My Mind’s Eye.
“Iri, can you jump out and shoot this?”
It was Friday, with only three stages of the Tour de France remaining, and we were gradually making our way along the serpentine descent of the Col du Glandon early in the race. I remember thinking the hairpins were sublime, tightly coiled, with narrow grassy embankments, and without barriers to mar the roadside: we should have shot the descent instead of the summit – Jim’s words echoing inside our car.
I couldn’t have agreed more. How majestic; especially without campers and cars and banners and all kinds of distraction. Just the unadulterated image of the peloton swirling downwards. These are the musings that happen constantly – as a professional photographer – imaginary shots, missed moments, the strive for scenes that may or may not ever materialize.
And then, broken from an internal reverie, we spot several race caravan cars stopped ahead in the next turn, and slow down to a crawl. A crash. A rider, still on the ground. Medics. Team car. Jim was driving, I was in the backseat with all the cameras strewn about. “Iri, can you jump out and shoot this?”
And here’s the next thought: me?
As I make haste to grab the two most reasonable lenses I could use, the question I ask myself is should I regret that single millisecond of hesitation… or should I honor it? An inquiry that clearly plagues me still.
In seconds I’m out of the car, slipping through parked cars, and scrambling under a low, wire electric fence. I’m not the first photographer there – I immediately spot about six, along with the team mechanic, Alex, several official race medics, and a video guy – although not TV. This, I notice.
Things are moving in gelatinous slow motion and at the speed of light. And it’s eerily quiet, only murmurs and whispers, like crickets in the grass. I start taking photos before I know what’s happened, as I’m thinking what happened? how bad is it… is his leg broken… his jaw…will he be ok? These are jumbled thoughts, half-thoughts, that flutter in my periphery and try to make themselves invisible. They have little place here, in this moment, or rather purpose. I’m here to do my job, like everyone else.
Some of the other photographers move in much closer than I do, and without judgment, I think that’s so close, is it too close, should I get that close? What is the fine line between doing your job, documenting the moment, and… invasion? How can you know if you’ve violated an unspoken space around the rider and those helping him? Am I a vulture?
Another photographer close to me asks, too loudly, who is that? I mumble under my breath that I’m not sure. I think it’s Jack Bauer of Garmin-Sharp but I can’t imagine saying so and being wrong. Somehow that feels like sacrilege. I move away and slide through the grass along the gentle slope to look at the scene. Alex is leaning in to Jack with an almost imperceptible bubble between them. I know him, he’s a bit of a bruiser – one of those good tough guys – and I lose my breath at the impossible gentleness of his gaze and touch, reassuring Jack that he’s not alone.
I know that riders endure all sorts of physical extremes while racing: chronic fatigue, muscle aches, old and new injuries, chaffing, blisters, exposure to sun, cold, wind. And so, when they crash it could be hard to know, from outward appearances, how bad they are injured. Their tolerance for pain is, well, developed. There could also be some stoicism mixed in – depending on the character of the athlete – after all, we’ve seen riders pedal out another 100k with broken collarbones, torn ligaments, and burning road rash. It’s impossible, further still, to measure the mental endurance they master.
So, when I glance back at Jack’s face through the viewfinder and zoom in, I am humbled to see his emotion. With his hand pressed across his mouth and jaw, bloody abrasions on his brow, bits of gravel glued to sweat… I see a tear slither down his cheek. It breaks my heart. I get my last shots and head back to the car, jump in, and say Ok, got it, let’s go. Jim asks Are you ok?
I know I have tears flooding up in my eyes. I know Jim can see my emotional response to the moment. Everyone knows I’m a bit of a softie. But, here’s the irony – I’m not squeamish. It’s not the blood or grit or any imaginings of worse injuries that gets me. It’s the humanity. The vulnerability. And the tenderness of the moment.
Any crash where the rider cannot get back on the bike is a bad one. This is a bad crash but not a life-threatening one. Yet in that instant, as a photographer, can we really know that? Yes, there are moments race photographers have been in when – perhaps – that was debatable, perhaps they knew how bad the crash was… or perhaps they just did their job and got the shot. I wonder about my own role in these moments that cannot be taken back; immortalized in images of our own perception. Knowing myself, I may never stop wondering… but perhaps for now that wondering is tribute enough.