Considering its tiny size, Monaco is home to a disproportionate number of athletes. Around 60 pro cyclists alone live in Monaco, training in the kindly South of France climate (and perhaps also enjoying the principality’s kindly tax laws). As a photographer on the nearby French Riviera, I am asked from time to time to make portraits of sportspeople there. But, until recently, I had never photographed a female pro cyclist. British road racer Lizzie Deignan (formerly Armistead) was 2015 world champion and silver medallist at the London Olympics. On the verge of the release of her autobiography, a year after a drugs test storm that left her reputation in tatters, the Guardian Weekend commissioned me to make Lizzie’s portrait for a cover story.
My brief as photographer was to make a “really strong portrait with strong clean lines” of Lizzie, her bike and the sea. The picture editor referenced my series of portraits on freedivers and wanted a similar approach for this assignment. Simple? Editorial photographers rarely face shoots without any restrictions or unexpected challenges, and this commission was no different.
First, there was the question of location. The shoot had been organised at the last minute and, as permits for photographers to shoot in Monaco need advance planning, the magazine asked me to find a shoot location over the border in France (though as close as possible to Monaco) with a nice sea view. I was told that it would be helpful if there were an easily-accessible café next door, where the writer, who’d flown down to the South of France despite being on crutches, could wait to do the interview afterwards – and where I could take a second, indoor, portrait of Lizzie.
Time was also a challenge. The slot allotted to photographer and journalist was tight (and as we got nearer the date, Deignan’s team squeezed it even tighter). Achieving two portrait set-ups was looking ambitious. I proposed the Monte Carlo Bay Hotel as the main venue, as it is is located on the Monaco-France border, and would be a comfortable place for a hobbling journalist to wait. I knew too that it had plenty of indoor portrait options, and so introduced the photo editor to the hotel’s PR team to get quick photographer authorisation. But, although I knew the hotel had a beach, which could provide a handy sea-backdrop, I planned my meeting point with Lizzie elsewhere. Even if we’d have very little shoot time there, and lose many precious minutes driving back to the hotel between set-ups, I felt it was worth the risk to take a more dramatic portrait at a cliff-top spot, high above Monaco.
Drones and dog droppings
Places in which I could take the photograph that I envisaged, of girl, bike and sweeping French Riviera view, were restricted. There aren’t many flat areas above Monaco. The road to the village of La Turbie winds perilously up a steep, rocky mountainside, and it is better known as the road on which Princess Grace met her untimely death in a car accident, than a route blessed with level, green, view-gazing verges. On the day, I arrived with my assistant Lou well in advance to find a workable spot and set-up.
The ground in front of the busy carpark where we were to rendez-vous with Deignan dropped away immediately below, leaving a narrow, grassy strip where we could work. With all the strong wind coming up the cliff, sandbags would be essential to hold down my equipment (and I hoped that Lizzie would not be precious about her hairstyle). Off to camera left, a rubbish bin overflowed, and, where I would be squatting to take the photos, a large number of dogs had relieved themselves after apparently long car journeys. To the right, a group of men had staked out some territory on the rocks to male-bond and flight-test a drone. I knew that I wanted to work with a single flash and beauty dish, and Lou would block the direct light falling on Lizzie with a large Scrim Jim, but the direction the sun was moving in would soon make it impossible for Lou to get high enough and provide shade without falling off the cliff. As our 12.45 meeting time approached and the sun climbed ever higher, I knew that Lizzie’s punctuality and quick co-operation would be critical.
International Women’s Day
Mrs Deignan did not disappoint. She arrived bang on time and, with her hair tied in a simple wind-proof ponytail, was ready to get to work immediately. I explained what I wanted from her, and Lizzie understood. Her publicity agent was the only one of us who appeared to want to chat, and, once I gave her a reflector to hold, even she settled into focused silence. Four women in jobs often dominated by men, we worked quickly together, quiet and concentrated.
A few minutes later, I knew that I was happy with what I had so far, but the pressure was still on. Back in Monaco, we would have much less time to set-up the second portrait, while Lizzie changed in the hotel bathroom next door. Her small, delicate frame, quiet grace and femininity belie Lizzie’s reputation as a strident spokesperson for gender equality in the notoriously sexist world of pro cycling, and I wanted to suggest this contrast in her portrait. When I learned she planned to wear pink, I chose the rich, strong background of a wall in the Blue Bar for her picture, using gender colour stereotypes to my advantage.
It wasn’t until we had packed up and driven away, that Lou told me it was International Women’s Day. Not a bad way to celebrate it, we figured…