Monday 10 January 2022

52 Cycling Voices - 33: Pauline Ballet

Paris-based sports photographer Pauline Ballet is a regular on the professional racing circuit, be it standing at the side of the road, in a car, or on the back of the motorbike following the peloton.

One of only a handful of women who regularly photograph pro bike races, Pauline loves the excitement of capturing the drama of racing.

I first got to know Pauline last year when I interviewed her for the series on Cyclist website on Inspirational Women. I had seen a number of her pictures in the cycling press, so to actually meet her (albeit over Zoom) was great. Given her various commitments, it was no surprise that I had to wait a while before I could to speak her. When I finally first got to speak to her she was just back from the Strade Bianche race and was buzzing from it. Pauline told me about how she got into sports photography.

Pauline Ballet, aged 33

From: Lyon area, France

Lives: Paris

Occupation: Sports photographer

I guess I break the rule that you can’t be what you can’t see because I didn’t know any women who were photographers when I was a youngster. 

I am just a photographer, not a female photographer. I take photos according to my own inspiration. It’s not that I have a feminine eye on things in my role. I’ve just got the eye of a photographer, not specifically the perspective of a woman. And I don’t see any barrier when there are lots of men around me. 

I became interested in art when I lived in Istanbul between the age of 9 and 13 years old, and my parents would take me to the different museums and mosques. I wanted to be a photographer because I was really inspired by the old black and white analogue candid photos of Paris by taken by photographers like Robert Doisneau.

I found it really nostalgic, and a little melancholic and wanted to learn to take those types of analogue photos with an old fashioned camera. That’s what attracted me to photography, and I would go to the library and look through loads of photography books. That’s how I got more into it. 

When I told my friends and family that I would like to become a photographer they were encouraging and thought it was something good to do, though my mum was a bit worried about my future and thought I could do something more secure like being a speech therapist! At that point I hadn’t thought about specialising in sport, and as there are a number of types of photography which are predominantly females, especially in documentaries or portraits they didn’t really comment about my gender. But when I began to specialise in sport they began to say that I was “doing a man’s job”.  And that annoyed me, because for me sports photography is a job for everyone not just for men! In any case, those who were close to me were really encouraging.

When I finished studying at the National School of Photography in Arles, South of France, I did a photographic residency in Argentina for three and a half months, and had carte blanche to photograph whatever I wanted. So I decided to to night photography linked to Christian ceremonies. At that point I hadn’t thought about specialising in sport.

I returned to France and did a few small photography jobs, then joined Amaury Sports Organisation, working in the picture library. Then one day my boss asked me to help out with taking photos at the Flèche Wallonne Féminine, even though I knew absolutely nothing about sports photography.

I got lots of advice from other photographers, but I was still so nervous. There I was on the day, at the Mur de Huy. 

On the day, I just snapped riders without knowing who I was photographing! The thing is, I had gotten to know the names of the racers from my work in the picture library, but then when I saw them in their kit with helmet and sunglasses on it was difficult to know who was who!

There was a massive crowd of spectators who had been there for hours, drinking beer, shouting and waving flags. It was a crazy buzzing, festive atmosphere. I absolutely adored it, and got on with the other photographers. It was a fantastic experience, and that’s what gave me the desire to continue in sports photography.

I am now a freelance, working on different types of assignments with different clients. Recently I worked on Strade Bianche with Team Cofidis. It was different from anything I have seen. I was quite surprised at how hilly it was, and the roads twisted in every direction.

For this job, I was in the car with the assistant sports directors. The day before the race we had decided which sectors of Strade Bianche we would photograph, so it was a case of getting to them quickly, taking photos and moving on to the next spot. I also took “behind the scenes” non-sporting photos.

I also do Paris-Roubaix for ASO, using a motorbike. That makes it easier to get around the course quickly and take loads of different shots.

Paris-Roubaix is the only race where I genuinely feel apprehensive. I have to concentrate so much and be really focussed and make sure I arrive in one piece at the finish line!

In this race, motorbikes are not allowed in front of the peloton on the cobbled sections as it’s too dangerous. We can only ride on the cobbled sections if we are there well before the racers arrive, otherwise we ride behind the peloton.

In the Tour de France I do a lot of my work from the moving motorbike. Frankly, there are moments when I am so scared out of my wits when coming down the cols. Sometimes we are behind the rider as they descend, and you can see the speedometer of the motorbike showing 90-92kmh.

At those times I hold my cameras tightly, squeeze my buttocks together and try not to think about anything; otherwise if I think about the speed I might as well give up my job!

The picture I am really pleased I took was one of Annemiek Van Vleuten right at the moment she attacked at the World Road Race Championships in Yorkshire.

I was on the motorbike in front of her and it was so good to be the one to have been there right at the moment to take the photo.

I also really like the one on the homepage of my website too. It’s the Col de Turini during the 2019 Paris-Nice. I absolutely love mountainous landscapes.

For that, I walked 3km down the road to get my spot as I thought it would be a more interesting photo than one from the finish line. It wasn’t easy walking with all the equipment, and I had to wait a while, but it was worth it in the end.

My advice to women wanting to get into sports photography is to take photos in lots of environments, including cycling.

Go to races – even if you don’t have accreditation – and take loads of photos. Select your absolute best photos and edit them well.

Pitch them to different organisations, put them on different media and social media. Get feedback on your photos from friends and family.

This is not a job just for men, so don’t get intimidated by the fact that there are mainly men doing the work.

There’s a lot of solidarity among photographers. I remember once breaking a flash while photographing at Roland Garros, and a fellow photographer lent me his. Once all my equipment was stolen from me when I was due to work at a race and I didn’t have any equipment. I was going to leave, but two fellow photographers insisted that I stay, saying they would help me out and they lent me their spare equipment. 

So yes, we are all there to help each other. If I have something that another photographer needs, I lend it to him or her without any hesitation, and vice versa. It’s for that reason that it’s necessary to show respect within the group of photographers. Our work relies on the fact that everyone helps each other out and there’s a camaraderie, otherwise it would be a sad place to work. Being a photographer, you are individual as you are working for yourself or for a client, and so without this solidarity it would really be a shame. And it makes me feel good to know that there is this solidarity.

For example when you are at Paris-Roubaix or the Tour de France, and you arrive at the finish line after having rushed there, all in out of breath and stressed in order to be sure to get into position a photo. You’re tired, you’re trying to work out where to position yourself….then you finally sit down in your position on the finish line with about 30 other photographers around you [pre-pandemic numbers]. Then at that point a fellow photographer pats you on the back and says “It’ll be fine. Everything will work out well”. You look round and see that it's someone you know, and you are really glad to see them. This type of encouragement really makes a difference to the environment you work in, knowing that people have got your back.

Finally, I strongly recommend keeping fit as this is a very physical job, with all the equipment you have to carry around. I do yoga and have found it a lifesaver!

Photos: Pauline Ballet

Instagram: paulineballet

Twitter: PaulineBallet

Other Cycling Voices


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