Interview with Tutti Fotografi

I just finished up an interview with Paolo Namias of Tutti Fotografi, one of the biggest Italian photography trade magazine websites, that is running a piece on the World Press Photo Winners from this year. If you speak Italian you can read the interview here http://www.fotografia.it/home.aspx for the rest of you English-speaking folks the interview is below. This will probably answer a lot of the questions I received on how I prepped for this long day on the Big Island…If you have any other queries or comments please don’t hesitate ask!

TP: In which situation did you shoot the awarded photo?

I was awarded for a picture story on the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, the premier triathlon event. Considered one of the most grueling races in the world, competitors must endure crosswinds over 45 mph, 95 degree temperatures in the lava fields and a scorching sun in completing a 3.86 km swim, 180.2 km bike, and a 42.2 km marathon within an 17 hour time cutoff to be called an “Ironman”. I shot the race back in 2000 for Allsport Photography, enjoyed it immensely and have always wanted to go back and do a proper story on it.

TP: Did your reportage require a long preparation?

I thought about how I wanted to cover the race for nine years after covering it for the first time, so most of the preparation involved the logistics in the shot-making and travel to Hawaii as well. I wanted to shoot the mass start of the race as I did from the water with my underwater housing but there were some above water shots of the start that I felt I needed in the story as well. The water start with nearly 2,000 competitors from all walks of life is something to behold, so I set up remotely fired cameras around the docks and bay before sunrise to shoot so I could have multiple angles while shooting in the water with my hand held waterhousings. So at 5am, I set one camera on the TV tower above the start, which I hoped would show the mass of people entering the water from a elevated graphic angle. Little did I know that the 16-35mm lens I used for this camera had impact damage on the trip over so the plane of focus was a little off, but it accidentally worked in my favor giving the photo an almost a tilt-shift throwback feel to it. Another camera was placed directly behind the start focused on all the competitors heads and a third was placed on the dock for the classic start shot with the sunrise and boat in the background; both of these angles didn’t make the final edit into the story. All cameras were fired on pocket wizard transceivers set on intervalometer mode firing a frame every several seconds.

After I set up these cameras with large CF cards to handle all the throw away frames it was nearly 6am and only an hour from the start of the race, so I quickly changed into my wetsuit and scuba gear, grabbed my underwater housings. I swam out about 300m into the bay where the water was deep enough (about 20m) that I could get a good angle of the start from an underwater perspective directly under them without interfering with the race at all. Unfortunately, I had ruptured my eardrum the day before while on a night manta ray dive with a friend, so it made the descent down to the bottom a little more painful than usual with a blood coming from my ear and mouth to chum the water. I sat at the bottom for about a half hour watching little fish swim by, then at 7am the start horn went off and I shot the pack swimming out from deep angle and then kicked in and shot them swimming back over the coral reef and exiting the water (both of these frames made the set).

After the last large pack of competitors finished their swim, I quickly collected all my cameras, with the exception of the one on the TV tower which I flipped to the other side of the tower to catch the finish line from above and switched the lens to a 50mm. It was good that I left this camera up as it captured a nice moment of Chrissie Wellington breaking the 16 year-old course record about 8 hours later. I dumped all my extra cameras in the media center, changed out of the water gear and into shorts and a shirt and lathered on the sunscreen. My bike driver, who was the same person who drove me 9 years prior (and ironically like myself had not done a race since), picked me up on her chopper outside of the media center. I had two cameras on my shoulders, a helmet and hung onto her for dear life as we tried our best to catch up with the lead pack. Luckily for me, I scouted the course the day before I noted places where I would stop along the long stretch Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway to shoot things like the dinosaur lava sculpture and the rock signs along the way.

After taking photos on the bike for about 45 minutes, we parked the bike at the helipad, which was at about the halfway point of the bike, and boarded a chartered helicopter I had reserved for a one-hour flight. I had them take off one door and harness me in so I could shoot over the landing gear and directly down to the ground below. There was pretty much one shot that I wanted to capture from above and it was the lava fields on Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway where locals have made signs with bleached rocks for love ones who have passed away or for words of encouragement for competitors. I got one frame I was happy with, when a sole biker passed through an area with lots of signs, as I hung out the helicopter hovering 200ft above the ground.

Before I knew it the flight was over and we landed, jumped on the bike and tried to intercept the bikers on their way back to the transition area to start their run. I was able to hit a couple of them on a nice long stretch of road where they popped out of the heat mirage on the ground like it was liquid. At this point it was already mid-afternoon and I was getting very tired and hungry. So my bike driver and I made a quick pit-stop at a food station along Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, refueled on some burgers, pineapples and water, then jumped back on the bike to shoot the marathon.

Most of the marathon shots happen along Ali’i Drive right next to the beach, where I got a nice frame of a competitor shot through a rock wall; also further down the course near the power station where since there are less fans there it a much more bleak feel to it. I pretty much followed the leaders for most of the marathon and broke off with about 10 miles left to ensure I had a finish line position. I woke up the remote camera in the tower which I had focused, framed and placed on sleep hours beforehand and shot the top 25 competitors coming through the finish including the male winner Craig Alexander of Australia and the female winner Chrissie Wellington of Great Britain, who crushed the course record in only her third try and third straight victory in the Ironman. I pulled down my remote camera, and jumped back on the motorcycle to shoot more detail and sunset shots, as many of the competitors who were going to finish close to midnight and the 17-hour cut-off time.

While I was back out on the course and the sun was going down, I caught word that 21 year-old Rudy Garcia-Tolson, a double above knee amputee, was looking like he would not make the bike cutoff time and therefore not be allowed to start the marathon. We backtracked along the bike course until we saw him. He was barely hanging on and myself and another bike crew for NBC was filming him in his final miles of the bike. He kept on asking us “will I make the cut-off time?” None of us had it in us to tell him he would probably not make it so we just cheered him on and he found the inner strength to pedal hard all the way to the finish. When he got to the transition area, he did miss the cutoff by 5 minutes and in tears his race was over. A month later in Arizona,  Garcia-Tolson the two-time Paralympic gold medalist, become the first double above-knee amputee to ever finish a full Ironman. Seeing Rudy’s and others inspiring performances is was kept me going for over 17 hours and made shooting with a ruptured eardrum from the water, land and sky easy, in an attempt to give the Ironman story the justice it deserved.

TP: Which magazine published the awarded photo (reportage)?

Triathlete Magazine and Inside Triathlon published a handful of photos from the race, as did Sports Illustrated, which selected and published my underwater start photo in their Photos of the Year issue.

TP: In your opinion, does the layout of the published article respect your concept, as photographer?

I appreciated that the photos were used in those publications because many people saw some of the fruits of my work as well as it ended up covering most of the costs of the trip; but the entire story was never run as a series, which is how I intended it to be presented. So I entered it into the World Press as a sports action story, and was overjoyed and overwhelmed when I saw that it won. Now it could finally be seen as I saw it and published as a whole for the first time.

TP: Was the reportage commissioned to you by the publisher, or a your production then proposed to the publisher?

This was a personal assignment, and completely self-funded with no guarantee that I was getting paid for it. I emptied my frequent flyer account to fly myself, my wife and our two boys out to the Big Island of Hawaii on vacation and planned to shoot the race on the tail end of the trip. We stayed at a friend’s timeshare for free and rented car, scuba gear, and helicopter all out of pocket. Luckily over the years I have built good relationships with editors like Jimmy Colton at Sports Illustrated, who has been instrumental in my career running different photos of mine that nobody else took a risk on. I sent him a handful of selects after the race; he didn’t run them in that week’s issue but one frame ended up making the SI Photos of the Year which made me quite happy. I also swim on a Masters Team in San Diego with the publisher of Triathlete Magazine and owner of Multisports John Duke, who ended up running the photos in two of his publications.

TP: What do you think about the photoreporter’s work to-day (difficulties, satisfaction, internet, future) ?

It is definitely a tough time for photojournalist worldwide. I resigned after 10 years from a very cushy senior staff position at Getty Images in December of 2007 (which people thought I was crazy for doing at the time) and jumped into the freelance market right when things started to take a nosedive.  The photography and print media market worldwide has been at a all-time low the last couple years, with ad sales down, papers and magazines going bankrupt and folding, photo budgets being cut in half or completely dropped and really talented photographers finding themselves without a job. I think the most important thing to do in these times is just figure a way to make things happen by finding alternative funding, diversifying yourself and your clientele base with both editorial and commercial work, and as a freelancer you will be alright. There are good and bad things about the internet, with the immediacy of digital photography, the availability of high end SLR’s in the hands of “prosumers” – but you just have to try to make it work for you to get your name and pictures out there. And no matter what you shouldn’t be deterred to shoot something personal or important to you just because you don’t have a paid assignment out of it on the front end. If the piece is marketed correctly, you can make more money on the backend and still retain the rights to your photos in the end. I think there will be a major shift in the business model and other aspects of photography in the next couple of years, and hopefully we will all be able to change with it.

Comments

  1. Dude,

    I got exhausted just reading about your magnificent journey. Most people can’t come up with 12 great pics in a year and you did this in 17 hours. With a broken eardrum. Be proud my friend. What a great article.

    Al

  2. Jonathan Moore says:

    Great read Donald, very inspiring!

  3. Jonathan Moore says:

    Question: In comparison to a regular dive, how much extra weight did you pack into your BC to compensate for the positive buoyancy of your underwater housing? Was the housing itself also weighted?

    • The underwater housing is actually almost neutral in the water with the weight of the camera inside. So I just used 10-12lbs in my BC to compensate and help me sink to the bottom…

  4. WOW, now that’s what I’m talkin bout! Great story! Did you edit your photo story by yourself, hand it over to someone you trust or a combo of both? You bring up a point about entering photo contests that I never thought about. They can be a last means to publish a body of work… This kind of reminds me of what Tim Clayton said in his 2008 World Press Photo interview… http://tinyurl.com/LandDiving
    How did you handle requests from the athletes in your images who wanted prints? And ow ow, can you provide some references to learning how to “market correctly” That’s a hard one.

    Tech Qs… I remember you repeatedly saying not to rely on remotes, so in this case how did you make sure to capture the moment each of the top 25 competitors crossed the finish line with both camera in hand and remote… trigger on hot shoe, pedal or some other voodoo magic? Also, on another post you mentioned that you set your camera to sleep until the next day… Is this an in-camera feature, Canon only, a separate gizmo or did I not read my D3 manual close enough (thought I did)? Thanks in advance…

    • I edited the story on my own, using photo mechanic to do the quick edit of selects and then aperture to do final edit and toning. I’ve only gotten a handful of print requests, and I just charge fair market value for the prints plus shipping and handling. As for marketing your work correctly, I kind of mentioned how I had an editor lined up waiting to have “first look” at my take for use in his magazine; doing that as well as distributing the photos with an agency like Getty or Corbis post shoot is an option (although I haven’t gone there yet), or pitching them to athlete sponsors/agents for commercial use (which I have done). In regards to remote firing/sleeping. I just attached a pocket wizard transmitter to the hot shoe of my in hand 70-200, so I didn’t even have to think about firing the remote. And yes, there is a sleep option with different time option (I usually use 15minutes) in canon cameras.

  5. Shannon Frost says:

    I appreciate the detail in your posts. I show just how much planning and creativity go into your projects. Great work.

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