There’s no greater misconception in photography than that it’s the gear that makes the photographer (Just ask Damon Winter). In the hands of a skilled shooter, even the iPhone 4’s camera can make compelling images.
During this year’s Tour De France, an event silly with photo pros trying to make a living, photojournalist and documentarian Gregg Bleakney took the opportunity to experiment with using his iPhone to capture the experience as he saw it. No more following the herd trying to get the same shot that everyone else was getting.
Wired.com caught up by e-mail with Bleakney in China to find out why he pursued the project and what it was like working without his DSLR in tow.
Wired.com: So what gave you the idea for the project?
Gregg Bleakney: I’d just come off an assignment at the Giro d’Italia where I was able to negotiate great photographic access and was keen to do something similar at the Tour de France. But I quickly discovered that the media environment at the Tour was an entirely different animal than the Giro — there was almost always a massive scrum of photographers jostling to make pictures of the same “behind the scenes” moments in credentialed press and team areas.
As an emerging photographer, I feel like I should always push hard to separate my work from everyone else’s, and I started to look for another way to cover the event. I was really blown away by the energy and spectator culture outside of the restricted-entry press areas at the start and finish lines of the race; the occasional moments when athletes leave their security perimeter to interact with fans, the security perimeter itself, and with the spectators interacting with each other. So I decided to spend several stages working outside of credentialed areas without a press pass and jokingly dubbed this my “Totally Not Behind the Scenes at the Tour de France” project.
Wired.com: What, if any, obstacles were you faced with while working on it?
Bleakney: Many of the fans were making pictures at the Tour de France with their mobile phones, so I decided that I should do the same if I really wanted to embrace this “NOT behind the scenes” culture. I’d never used an iPhone camera seriously before, and it took some time to get used to both the shutter delay and composing without a viewfinder.
Also, when betting nearly a week of my time and money on a personal project at a major event like the Tour de France, I was constantly battling my herding instinct and internal monolog chatter like, “OK, so I’m NOT going to sprint into that privileged access area to photograph Cadel Evans, or the Schlecks, or some of the other key athletes involved in one of the most competitive Tour de France battles in history, like all of the other photographers — photos which I know that I could sell. Instead I’m going loiter in the spectators’ area to shoot some kids waiting for autographs that no editor will likely ever buy? Why am I doing this again?”
But I stuck with the project idea and used couch-surfing and other social-media travel tools that week to keep my costs down.
Wired.com: How do you feel about documentary work in today’s climate?
Bleakney: I find it absolutely thrilling to be a documentary photographer right now — there’s no better gig in the world for me. Potential outlets for thoughtful photo essays are nearly infinite, and there are incredible opportunities to distribute work that’s executed at a high level to a global audience.
Social media has allowed me to collectively learn and grow with other photographers who are sharing their work and ideas. With that being said, new (post-stock or traditional print media) revenue models are not fully established, and it can be more challenging than in the past to monetize good picture stories — but I have confidence that these things will work themselves out for photographers who really want it.
Wired.com: Where are you currently based and what are you working on?
Bleakney: I’m based in Seattle. I’m working on a long-term project about the sport of cycling’s new global frontiers and have spent time in Colombia, India and China this year, photographing several new events sponsored by the UCI (the sport’s governing body) to encourage growth of the sport outside of Europe and the West.
It’s been fascinating to witness how, for many Western cultures, it’s become so in-vogue to use the bicycle rather than a car as an urban commuting tool, while citizens of the growing economies in Asia and the developing world (who represent the majority of world’s cyclists) are abandoning bicycles in favor of combustion-fueled transportation. I’m also working on a story about a black market smuggling operation taking place in Olympic National Park.
All photos: Gregg Bleakney