Q&A with PIERRE VAN DER SPUY compiled by LIZAR VAN REENEN
Nobody could do the “Blue Steel” look better than extreme sports photographer Pierre van der Spuy! That was my immediate thought upon meeting this down-to-earth silver bearded man a few years ago. Soon after, I learnt that Pierre was no ordinary sports photographer – he is an explorer of note with a keen eye for detail and constantly in search of an adventurous expedition. I chatted to Pierre to find out a bit more about his photography experience behind the adrenalin pumping scenes.
YOU ARE THE OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHER FOR THE SOUTH AFRICAN GRAVITY RACING ASSOCIATION (SAGRA). HOW DID YOU INITIALLY GET INVOLVED WITH THE DOWNHILL SKATEBOARDING CULTURE? I started photographing downhill skateboarding in 2008. After seeing an ad for the Hot Heels Africa Championship, and remembering the Red Bull Kloofnek races from earlier years, I packed my camera and headed out to Kogelberg for the race. At the time I had no connection with SAGRA or any riders. I only went there because I thought it would make for some epic images to start adding to my small portfolio at the time. For the first 2 years I just turned up at the races and then tried to sell the photos after the event. In 2011 SAGRA was restructured and they approached me to be their official photographer.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL WORK DAY ENTAIL WHEN SHOOTING A DOWNHILL EXTREME SKATEBOARDING COMPETITION? It starts the day before the race doing all the normal pre-prod tasks like charging batteries for the camera, speedlights, Pocket Wizards, digital set-up, cleaning lenses and checking other gear such as light stands, tripods and clamps. If however, it is a multi-day event, camping gear and the likes need to be packed and sorted. Buying snacks to eat while shooting, because once the racing starts there’s not much time to leave the track. When I arrive at the race the first thing I do is find parking that is convenient for quick access to do downloads and change gear. Before the racing starts I walk the track to familiarise myself with the course, the angles and lens distances. During this walk I plan the day’s shoot in my head. Where I will be at what specific time not to miss important stages. Things happen very quickly with downhill racing and there is very little time to frame and plan shots once the action starts. I try to capture a wide selection of images that visually captures the event, race, culture, intensity and extreme nature of the sport. The working environment is pretty harsh as is the case with most outdoor photography. You have to deal with wind, dust, sun, rain and deliver the best images possible.
WITH THE RIDERS GOING AT SUCH INSANE SPEEDS, DO YOU EVER WORRY ABOUT GETTING IN THEIR WAY? The photography is physically demanding and involves a fair amount of walking, dodging riders as they lose control and hit the hay bales, carrying equipment up and down the hill. If you want to get magic shots you need to position yourself in interesting and sometimes precarious locations. I have lost a fair amount of equipment from either flying boards or riders leaving the asphalt at insane speeds. You have to be alert and ready to move. The sport is extremely fast and when riders fly around the corners at speeds approaching 80km/h, you stand the chance of losing more than your dignity.
HAVE SEEN YOUR DOWNHILL SKATEBOARDING IMAGES FROM A FEW YEARS BACK YET YOUR MORE RECENT PHOTOGRAPHS LOOKS SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT. WHAT CHANGED? To set myself apart from all the other photographers capturing the races, I have spent time (and obviously money) to develop my own signature style. It involves off-camera strobe flashes, remotely triggered, and light set-ups and angles that I have developed specifically for the different tracks. I didn’t start that way. First it was only a camera and lenses. Now I carry a much larger arsenal of equipment. It makes the task more complicated and involved, but the results are obvious and it was this effort and attention to detail that opened the door to becoming the official photographer for the gravity association. I believe it’s important to find a niche, a speciality, and get really good. The sport of downhill skateboarding is growing at a phenomenal pace with new events/races being organised all over the country. I really hope to be photographing international races in the near future, specifically the ones in the Alps and Canada. The appointment as the official SAGRA photographer is already a step closer to this goal.
AT WHICH POINT IN YOUR LIFE DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY ? It was while working for an outdoor/sport clothing manufacturer photographing the clothing and sports related to the apparel they manufactured. This led photographing other sport equipment and profiling athletes for specific brands. I have always been drawn to extreme sports and photographing athletes at the top of their game has always been something I enjoyed. Freezing a moment that can’t be seen with the human eye, capturing a split second in time, being at the right place at the right time, those are all elements that have kept me involved with extreme sport photography. You have to really enjoy it because it’s not easy work.
BELIEVE YOU LIVED IN THE CARIBBEAN FOR A BIT. WHAT WERE YOU DOING THERE? In 2010 I was offered a job at a photographic agency in the British Virgin Islands to photograph yachts under sail in a variety of scenarios. I covered international regattas, private yachts and general water sports at the resort such as wind surfing, kite boarding and hobie cats. I had to quickly learn to balance and shoot from a 13ft inflatable while with the other hand throttling and steering the 20hp Yamaha outboard. It took at least 2 months before I felt confident on this fluid environment as well as the quality of images. Photographing when everything is constantly on the move, makes framing the subject challenging and staying on the boat is priority number one. I spent a year on the island of Virgin Gorda, honing my photographic and free-diving skills. Why did I ever leave?
YOU DID A LAKE MALAWI EXPEDITION IN A KAYAK OVER 101 DAYS. WHAT WAS THE INITIAL REASON FOR DOING THIS EXPEDITION? In 2004 Ravi Gajjar and myself wanted to do something no one has done before, including ourselves. An unsupported expedition in single kayaks, packed with food, tents and hope. The reason was the challenge, the fun, the travel, the unknown and an adventure like no other . We became the first people to completely circumnavigate Lake Malawi with kayaks. It was a journey of 1300km (101 days) that combined all the aspects of a true adventure. Naturally this type of expedition is not without hardship and we had our fair share of headaches and hurdles . The experience however changed us both forever. Having a life reference such as this has been a type of measuring tape for challenges and it has been essential in building a career in photography, especially as a freelancer where certain character traits are very handy. I believe the Malawi expedition definitely shaped, formed and strengthened these.
WITH EXPEDITIONS, ADVENTURE AND SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY ASIDE, WHAT OTHER PROJECTS DO YOU OCCUPY YOURSELF WITH? I document artists’ work and enjoy the challenge to make the artist appreciate his/her work in a new light. My favourite work to this point has been the botanical sculptures created by Nic Bladen. Together with my partner, Teresa Fischer (writer), we produce magazine articles which usually involve travel or destination specific work. Our most recent article features in the next issue of go!Platteland. Reportage photography is something I’m still working on and will continue to refine my style and approach to this genre. I would love to publish an essay in National Geo or Intelligent Life as I have a few special projects in mind. And finally, last year I started a new project doing animal portraiture in a very specific style. The lighting is extremely subtle and modelled on the techniques of the revered painters. Think Rembrandt, dark and moody, with light brushing the surface of the subject. The portraits are true representations of the animal, not cute or lovable portraits, but in this honesty lies the magic. It aims to document the animal in true size, proportion and texture and serves as a type of artistic archive.
AN EXPEDITION PHOTOGRAPHER; EXTREME SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHER OR A COMMERCIAL STUDIO SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHER. IF YOU COULD CHOOSE ONLY ONE, WHICH ONE WILL IT BE? As explained, all these avenues of photography have shaped how I view photography and how I capture images. In reality I wouldn’t want to wave goodbye to any of these. But if I had to choose only one of the above mentioned, I would have to follow my passion for travel and exploration…. expedition photographer thanks. At most, I enjoy spending days in nature, capturing landscapes and creating panoramics. I think it’s more the space I seek with this type of photography rather than the end product. Backpack, tripod and time.