As portrait photographer, I tend to briefly Google my subjects before a shoot. Unusually this time, I paid attention to other popular search terms previously used for this celebrity. In the Top 5, “What languages does she speak?” and “What does she eat?” seemed suprisingly mundane questions to ask, in the light of this woman’s achievements. Paula Radcliffe is a British long distance runner, considered to be one of the greatest ever endurance athletes. Once, among various world titles, and the Queen liked her so much she made her a
ommissioned by People magazine (USA) for their Health edition, and the feature required a range of set-ups – all ideally in an outdoor setting. I, my assistant and hair and make-up artist Sophie, met Paula at her weekend home in Eze, close to her weekday home in Monaco. I’ve worked with several Monaco-based athletes (see portraits of Lizzie Deignan or Nico Rosberg) and I generally find them great subjects. Paula, relaxed, fit and sunny, was no exception.
The same could not be said of the weather, though. Skies were not fitting the South of France cliché at all. Harsh sun alternated with dark cloud and heavy showers, creating circumstances that make an editorial portrait photographer’s job – especially using big, mains-operated lights – difficult. We set up outdoors, but rain abruptly drove us in, and I kept the first pictures simple (‘white backdrop’ being the brief’s back-up plan). Large canvases of coloured circles dominated many of the walls, and I asked if we could take one down. “Gladly,” said Paula. “They’re my husband’s. Painting them helps him manage stress. It’d be nice for him to do another shape sometimes though…” We horsed around with some flowers, a nod to her occasionally pollen-triggered asthma.
At last, the showers stopped. The sky was cloudy, everything outside was wet and I was concerned that the immaculate waves in Paula’s hair would drop. But Sophie assured me that her hair spray was as strong as concrete, and we headed out. As is the way on wet South of France lawns, mosquitoes were gathering for a post rain bloodbath, but Paula didn’t seem bothered, and I learned that taking B vitamin supplements apparently keeps them well away (even if your wee goes orange).
Paula happily perched on a chair in her bare feet, carried an armchair across the lawn and was unphased when asked to put her nose into a cluster of roses. Diagnosed with asthma at 13, Paula explained that the condition is always there, but it is something that she learned to live with, manage, and not be afraid of. I wonder whether this obliquely helped her to cope with the pressures of world champion performance too. She said she didn’t remember feeling much stress around her competitions – the one exception being when she was expected to perform after an injury. “You train for years for the Olympics. When I was the favourite, I had an injury a few weeks before. You can’t take any shortcuts to healing, and that got me pretty worked up”
The last item on the shoot list was ‘Paula in action’, and People magazine had asked me to photograph her exercising with her family. Plucky 12-year-old son Raph was up for trekking up the rocky path to the summit of Mount Bastide nearby, to indulge a photographer. I had already done a recce there earlier that morning, and knew the views were good. The sky was not blue, nor was the French Riviera looking its best, but a vertiginous cliff at the top gave an interesting backdrop to the photographs. I felt somewhat concerned about Raph’s nonchalant proximity to the drop, but his mother remained quite relaxed, so I made a portrait of them there. I wondered if Ralph’s choice of socks – sporting a cannabis leaf print – would preclude his pictures being printed, but it turned out that the photo editor either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
The way back down was slow. Paula’s new hair-sprayed-to-concrete-strength ponytail needed no further attention, but Sophie had joined us for make-up touch-ups, and with an old ankle injury and a lack of familiarity with off-pavement walking, she was well out of her comfort zone on the mountainside. Paula was both patient and thoughtful, and in excellent French (if that answers at least one Google enquiry), reassured Sophie. She taught her to zig zag down the steep path, rather than walk in a straight line, and quickly defused Sophie’s anxiety. Paula’s calm, easygoing attitude was clearly infectious. As she had said earlier, when I’d asked her about the pressure of her career as an athlete, “It’s only sport, after all.”
> See Portrait portfolio