Behind the Bruin: University photographer Sam Simpkins on snapping a story
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
If you look closely at any given Belmont event, you might just catch the blur of a figure darting through the crowds and slithering along the sidelines.
If you listen even closer, you will hear the faint click, click, click of his Sony camera capturing the scene.
The blur is Sam Simpkins — Belmont’s beloved university photographer. Blink, and you might just miss him.
When Belmont posted the job opening for a photographer in 2016, Simpkins jumped for joy.
“I was like, ‘Ooo me!’” he said, recounting the moment. Worn out from 12 fast-paced, increasingly short-staffed years with The Tennessean, he had been praying for a new opportunity to come along.
“So, I applied, and I guess I was OK in the interview,” Simpkins said, a sheepish, jovial grin unconcealable beneath his face mask.
Simpkins’s now-colleague Hope Buckner was on the hiring team that interviewed him, and though up against many similarly prolific photographers, she said, his magnetic warmth left an unshakeable first impression.
“The second he turned around and smiled, I said, I think this is our guy,” Buckner recalled.
Simpkins started at Belmont in August that same year and found himself immediately enraptured by the beauty of Belmont’s campus and the energy of the students.
The athletic teams, in particular, welcomed him with open arms, and Simpkins cites working with them as a highlight of the job.
Sam Simpkins capturing the “Don’t Touch My Hair” WELL Core event Wednesday. Meagan Irby / Belmont Vision
At basketball games, Simpkins sprints around the court as swiftly as the players, light on his feet like an equipment-laden Fred Astaire.
“I’m terrified he’s going to get himself killed,” said Simpkins’s boss, April Hefner, noting his agility and gumption on the court.
Capturing the perfect action shot may seem like a tricky task, but Simpkins knows how it’s done.
“People are creatures of habit, and they always will do it again. If they’re laughing, or whatever, or they’re doing like a cute moment, it’s gonna happen again — so I’m always just trying to be ready.”
Despite his love for the court, Simpkins never played ball himself. Instead, he spent his undergraduate years avoiding his English-major studies, hanging out and mountain biking in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. He attended Montreat College, just outside Asheville.
After college, Simpkins traveled for a while, working odd jobs. He spent two years driving a school bus and concrete truck for Breckenridge Ski Resort, during which he embarked on a 100-day snowboarding expedition. Though a Nashville native, Simpkins still carries the essence of a mountain man with his tanned skin, laugh lines and easygoing demeanor.
Simpkins capturing For King and Country on stage at WELL Core concert Wednesday. Meagan Irby / Belmont Vision
Simpkins tackles his photography with this same adventurous spirit, always on the go and “trying to get on top of buildings,” he says. Back when Belmont was building Tall Hall, Simpkins asked the construction crew if he could go up in the crane — and much to his surprise, they said yes.
Simpkins soon found himself climbing the crane, muttering a pep talk under his breath as the machine swayed and flexed beneath him, the driver still operating the arm. Once at the top, the driver gave him a piece of gum to distract him from his nerves while the ground crew ferried his gear up in a basket.
“It was really intense,” Simpkins says, chuckling at his own absurdity.
“He came back from the experience white as a sheet,” said Hefner.
Simpkins’ go-getter zeal stimulated his desire to become a photographer in the first place. He dabbled with photography in high school and, despite not yet knowing what he wanted to do with his life, had “photography” engraved on his class ring.
“It’s super embarrassing,” Simpkins remarks, but a glimmer in his eyes reveals his amusement.
Although he graduated from Montreat with a degree in English communications, Simpkins claims he lacked talent in the writing department and had no desire to live a stationary life.
He envisioned life as a photographer, thinking, “I’m not gonna be at a desk all day, I’m gonna be out moving around. I’m gonna be talking to people and, y’know, seeing cool stuff and adventures and all that.”
And to his delight, that’s the life he went on to live.
Simpkins changing his lens at “Don’t Touch My Hair” Wednesday. Meagan Irby / Belmont Vision
Simpkins got a second degree in photojournalism at Western Kentucky University, where he charmed a midwife into letting him follow her around for his senior thesis project. Upon graduation, he moved back to Nashville and took a job with a small publication called All the Rage in 2004, shooting cool happenings around town before hopping over to The Tennessean.
Working for The Tennessean was incredibly challenging but equally rewarding for Simpkins, throwing him into the proverbial deep end of “a new adventure and new shoot every day,” he says.
But in the last six years, Belmont has proven to be a photographer’s dreamland, offering him a little bit of everything: athletics, science labs, concerts, chapel events and more.
But Belmont gave Simpkins the career opportunity of a lifetime when it hosted the 2020 presidential debate. He captured it all as the event came together over the course of a year, even taking pictures for the book the university sent in to apply. But due to COVID-19 restrictions, Simpkins was unsure if he would be allowed to attend the actual debate.
Not only did Simpkins get to attend, but he got “crazy close,” he says — as in a mere 20 feet away from the main stage.
But in an unfortunate faux pas, his lens fell and hit a secret service agent with a loud thump, and he proceeded to apologize profusely in hushed tones and gestures. Luckily, the serviceman let it slide.
Simpkins in action at the farewell party for Vice President of Marketing John Carney last Friday.
Simpkins has earned a somewhat legendary status on Belmont’s campus, and everyone who knows him, student and faculty alike, seems to love him.
“He loves his community and does such a great job at bringing stories to life … He’s popular because he cares,” said Hefner.
At a Friday farewell party for Vice President of Marketing John Carney, Simpkins flitted about the event hall, firing his camera as Carney thanked his team members one by one.
“Sam Simpkins,” Carney called, looking up in a futile attempt to spot him in the crowd, “who won’t leave me alone with the camera,” he added, inspiring a chuckle from the audience.
Lately, when he’s not on campus, Simpkins can be found walking his two dogs, working in his yard or jamming to “Golden” by Harry Styles.
However, he’s spent much of his free time over the past several years building a closed-in deck on his property — a project done largely with his own two hands, which, in an incident with a chop saw, cost him half of his left pointer finger.
He had to get creative at work while his hand healed, he says, demonstrating how he propped his camera up on his forearm to take photos, determined to keep doing what he loves.
“There’s nothing wise about me,” Simpkins claims, but he believes in patience, and he believes in working hard and playing hard.
Instead of setting big goals, he prefers to set small ones each day. So, no, he does not have huge plans for 2022, but he looks forward to the OVC basketball tournament and sunny weather, and he is happy to keep calling Belmont home.
As much as Belmont adores Simpkins, he adores Belmont right back, and seeing kids happy on campus never fails to brighten his day.
“Everyone’s so cool and nice here,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place, and I just love it. I just love everything about Belmont … I’m so happy and grateful to be here.”
Simpkins may be hard to catch — and you may have to stretch first if you have the audacity to follow him around — but he is easy to know. So, next time you are on campus, smile big for the camera.
You probably find that the man behind it is smiling back.
The rare sight of Simpkins without his camera. Meagan Irby / Belmont Vision
PHOTO: Sam Simpkins in action at the farewell party for V.P. of Marketing John Carney last Friday. Meagan Irby / Belmont Vision
This article was written by Meagan Irby.