Interview by Grace Lambert-Smith
Jennifer Doohan is the face behind the lens of some of the most well-known ultra-endurance races of the last couple of years. Her recent assignment of photographing the Silk Road Mountain Race brought about new challenges and she produced some of the best images of the race. Read about her journey into race photography.
How long have you been a cycling photographer?
I started in 2015 by documenting the Sunday ride of my all-female cycling club in Manchester. I wanted to portray women in sport through the way I experienced cycling: full of tough climbs, coffee stops, and camaraderie.
How did you get into photographing races?
I followed my passions, there’s a lot to be said for that. I’d applied for a role in the Transcontinental Race organisational team and I didn’t get it. However Anna had seen my women in sport photography and asked me to come and photograph an event in Wales run by herself and the late Mike Hall. While there, I met passionate cycling folk including Adrian O’Sullivan who runs the Transatlantic Way event which I subsequently photographed.
What gear do you use to photograph races?
I have a Nikon 750D full frame and a D7000 with a variety of lenses. Depending on what I’m shooting I’ll use a 24-70mm (f2.8), 16-35mm (f4.0) or 70-200mm (f2.8). I’ve also recently invested in a Fuji mirrorless in place of the D7000.
How would you describe the process of photographing riders in races like the TAW and SRMR?
We research the route for scenic spots and rely on the knowledge of others, but I also have to rely on my own ideas and instincts.
What are you looking for in your shots?
For me to be happy with a shot I want the honest moment – an action, an expression of pain, determination, defeat, joy… all recorded as if I wasn’t there. I don’t want eye contact or a pose. I want anything else but that!
What were some of the challenges of photographing long-distance races?
Bikepacking races can feel a bit like ‘wacky races’ at times. It can be challenging and a lot of hours in a car to find the riders. I don’t know when I’ll sleep, when or what I’ll eat but that’s half the fun. And even after I’ve found the riders and taken the shots, my day isn’t over because I have to select, edit, write about and upload my selects for the audience of family, friends and dotwatchers who are eager to find out about the race. In Kyrgyzstan (SRMR) there was no phone or internet coverage which made working particularly challenging.
From an operational point of view, keeping my equipment charged can be difficult when I’m on the move so much. I also have to consider keeping my equipment safe in an unfamiliar, sometimes remote environment.
What does a great photo look like to you?
I think the most successful photographs are emotive. I like to get in close for that reason when photographing people. In contrast, I love beautiful backdrops with tiny riders conveying how wild a place or its weather is. With documentary photography though it’s not just about one image, it’s a series and those seemingly unimportant details at the time build the story too.
Black and white or full colour? Film or digital?
I think both colour and black and white have their place but digital for ease of documenting the race on the go.
Do you have any advice for budding race photographers or riders themselves when they’re taking photos out on the road?
As a professional – make a contract.
Follow what interests you and grabs your eye – don’t look to replicate someone else’s. Every situation will teach you something different. Be brave and take spare batteries.
I’d love to follow a professional women’s cycling team, or (as I live in Italy at the moment) it’d be awesome to shoot the Giro d’Italia or the women’s Giro Rosa. I’d just love to do more documentary projects as that’s where my heart and skill lies.
Where can we see more of your work?