Full Gas Track Cycling: take two

commissaire watching track racing

I had the opportunity to return to the Lee Valley velodrome for the last meet of the Full Gas Winter Track Series. The previous meet had to be abandoned following a serious accident, so it was good to see a full evening of racing.

I’d been so inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic shots at the Vélodrome D’Hiver, Paris in the 1950’s I decided to have a go at shooting film once I had some digital shots in the can.

An official rings the last lap bell in track cycle race.

A cyclist warming up at Lee Valley velodrome.A manual focus 35mm lens isn’t the obvious choice for high-speed sports photography, however the good thing about track cycling is that, within a few inches, you can predict what line the leaders are going to take. I pre-focused on my chosen spot and tried to hold my nerve.

I’ve only a few rolls of Neopan 1600 remaining, sadly like so many great films it’s no longer manufactured, so I limited myself to one roll – 36 shots.

track racing at Lee Valley velodrome

I pre-focused on my chosen spot and tried to hold my nerve.

A track cyclist waiting to enter the track.The images here are a mix of film and digital but on balance I think I prefer the feel of the film. They’re not up to Cartier-Bresson standards but in my defence there aren’t many photographers who are.

Members of the Velociposse womens team waiting to race.

Track cycling at the Olympic Velodrome

a track cyclist warming up at the Olympic velodrome London

A couple of weeks ago I got the opportunity to shoot one of the Full Gas Winter Track Series events that take place at what was the London Olympic velodrome, now the Lee Valley velopark. It’s impossible to stand in the centre of the beautiful wooden track without imagining the atmosphere, in the heat of the 2012 summer, as the home crowd cheer Laura Trott, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton et al on to Gold Medal winning victory.

Track cycle racing at the London Olympic velodrome.

However, it’s a very different place on this cold, damp Tuesday evening in February. There are far more people in the centre of the track than outside, except for the odd supporting spouse and parent, the stands are all but empty.

The times these competitors are putting in maybe slower and many are certainly older than their Olympic counterparts, but the passion is no less real. It takes a lot of commitment to drive to this rather bleak, incredibly busy, corner of North London after a day at work only to don a lycra bodysuit and push yourself to the edge of exhaustion.

A track cyclist waiting to race at the London Olympic velodrome.

What you don’t realise, as the casual observer, is quite how dangerous it can be. I spent most of the first race doing my best to get my photographic eye in and realising quite how fast these group ‘C’ amateurs were travelling.

The group ‘B’ warm up gave me a second chance to get some shots of the racing when, after only a few laps and a touch of wheels, there were suddenly a number of riders on the ground.

Two track cyclists after being involved in a crash.

At first it seemed like the opportunity to get another perspective on the racing. It soon became obvious that two riders received more than scrapes and bruises. One received a nasty cut to his head, another landed on the wrong side of the barrier amongst the, luckily absent, spectator’s seats and was more seriously injured.

An injured track cyclist being attended on the track.

After some time the rider with bleed was taken away by ambulance and the more seriously injured rider by air ambulance. I understand both have now been released from hospital to hopefully ride again.

The prizes may not be the same as those awarded to the Olympians but the dangers are just as real.

An injured track cyclist with a bandaged leg.

I’ve had the opportunity to return and fortunately see more racing and no accidents, I’ll post some shots as soon as I’ve had a chance to edit them.

Small town America: Port Orford, OR

A small church in Port Orford, OR

I have a great fondness for small town America. That eclectic mix of industry, commerce and residence rarely fails to entrance me. One of my longest-held ambitions is to take a few months out and complete a long-term documentary photography project in a small American town. I rather ambitiously see it as a scaled-down version of W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project, with maybe slightly fewer than his 17,000 images.

We spent our holiday in Oregon last year and in a small echo of that ambition while there I tried to document the buildings along US Route 101 in the town of Port Orford.

documentary photography shot of unmarked building, Port Orford, OR

For those who are in a hurry to get somewhere, and who are not flying, US Route 101 has been superseded by Interstate 5, but at one time it was the route along America’s West coast. For 1,550 miles it runs near the mighty Pacific ocean.

….. a scaled-down version of W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project …. slightly fewer than his 17,000 images

Even despite its inter-state scope when it runs through hundreds of small towns it becomes Main Street, the strip onto which stores open their doors. Onto its sidewalks churches open and schools empty, thousands of small General Stores, fast food restaurants and industry trades along its length. When you pull out of Coos Curry Supply in Port Orford it’s easy to forget you’re on ribbon of blacktop stretching from Port Angeles at the very top of Washington state, a wet two miles from the Canadian border, to Los Angeles in sunny Southern California.

documentary photography shot of Coos Curry Supply a hardware store in Port Orford, OR

On this trip I ran out of time in Port Orford, route 101 was pulling me ever northward, but I’m sure I’ll be back to both to Port Orford and hopefully for even longer to some, as yet, unknown small town at which I can point my lens.

documentary photography shot of Chevron gas station, Port Orford, OR

documentary photography shot of gas filling rig, Port Orford, OR

Criminal podcast: It looked like fire

Edward Crawford throwing a tear gas canister during Ferguson Protests

Edward Crawford returns a tear gas canister fired by police who were trying to disperse protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Four days earlier, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson. The killing ignited riots and unrest in the St. Louis area and across the nation. (Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch – August 13, 2014)

If you’re interested in photography it’s likely you know this photograph. What you may not know is the story of the people behind it; Edward Crawford, who’s throwing the tear gas canister and Robert Cohen, the photographer. The story is told in a recent episode of the excellent Criminal Podcast. If you enjoy good audio documentary I’d recommend Criminal.

This image is part of a series of photographs from the Ferguson riots shot for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography.

Congratulations to Robert Cohen and his colleagues.


Riding the San Francisco streetcar

A rough sleeper on the San Francisco streetcar.

This guy was in quite a bad way. He’d lost more than the skin off of one of his knees at some point and was wearing the sort of ground in dirt you don’t get in a few days – he’d been sleeping rough, as we euphemistically call sleeping on the cold, unforgiving ground, for some time.

Coming from London I suppose I’ve got used to seeing people sleeping rough on the streets, maybe I don’t always notice them. To a degree they’ve become part of the fabric of the city. I was far from prepared, however, for the sheer number of those inhabiting every public space in San Francisco.

Coming from London I suppose I’ve got used to seeing people sleeping rough on the streets, maybe I don’t always notice them.

Our friend here was in better health than many, he was drinking, yes, but he was lucid, he was aware of what was happening around him. So many seemed to occupy a world of their own. In some way with us and yet somewhere else at the same time. I’m sure drugs have a lot to do with it. But it seems far too easy to dismiss it as something they brought on themselves.

I had to remind myself I was on vacation in one of the wealthiest cities, in the wealthiest country in the world. This is California in the United States of America. The home of the dot com billionaire, California alone has the world’s eighth-largest economy.

Surely it can do more to help him and the hundreds like him.

Gravesend Street Portraits

I had a great couple of hour shooting some street portraits in Gravesend last Sunday. I took the opportunity to hand out some of my ‘We Are Gravesend’ flyers, hopefully I contacted with some interested participants.

If you’ve landed here after meeting me on Sunday please get in touch, I’d love you to take part in the project.

A portrait of a young couple, Steve & Adele, in Gravesend.

Steve & Adele

A portrait of Wendy on the street in Gravesend.

Wendy – who stopped even though she’d just finished her night shift

A portrait of a young woman, Isabel, in Gravesend.


Thanks to everyone who took the time to stop.

We are Gravesend : Genevieve Jones from Sierra Leone

A portrait of Gravesend resident Genny JonesIt’s such a great feeling to have finally started my personal project about my home town, Gravesend, Kent. Yesterday I had the privilege of shooting and interviewing Genevieve ‘Genny’ Jones, an inspirational woman and one of the real life-bloods of our community. If there’s a community event in Gravesend it’s likely somewhere behind it will be Genny Jones – The Confident Queen.

Genny was born in Sierra Leone and is the first, but my intention is to photograph and interview at least one person from each of the nationalities in the borough. In 2011 that numbered 40, I have no idea how many there may be now but it will be interesting finding out.

If you live in Gravesend, were born outside the UK and are interested in taking part please get in touch. However I understand not everyone welcomes immigration, it has effected the lives of residents here as it has in many towns in the UK. As I write we are five days from a General Election and immigration has featured significantly in all of the debates. If you were born in Gravesend and have lived here all of your life you’ll have seen your town change significantly in the last 20 years. I’d love to meet you and hear your views.

You can read more about the project here.

Still riding the Inspiration Roller Coaster

I wrote in my last post how I was being inspired by the podcasts of documentary radio producers talking about their work, as much as by the work itself. I’m still riding that particular inspiration roller coaster and I’m enjoying it. Earlier this week I listened to an episode of How Sound which underlined everything I’d been thinking about the power of documentary radio.

Alix Spiegel came up through the caldron of good radio storytelling that is This American Life; I’m sure some of you may be getting just a little tired of my banging on about This American Life but if you’ve listened to even one of their programmes I hope you’ll understand my infatuation. In this episode of How Sound, called Love is a Battlefield, Alix talks about her interviewing technique, how she structures questions and the incredible amount of work she puts into her ‘pre-interview’, as she refers to it. What also astonished me was the length of the interviews, she says the average interview maybe 1.5 to 4 hours. At one point she says, “I don’t think I’ve ever done an interview that’s more than 5-6 hours”! While I was listening to the programme, and since, I’ve been wondering, aside from the inspiration, ‘how can what I’m learning be applied to documentary photography’. I’m still thinking about that one, I’ve always liked the idea of accompanying images with recorded sounds, it’s just such a tricky thing to present.

In a recent programme I heard a radio producer say (sorry, I can’t remember who) that they wanted to create moments in radio where you make the listener turn to look at the radio in disbelief. I had at least one of those moments when listening to Love is a Battlefield. You can listen to the interview, which includes clips of ‘Love is a battlefield’ on the How Sound website or the original This American Life programme on their website.

Alix’s latest project is Invisibilia.

Making Documentary Radio & Photography Inspiration

An old Roberts FM radioI have, I’m aware, a tendency to get a little obsessive about things I like. I’m also aware this may get ‘a little’ boring for those around me, as I preach on the subject of my latest obsession. Which, ironically, I realise is exactly what I’m about to do here. I can’t help it. I’m so convinced that you’ll join me at the heights of appreciation, as soon as you know about ‘the thing’, that you’ll forgive the pushing and cajoling that’s caused you to relent. The current ‘thing’ is radio, not just any sort of radio but that particular form of radio documentary for which the USA is most associated.

It all started with This American Life which is a radio programme and/or podcast depending where you live. Each episode is based around a theme with generally three or four stories loosely tied to that theme. If you’re intrigued let me recommend this classic episode – I’ve done it again, I’m like a pusher, there’s no hope! Twice a week I endure a fairly long commute (about three hours each way) so I’m always looking out for new things to listen to. I can’t remember when I first heard This American Life but since that first programme I’ve been hooked.

Towards the end of 2014 the producers of This American Life made a second show, Serial. As the name suggests, Serial, is a single story told over a number of episodes. It really is very good. It shot to the top of the podcast chart and stayed there for it’s entire run. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe This American Life wasn’t a one off, there could be other shows like this waiting to be discovered. Like a man possessed I googled, download and listened. I’ll give a brief list at the end but trust me I’ve listed to a whole load of podcasts.

Somewhere at the back of my mind a thought germinated, maybe I could make a radio documentary, nothing as ambitious as This American Life, but possibly something that could compliment my documentary photography. I started listening, not only to the documentaries themselves, but also podcasts that discussed the making of the programmes. It was at this point I experienced something I’d not been aware of experiencing before. The fact that one artistic form, in this case radio, could inspire another, in my case, photography. I’m often inspired by great artists or by film and television, but they’re all visual media. This was audio inspiring a visual medium. The shear enthusiasm of these people talking about the programmes they’re making, the research they’re doing, the craft of radio inspired me as much as any Rembrandt painting or Irving Penn photograph.

An old Roberts FM radio

Once I started researching making radio I realised we have something of disadvantage in the UK; which I can only put down to that behemoth of all things media, the BBC. Before you jump to your keyboards to complain let me reassure you, I’m a huge fan of the BBC and BBC radio in particular. I’ve said before, I’d happily pay the equivalent of the Television Licence for Radio 4 alone. (note for those not in the UK: the BBC is funded by a sort of television tax with the antiquated title of the ‘Television Licence’). The issue with the BBC in this context is that it does radio so well and so extensively. We don’t have the type of disparate local public radio they have the US, because there’s just no ‘need’ – well, that’s debatable but you take my point. The US model, as I understand, isn’t so well funded and so that encourages a large number of small regional and community stations. I’m not based in the US, so excuse me if I’ve missed represented the situation. However, the upshot is, the US has a range of conferences, organisations, courses and groups encouraging documentary radio we just don’t have here in the UK.

I have found a part-time course run at UCL, but it’s the only one I’ve found in the UK so far. I’ve listed some of the US based resources which may be of interest.

* This American Life have a page with lots of related links, and have produced a book How to Make Radio.
* Ira Glass : the driving force behind This American Life
* Transom.org : runs workshops, lots of ‘how to’ articles, gear guides etc.
* Radio Diaries : make documentaries and also produced The Teen Reporter handbook

* This American Life
* Serial : podcast by the makers of This American Life
* Howsound : podcast produced by Transom, which is a mix of great audio and behind the scenes interviews
* Tape : ‘a radio show about people who make radio’ – a subtitle which doesn’t really do it justice, inspiring people talking about making good radio
* State of the Re:Union : ‘Telling the story of America, one community at a time’. I only mean it as a compliment when I say, it’s very similar to This American Life.
* Radiolab : Multi-award winning podcast which covers a range of topics. Radiolab has a particular style which I didn’t get on with, but that probably says more about me than it. I know many people would have it at the top of their lists.
* Invisabilia : ‘A look at the world you can’t see. NPR’s Invisibilia – a new show about human behavior co-hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel.’

I’m going to add to this list over time. If you know of any UK training or resources I’d really appreciate you getting in touch.