“As a photographer one strives to be able to have your photographs touch other people and make them feel something.” – Rankin
That's it. That's exactly it. Every time I press the shutter release, that's what I'm thinking. Why else would a photographer photograph?
Easy for me, right? A simple task for a guy who's ridiculously fortunate to travel the globe and photograph a sport he adores? Well, yes, I am living a dream and always will be very aware that I lead a very privileged life – but ‘easy’? Not so much!
Working as a professional freelance photographer in modern-day Formula 1 is a constant challenge, a myriad of ever-evolving trials to which one has to both anticipate and react to in order to stay – ideally – one step ahead of the competition.
Retaining clients, quoting to new ones, garnering knowledge of next year's F1 calendar (so as to beat the opportunistic money-grabbing excesses of the travel industry), booking hotels, paying for flights, travelling to this year's races, jet lag, missing loved ones, dealing with the tiresome and often utterly pointless tediousness of officialdom, feeding one's website with pictures and – of course – writing blogs! Most importantly of the lot, obviously, covering the current race to the best of one's abilities. #FirstWorldProblems all, and please understand, I neither seek nor expect one ounce of sympathy...
I'm merely giving you a brief insight into a few of the things that occupy the time of a professional freelance photographer shooting F1.
You see, I'm regularly asked and encouraged to impart some of what I know.
Not a week goes by without a handful of emails ringing the inbox bell, as aspiring young – and not so young! – F1 photographers request advice on how they can get an ‘in’ to the world I know so well.
I always try – apologies if I missed yours – to reply with helpful pointers of how best to proceed. It's obvious, really, at least to me, but then I'm getting on a bit and certainly don't have the mindset of a young dude just out of education or bored with their job.
If I may venture one observation without seeming unkind, it’s that often an almost complete lack of patience, along with the expectation of instant gratification, comes across in the prose of those seeking guidance.
A request may read thus: “I'm a little fed up with my job at Costco, so, since I've just bought a camera and I like Formula 1, can you tell me how to get a pass and shoot at a race?”
Well my young friend, it's not quite as easy as that, or at least it shouldn't be. My own journey began with untold trips to Brands Hatch, driven by bags of enthusiasm, with camera gear and film purchases funded by a Saturday job at a local camera shop (£1 per hour – no ‘living wage’ to help me!) and my supportive ol’ man.
Portfolio in hand and hopeful stars in my eyes, I headed to North London three days after the 1987 Austrian Grand Prix. Knocking on the front door of top F1 snapper John Townsend, I hoped he'd look favourably upon my cold-calling chutzpah and tell me how to be like him. Two hours later I left the local pub with a notepad packed with useful names and numbers. JT was a diamond and I'll always be indebted to his kindness and generosity.
Six months later and I'd got my chance at the then-premier F1 photo agency – as a junior black-and-white printer. 27-and-a-half years later and here I am, still living – and loving – my dream.
So my advice to young hopefuls is to make the means justify the end, not vice versa. Formula 1 doesn’t owe you a pass, or a living, just because you love it. Shoot local car club events, visit classic car meets, go to a hillclimb or three, or photograph some club rallies; DON'T just try to buy or blag your way into the F1 paddock and work out what to do once there.
Get good at shooting, fill a creative portfolio, and potential employers will see your talent. You'll likely climb the ladder faster and will certainly enjoy a longer career. That's how it should be, but in our present era of the bogus sense of entitlement, there’s fat chance of that – and, to be honest, who can blame those who think they can short-cut the process?
Get yourself a cheap – and consequently cheap-looking – template website, call yourself a suitably naff sounding photo/F1/pix/nonsense name, apply for accreditation and you’re in. Once you've arrived, offer your boring, predictable, technically undistinguished and repetitive pix (sic) to anyone who wants 'em, and away you go. Don't worry about fees – you'll probably be happy to do it for nothing anyway! – because as everyone knows, photography is for free, isn't it?
European grands prix in particular are now awash with chancers who are enthusiastic amateurs rather than professional photographers. They distort the market – and rob themselves – by giving their work away for free, then when their savings run out (or the flyaways begin) they disappear as quickly as they arrived, leaving just a miasma of disappointment in their wake.
Just in case any wannabe F1 journalists are reading this, you're in luck! It's even easier for you, as evinced by the desks full of here-today-gone-tomorrow scribblers ‘working’ for websites whose names sound as if they’ve been drawn from a hat. Cut-and-paste and away you go – after all, just being in F1 is the important thing, right?
Okay, I'm having a rant and you'll think me high-browed and high on my own supply, but I'm just telling it like it is.
Of course the sport – as is the case with any business – needs new and fresh talent to drive it forwards. But, ultimately, no one is well served by an instant-gratification mindset, especially when the system tacitly encourages it without ever providing concrete rewards.
Enjoy your time in F1 my newbie 'friend'.
Just don't get in my way…