Hail Mary? Hail Julio. As a crush of players, security, supporters and media surrounded Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce after the Chiefs’ AFC championship win over the Baltimore Ravens, photographer Julio Cortez captured the perfect shot: the couple kissing on the field, Swift’s hand pressed against Kelce’s cheek. It was an intimate moment amid chaos, one that only Cortez — AP’s chief photographer for Texas and Oklahoma, temporarily returned to his previous home field of Baltimore — got. Sure, other outlets in the swarm made photos of the couple embracing, but Cortez kicked the conversion point with the singular angle of the destined-to-go-viral moment yet unseen in Swift’s football attendee era.
Let’s rewind the tape on the play: The Chiefs had won, 17-10. The Lamar Hunt Trophy was headed for the field. Swift was on the move. And Cortez was patient. In the days before the game, he had wondered if he would actually get to see her up close. Until now, photos of Swift attending the games were made in the tunnels of stadiums or from afar as she watched the action in luxury suites. But from his extensive experience covering football, Cortez knew that if the Chiefs punched their ticket to another Super Bowl, players’ friends and families would end up on the field.
The on-field photography team of Cortez, Philadelphia’s Matt Slocum, Washington’s Alex Brandon and freelancer Nick Wass (who, Cortez notes, had to tote a 600mm lens used for luxury suite shots during the game) had a post-game plan. Knowing that Slocum, Brandon and Wass were all in their assigned positions — with Slocum in prime position for the celebration — Cortez called an audible. He went outside his position, walking around the stage to see if he could get a glimpse of Swift. And just like that, what he’d been looking for was there the whole time (or a few moments, anyway).
He “sweet-talked” the bodyguards to get to a closer — and unique — position, hewing to the “pushy but professional” ethos, as he describes it. He waited patiently for the trophy ceremony’s conclusion, anticipating Kelce coming to see Swift. The reunion was, well, swift. As Kelce told her he was going to hang out with the guys, he “gave her the fastest kiss.” The kiss slipped away into a moment in time, but it was indeed Cortez’s.
He jumped into position, in front of the NFL Films camera, raising his own camera over the security guard’s head. He got it.
“It happened so fast,” he said. “Then they were off on their own ways.”
About a minute after the photo was made, Deep South chief photographer Mike Stewart knew it was the shot of the game. Putting aside the flood of football-related images he was editing aside Alyssa Goodman, Stewart quickly filed the image to which he affixed the gold stamp: APTOPIX.
The image was immediately picked up by hundreds of organizations, rocketing around the world with usage by customers ranging from The New York Times, NBC, People to India’s Hindustan Times and Argentina’s La Voz. Within 24 hours, an @apnews Instagram post featuring the image racked up around 12,000 likes — more than most posts. An NFL Instagram post amassed more than 1.45 million likes. Cortez’s photo was plastered all over social media and news sites on Sunday night, and the topic of watercooler conversations in the days that followed (discourse that’s likely not abating until the Super Bowl on Feb. 10). The image is assuredly a first-ballot Hall of Famer, bound to be used countless times in the months and years ahead.
“You have to get a photo of Taylor on the field,” Cortez’s wife told him during the game. “That’s what everyone wants to see.” It was sound advice, paving the way for Cortez’s Best of the Week — First Winner honors.