Last weekend, the greatest cycle race in the world kicked off for the 108th time. The Tour de France may not be passing through the French Riviera (it started in Nice last year), but I’ll certainly be tuning in to watch today’s top cyclists battle it out over the 3,400 km route. The famous yellow jersey is not the only colour that counts, I’ll also be looking out for the man in green – the best sprinter of Le Tour. Sam Bennett had to withdraw from the race this year due to injury, but last year he held the title, which was especially sweet since green is the colour of his home country, Ireland.
I was the photographer chosen to make Sam’s portrait for the cover of British magazine ProCycling this spring. Quite a few professional cyclists live in Monaco and I’ve had the privilege of photographing the likes of Chris Froome, Caleb Ewan, Lizzie Deignan and Jakob Fuglsang there, but this was the first time that I’d asked a cyclist to wave deodorant cans around a small room.
makeshift photography studio
During the editor-photographer briefing prior to the shoot, we agreed that outdoors would probably be the only possible location for Sam’s portrait. Finding a quiet place on a public street where I could set up my studio flash lights with portable battery power, in front of the clean, plain grey background required by art direction, would be tricky at the best of times (all the more so in Monaco, given the added complications of strict photography rules there) – but in the current Covid context, we weren’t sure what alternatives would be workable. Subjects are mostly no longer willing to invite photographers into their homes, and photographic studio spaces are closed.
When I called Sam however, I realised that he lives in the same building in Monaco as his sprinter friend Caleb Ewan (who I photographed last year), and I immediately remembered the light and airy carpark below the apartment block. I put the idea of shooting the portrait there to Sam, and he came back minutes later with an even better solution. He and his wife, Tara, kindly agreed that my assistant and I could set up in his training room at the back of their apartment. The walls were white and bare, we wouldn’t be disturbed, and, with the door to the terrace open, there would be plenty of fresh air. Equipment and weights were pushed to one side and, although it was a tight squeeze, the space made for a pretty good makeshift studio for the kind of soft lighting I needed.
Magazine editor Sophie was keen to work the green theme all the way for this cover, and the news she’d received from Sam’s PR people that he shouldn’t wear the Tour de France green jersey on the shoot was a bit of a blow. However, on arrival at Sam’s, I glimpsed a tower of green jerseys through an open doorway. The top sprinter doesn’t just have one: for every day that he tops the leaderboard during Le Tour, the rider is given several emerald tops for changes throughout the day. Over several days, the pile quickly mounts up. Surely a solution could be found? Sam made a call to his team’s press person and Voilà! we got the green light (boom, boom) for him to wear one after all.
smoke and mirrors
The concept for the cover was that Sam would be shown waving a smoke bomb around, in a just-won-the-race, victorious manner, with green smoke filling the page around him. Now an editorial photographer can’t be expected to let off smoke bombs, an act probably, in itself, illegal in Monaco, and doing so inside a home could have catastrophic results. Instead, Sam and I would work with a deodorant can and our active imaginations, leaving the magazine’s art direction to do the rest.
Sam’s wife was quite tickled by the idea. Likening it to graffiti for rebellious attention-grabbers, she said that smoke bomb waving couldn’t be any further away from her neat, law-abiding husband’s nature. They’d known each other in school and she was happy to remind Sam that the closest he’d ever got to graffiting anything was writing his name on the inside of his pencil case. As she talked, Sam took the deodorant can I’d brought, waved it around, and indeed looked uncomfortable.
But we weren’t going to do the job half-heartedly. “The thing is, how do you fire a smoke bomb, really? How do you hold it, how do you feel?” Out came his smartphone and Sam opened Google images for research purposes. A few minutes later, he was clear. “Right, here’s the thing. I need 2 deodorants” (Tara produced 2 identical cans from the bathroom). “And I need to hold them like this.” He may not have waved them, but Sam quickly nailed his own smoke bomb look. In the final shot, ‘smoke bombing’ appears to come as naturally to him as, well, riding a bike.
After we’d done the cover portrait, I had outdoor, environmental portraits to take for the inside pages, and I decided it was time for green to be ditched in favour of other colours. Sam is not a fan of green at all, preferring to wear blues and greys. He doesn’t even eat green vegetables by choice. My assistant Honor and I headed down the hill to a small park nearby, and we set up under a covered walkway, ahead of Sam, who had changed and came down the hill on a rather glorious electric bike (one with so much poke that he has put a speed limiter on it).
In a sprint, the difference between winning and losing can be measured in millimeters, and they say that sprinters need to be fast, fearless and furious to survive. I assumed that Sam, this year boasting the greatest number of wins of any sprinter worldwide at the time of the photoshoot, must have these character traits in spades – none easy for a photographer to work with. Yet, although confident, Sam was extremely laid-back. I made a range of daylight portraits and informal photographs for this 9-page feature: Sam was happy and accommodating throughout.
Back in London, the magazine’s skilled photoshopper did a great job of converting the anti-perspirant cans into smoke bombs and drawing oodles of green smoke around Sam: the editor was delighted with our result:
“I hope you like how it all turned out – we love it, I think the cover is one of the best we’ve done in a long time and the finished look is exactly what we were hoping for. The pics all look great.”
Thanks Sam, and I hope you’ll be back to winning action in Le Tour de France next year…
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