20 years with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. He’s fought fires in his home state and after the Hambletonian would travel out west with his New Jersey crew to several states, including California, Washington and Montana.
After injuring his hip at 12, Mike’s dream of playing football vanished, but that didn’t stop him from being on the field at MetLife Stadium. For almost 10 years, he has been one of the sideline photographers for the New York Football Giants.
He’s also the drummer in a local band called “The Past Masters”, which have played at The Meadowlands during charity events organized by Mike.
Mike lost his mother to breast cancer in the ‘90s and when his wife Annette was also diagnosed with it in 2009, Mike organized the Lisa Photo “Stride For The Cure Race”, which took place annually from 2010 to 2014.
“We thought it would be a great way to give back,” said Mike. “I saw what [Annette] went through and it wasn’t pretty, but she’s doing great now. It was the scariest thing in the world.”
The event consisted of a 5K run during the day and a race at night where the drivers would carry pink whips, which were later autographed and auctioned to benefit the American Cancer Society. Mike is grateful to everyone that supported the event and hopes to bring it back in the near future.