Life as a race photographer in Asia

by Matt de Neef

Being a race photographer might seem like a glamorous business but in reality it’s a life of long days, hard work and challenging working conditions. And when you add in a little eastern spice, it can be quite a risky job too. In this post Steve Thomas takes us on a back-seat ride through the pelotons of Asia, sharing some of his most memorable experiences and favourite pictures from along the way.

I stumble dehydrated into the lobby of a strange hotel, the name of which I don’t even know, a 20kg backpack weighing heavy on my aching shoulders, two monster cameras around my sunburnt neck, a huge suitcase and a bike bag dragging behind me.

It’s time to try and get to my room, along with the 250 or so other riders, officials and cling-ons who are there for the race and ready to head to their rooms. I’m pretty well bottom of the list, so I step out of the fray and find a corner where I can pull out my laptop and start to do some work.

Everybody’s tired. I mean they’ve just ridden a bike race, and the officials have had to sit in dry air-conditioned cars all day, bored stiff. Us, the photographers, we’re usually filthy, wet, and by this stage we can hardly open our eyes after a day of grit and wind in our faces (you can’t use shades with a camera). Worst of all, the “real work” has not even begun.

Somebody comes across and asks if me if I can give them some photos for their website (and they ask every photographer on the race); for free of course, after all “it’s only a picture.” It’s not like I’ve risked $15,000 worth of kit and my arse to get the shot, not to mention taking huge financial risks and working my underpaid skills for years to get to this point.

I politely hint to them that while they’re having their dinner, massage, or watching TV I’ll still be in the same clothes, working my way through the 700 or so images I’ve shot during the day — sizing, cleaning, captioning, backing them up – and of course finding a way to get them all out to websites, sponsors or magazines that same evening. Either way I know that anything I put online that day will be hacked by the end of the day and on every imaginable Facebook page, and then some.

The shower and the beer come somewhere after midnight. And then, after a short sleep, I get up and do it all again, leaving the hotel somewhere between 5 and 8am. It’s all part of life as a race photographer.

These days a huge chunk of my race work is in Asia, because that’s where I’m based. Things are a bit different here, especially when compared to Europe or Australia. In the major European races moto-pilots and their photographers are as one, often working together year-round. They have years of experience and know the game inside out.

That situation rarely applies in Asia, and all too often you’re taking your life in your hands when you hop on the back of a strange motorbike with a leather clad man.

At Asian races moto-pilots are mostly assigned to you by the race organisers; often a different one each day, and sometimes as an afterthought. Many of them have little or no experience when it comes to covering bike races, and many are members of local motorcycle clubs or marshaling companies who can sometimes be a little over-excited at the chance of riding at unrestricted-speeds on closed roads with their mates.

And of course, then there’s usually the language barrier or, more accurately, the language blockade. Many moto-pilots know only one word of English — “yes” — which can also mean “no” or “maybe”, or anything else for that matter. Primitive forms of sign language are rapidly developed on start lines, regulations are hinted at politely, and then you hit the road with a sense of fear and anticipation.

This is when you generally find out that your pilot doesn’t feel too happy getting close to the riders, and has no idea of where to ride as the peloton swings from side to side … so he hits the brakes. Riders yell and gesture, you hit the dirt as he panics, and the commissaire blows his whistle at you — another close shave. In the Tour of Qinghai Lake a few years ago I spent a good portion of the race off road, which was quite unnerving.

Given Asian races are usually multi-day “packaged” stage races you get to know the riders quite well. By contrast, certain regular commissaires are far from understanding and see the media (apart from TV) as something of a burden, despite the fact that without us nobody would hear about the races.

A few years back, also in the Tour of Qinghai Lake, it was raining and snowing like hell in the mountains and my pilot was trying to descend with the riders. The problem was that he had no idea of how to take racing lines around the corners. The bike was sliding all over the road, and we went off-road twice.

After a while I stopped him and climbed off, and hitched my way back to the finish in a following car. A day later he decided to show off, hitting 160km/h on a bumpy concrete road through a town. Or at least that was the speed when I closed my eyes and clung on for dear life, my cameras strangling me as we hit ruts in the road.

Meanwhile, back in the peloton, a team car swerved right instead of the regulation left. A fellow cameraman and his pilot smacked into the back of the car, going through the window and ending up impaled on the team tool kit. Ouch. Accidents like these are a fairly regular occurrence, and photographers often get seriously injured or killed, yet you rarely hear about that.

In the Tour de Langkawi a few years back the break was climbing Genting, the biggest mountain in south-east Asia, and I was real close in shooting a rider (Andrea Taffi) when he threw off his race cap. My moto-pilot slammed on the anchors and jumped off, in the middle of the road, the straining riders swerving around him as my moto-pilot runs for the souvenir cap.

I could hardly believe it until he did the same for a bottle a few minutes later, causing us to miss the finish of the race.

A few years later in the same race, just after the feed zone, my pilot veered off-road and started collecting souvenir musettes … with his foot, while we were still moving. Angrily I explained that we needed to catch the race. We missed the finish again.

One year I covered the Tour of Thailand, where there were 30 moto-commissaires (which is typical in this region), but no moto-pilot for a photographer. Under pressure from a UCI observer I was given a 125cc moped and driver to follow the race.

I spent an average of six hours a day, for five days, crammed on this underpowered beast, burning my legs on the exhaust, unable to keep up with the riders on the steep climbs or fast run-ins. It was perhaps the most uncomfortable week of shooting ever.

In the Tour of South China Seas a few years ago I was given a tiny moped to cover the race, but it just could not match the speed of the race. We just kept circling and getting lapped, grabbing what I could as the riders sped by.

I’ve worked as official photographer on a number of tours in the Philippines too, which is always interesting, as the race info rarely agrees with the actuality. In one race my nervous pilot simply would not “go-go” when told to, preferring to hesitate. It became very dangerous, especially when the monsoonal rains hit on a narrow and windy coastal road while weaving in and out of the race convoy. We were tapping wing mirrors and bumpers and I was genuinely terrified.

In the middle of the chaos I was being signaled by an official; a small helicopter was waiting for me on a nearby beach to get aerial footage. We did a U-turn and raced back.

I ran through a bemused group of fishermen and strapped into what was best described as a kit-copter. It rattled out to sea, but the storm was still strong so we were unable to come back to land. The fuel was also running out, so I was dropped in a remote paddy field, and had to hitch-hike 40km back to the finish … without having taken a single aerial race pic.

Tropical rain can be a huge issue in Southeast Asia, as it hits so hard and fast that everything gets washed out in seconds. In the days of film things would dry out overnight, but with digital, it’s a totally different matter. I’ve lost several cameras in just minutes while on the backs of motorbikes — an expensive occupational hazard of the digital era. When it rains there is rarely anywhere to hide, as the storms tend to come on so fast.

I’ve covered races from mopeds, choppers, cars, helicopters, and even microlites. At times it’s as scary as riding down Alpe d’Huez in the rain without brakes. But when you do see that one extra special image, the one that you know nearly cost you your life, it’s worth it. Unfortunately that great arty image that purveys the culture and landscape as much as the race is rarely the one that the riders or websites like to see.

They tend to flip to the bread and butter, passing over the wild horsemen for a clean finish line shot. It does make you wonder why you were so tough on yourself to tell the bigger story.