By Alan Burke
SALEM — Boxing is a tough sport.
But boxing photographer Emily Harney is tough, too. Shooting Mike Tyson at his last fight against Kevin McBride on March 8, 2007, Harney caught the former champion in profound defeat, sitting on the canvas, spent, battered, collapsed against the ropes.
Word got back that Tyson didn't like her photo one bit.
"Next time, put your hands up," Harney responded. "I did my job. You didn't do yours."
She shakes her head with disgust, believing the once-great heavyweight had simply quit — "against a guy he should have knocked out in the first round."
Harney's love of the sport — the 30-year-old has been going to matches for 10 years and taking photos professionally in the United States and Europe — got her work prominently displayed in the Mark Wahlberg film "The Fighter." During the opening moments, a scene set in a barber shop, a collection of boxing images is displayed on the wall.
"Those are all mine," she says. "It was really cool seeing them." The photos include diverse shots from Harney's extensive boxing portfolio.
Their inclusion in the film stemmed in part from a connection to Lowell boxer Mickey Ward, hero of the true-life drama. She met Ward through his half-brother, Dickie Eklund, played by Christian Bale in the movie.
"I have this brother," Eklund told her. "He's a fighter. You should come down and photograph him."
Harney sensed character as soon as she met Ward. She signed on to shoot his next fight for her senior thesis. It didn't work out as planned.
"He stopped the guy in the first round with a body shot," she remembers. Harney had only just loaded her camera. She complained to Ward, who promised more fights to come.
Much of this doesn't seem to fit the dark-haired substitute teacher who has been known to change shoes at ringside hoping to get a little extra height.
"They laugh when I get into the ring with heels on. 'You're going to fall,' they tell me. Well, no. I'm not."
Initially, she was interested in taking pictures of basketball players. It's a measure of Harney's outlook that she was drawn to boxing by an event that might have repelled anyone else.
Weary of athletes chasing the big payday, she realized that boxers are by and large in it for love of the sport. That realization came when 25-year-old Saugus super featherweight fighter Bobby Tomasello fought on ESPN and died from injuries a few days later.
"He couldn't have made more than five grand that night," she says with a mixture of sadness and admiration. "He gave up his life for that."
Most boxers ignore the grim possibilities of their sport, she says, including brain damage. Some are able to emerge apparently unscathed. Others, after just a few fights, might begin to slur words.
"These guys don't even think about it," she says.
In the beginning, Harney knew virtually nothing about boxing. She started with amateurs, the Silver Mittens. "Little kids boxing," she says in wonder.
A Salem High School graduate, she was studying photography at the time at Lesley College's Art Institute of Boston and was a little uneasy about how the arts community would accept her passion for the sport. At times, she concedes, it is a "seedy" business.
Winning them over was only half of the struggle. She had to gain credentials as a photographer from boxing people. "Are you the ring card girl?" she would be asked at fights. But she worked to get her photos noticed, to win jobs and get paid for them.
Once you're "in," she says, "It's like family. Nothing compares to boxing."
Harney is drawn to fighters. She dated one. His inevitable absences — "he trained in Texas" — were too tough to deal with, however. Her current beau is not a boxer. Even so, she denies all the cliches. Some boxers are stable, family men. Some not.
Eklund, she indicates, is high-spirited and outspoken. Ward is all business.
Friends have been to the movie just to see Harney's credit. It's the second film she's been involved with. Her photos were used previously in the Samuel L. Jackson movie "Resurrecting the Champ." Given its local connections, "The Fighter" has gotten a lot more attention.
During the credits, after the listing of actors, technicians and drivers, Emily Harney appears. "I shouted out your name when it came on the screen, and I applauded," a former teacher told her.
Like boxing, photography is a hard business and making a living difficult. But a taste of Hollywood has given Harney an enormous boost.
"I dream big, but I never dreamed that," she says.
"People tell me, 'You could make a lot of money shooting weddings,'" she says, but she scoffs at that. Taking those jobs means schedules that might conflict with a big match.
"And I'd rather be at a fight."