I was intrigued at the notion of ethnography. Introduced to the idea as a form of alternative research, for a communications student majoring in marketing, it was a breath of fresh air. A means of research that abandons formalities, gathering neither qualitative nor quantitative data, but raw insights into issues and environments, offering information only to be dreamt of. I understand ethnography as a process of observation and thought, using our own experience and ability to wonder to reach greater understandings. Ethnography is bigger than surveys and interviews and focus groups. It is a looking glass that reveals the misunderstood and the things that go unquestioned.
Autoethnography? Aside from the subtle reference to the industry we are about to dissect, it offers an opportunity for introspection, to reflect on our most inattentive aspects. Only an autoethnography will speculate from personal experience, things that may go amiss when interviewed or surveyed. The data you would not think to contribute to a statistic or a study.
This opinion-piece of sorts, details my experience and role as a photographer. Although much of this experience relates to many fields dabbled in, this autoethnography will prove an analysis of the environment one encounters when working as a sports photographer, specifically when breaking into and onto, the motorsport scene.
My understanding of what sports photography centres on was raised on years of photography and art classes, a heightened perception of what is shared and gains traction online as a media user, and by my high involvement participation in motorsport. Photographers at motorsport events churn out wonderful photographs of high-speed, incredibly cropped photographs, capturing the speeding beasts in all their glory.
Photographs traditionally worshipped in the industry are fast-paced, capturing the sheer movement of the cars at a particular turn, framing a duel between a feisty pack, or capturing an identically-framed photo of each car in each category on each corner, to sell later of course.
These are the photos drivers, teams and support expect from these huge lenses on the hill. It is what’s expected. It is a genre of it’s own, and takes skill and funds to master, but it can be done. It requires impeccable timing and movement, and a perception of spots of interest around the track: spots that must be staked out long before the herd of single arm tripods and grey lenses see you in situ.
I spent my childhood growing up around the circuit, with my brother surely following in my father’s footsteps. We travelled often, and it was grand. It set the course for the rest of my life, still at the track now in my 20’s, working for teams here and there and even integrated into my university education. Growing up in pitt lane, there is much more to what is televised of F1 and Supercars. There is triumph, camaraderie, heartache, adrenaline and joy. Although it is what gets them there, there is much more than sheer speed.
There is travelling to remote and barren tracks, lush hills and steep treks. There is hours of work lying under oily cars and 3am starts and 12pm lunch breaks. There is a hive of activity come track weekend, all for the capturing. Aside from the odd track portrait and arty garage shot, many of my photographs are framed to capture as much of the landscape as possible. I aim to capture the racers exactly how the anxious teammates and I see them from where we stand, each weekend with a new and alternate location. I can justify. Take a two cropped and high-speed photographs of the same racer in the same car on alternating weekends. The angle might be different, but you would never know that one photograph was his debut race on his home circuit, the other his winning last lap conquering the mountain? How would you know?
Of course, there are risks associated. I can promote breaking tradition all I like; it might not change a thing. It might not encourage anyone to step outside his or her photographic box. The danger of doing it differently leaves my work open for criticism and possibly invalidates the work at all. The real danger of doing it differently? Stumbling upon something unique: something different, and something that breaks through the clutter. Sure, I may or may not even enjoy this style in a year’s time, but I may have stumbled upon something else.
Knowing this, I still live in limbo. Every meet, I question whether I should continue the practice. A constant fight to conform and succeed. Regardless all one can do is strive to succeed. I risk the potential of being hired and having my photographs shared and enjoyed, but I must first enjoy my own practice before I can share it with others. A creative soul, I hope to never end seeking the perfect shot, risks included. Contracted work is another can of worms, one whereby you are respecting a clients wishes, however when one has the room to stretch, what harm could it do?
I guess this begs the question not only for myself, but also for the industry as a whole: is there room for expression in motorsport photography? Has the art transformed into a commercial beast or is this a creative construct that can be broken? There are no legally binding rules or regulations restricting photographers who are not bound by contract, especially considering how many teams have migrated to a reliance on in-house content creation. What separates the high visibility vested camera wielder in front of the spectating fence and the dad with their entry-level DSLR’s behind? There is definitely room for exploration.
The industry isn’t consciously secluding a particular style of sport’s photography considering there really are no policies in place restricting photographers, which makes me wonder: is this mentality at the hands of the teams and drivers sharing and using the photographs? I still am yet to see my brother acknowledge a single photograph of my own, all free for him to use. Every time, without fail, he will select another photographers high-speed, closely cropped standard picture of him racing. Maybe it’s personal, but I am still willing to break standard and make it a selfish practice, in order to keep producing creative, and quality work.