Matt Hawley: Capturing the moments of Pitt Athletics

Written by Zack Gibney
Courtesy photos
April 13, 2023

If you say the words “fake slide” to anyone who attended Pitt in fall 2021, you’ll probably see a smile come across their face.

In the first quarter of the 2021 ACC football championship game, then-senior quarterback Kenny Pickett made a play that would become one of the most famous moments in school history.

Many watching remember exactly where they were when it happened. Some were on their couches watching the game with their friends or family. Others were at bars, or even in the stands of the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. 

Matt Hawley, a freelance photographer for Pitt’s varsity teams, was on the sidelines.

“At the time, they only gave us one vest for a photo or video person to be in the team area, and I happened to be the one with it at the moment,” Hawley said. “I didn’t even know he did that at the time. I just saw him running past me and I didn’t know until after the game and everyone was freaking out about it. I was originally like, ‘Great I missed the celebration and everything.’”

Despite capturing this moment and countless others during his time at Pitt, photography wasn’t always Hawley’s calling.

Hawley was born in York, Pennsylvania, into a family of photographers. Not only was his father an avid photographer — so was Hawley’s great-grandmother, Harriette.

In a time when women were often marginalized from the world of business and entrepreneurship, Harriette owned and operated her own portrait photography studios in both Toledo, Ohio and Marshalltown, Iowa.

Image courtesy of Matt Hawley, photo by Joe Lassi

Following in his grandmother’s footsteps, Hawley’s father Chris attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for photography prior to becoming a firefighter. He always urged his son to try it out at a young age, but Matt never seemed interested.

“He resisted every bit of it. I would give him cameras every year for Christmas and he would never pick them up,” Chris said. “You don’t want to force your kids towards their life, so he had to make the decision.”

Things changed In 2013 when Hawley took a trip to China and felt like he should bring a camera with him. Chris, having visited 55 countries, provided his son with a camera to take on his journey. 

Matt began to fall more in love with photography after he enrolled at Pitt that same year — the same school his brother attended. 

After starting his time as an undergrad, Hawley became more involved in athletics. Despite not having a plethora of experience in sports prior to his arrival at Pitt, Hawley became a manager for the women’s basketball team and started taking pictures at a number of other athletic events. The Oakland Zoo was part of what initially drew Hawley to the school, and he thought working with the team would be a good way to involve himself in athletics.

Hawley said his time with the basketball team was a major driving force in his decision to pursue a career in athletics. He was able to travel with them and gain experience working directly with the Pitt athletic department.

“That was definitely a big factor in me getting a foot in the door. Everyone in athletics knew who I was and I knew who they were,” Hawley said. ​​“That was my favorite part of being a student at Pitt.”

During his undergrad years, Hawley worked as a photographer for The Pitt News and freelanced for other publications. After his graduation in 2017, Hawley grew interested in pursuing a career in photography, and figured that Pitt was a natural fit. After a trial photo shoot of a Pitt football game, the athletic department hired Hawley in September 2017 as a freelance photographer. 

Joe Lassi, the director of social media for Pitt Athletics, has worked alongside Hawley in a variety of roles. Much like Hawley, Lassi attended Pitt and worked different jobs throughout the athletic department during his time as a student. Lassi emphasized the value of Hawley’s work when it comes to social media and the image of the school as a whole.

“One thing we have really worked on [in marketing and social media] is the Pitt brand and making things stand out more. Before, things were all over the place and we’ve kind of tried to bring everything together,” Lassi said. “Photography is a huge part of that, but even more so, it’s about having photography that represents each individual event authentically."

Lassi said the rapport he and Hawley have built up over the years has allowed the two to work efficiently together. 

“I can rely on him as a friend in addition to being one of our freelance photographers because I know him so well and have worked with him for so long,” Lassi said. “We have a very good relationship and it’s pretty informal at times which is nice because it makes things easy.”

Image courtesy of Matt Hawley, photo by Joe Lassi

Hawley has worked with the athletic department for eight years and continues to shoot events from all sports at Pitt. Hawley acknowledges that his work is something that few get to experience and doesn’t take it for granted.

“It was cool to be behind the scenes of things because that’s not something that a lot of people get to do,” Hawley said. “I think if fans could see a little behind the scenes they would have a different perspective on the teams they root for.”

Hawley also said working behind the scenes has given him a new perspective on the student-athlete experience. His interactions with the athletes is one of his favorite parts of the job.

“The student-athletes are just regular people like you and me. They listen to the same music, they go to the same restaurants, they hang out with their friends,” Hawley said. “The only difference is that they happen to be more athletically gifted than the rest of us.”

Hawley’s work is seen throughout Pitt football’s highly popular social media platforms and venues such as Acrisure Stadium. But he finds the most pride in the value that the athletes and their families place in his work.

“It really means less to me with where my work is being shown and who sees it, but I care about the student-athletes a lot,” Hawley said. “If I'm doing a good job for the parents, the team and the coaches, that’s what I care about the most.”

With many of Pitt’s student-athletes coming from across the globe, Hawley’s photography helps connect many parents to their kids from thousands of miles away.

“I’ve had parents reach out and thank me because it makes them feel like they’re with their child,” Hawley said. “That makes me feel better than where my work is being used.”

For Chris, he has nothing but admiration for his son’s work. 

“I’m very proud of him. Not just because he’s my son, but I look at the types of photographs he takes, and he exceeds anything that I can do,” he said. “He captures the human aspect and that’s incredible. If you can’t tell, I’m incredibly proud of him.”