If you are not familiar with Pauline Ballet’s name, you will be familiar with her work.
When we speak, she has just returned from shooting a typically wet and cold Tour de Romandie. “It’s been a while since I wanted to cover that race and I haven’t been disappointed,” she says. “The landscapes were stunning, even under the rain, the race crossed steep vineyards, mountains and little pretty villages. The queen stage even finished in snow. The race conditions were tough, as we saw with few crashes due to the weather, and the GC race story was gripping.”
Her favourite race to shoot is, of course, Paris Roubaix “for the epic history,” as well as the dust-filled drama on the cobbles and she’s hoping to return later this year (“please, keep your fingers crossed”).
Although she can predominantly be found at the likes of Paris Roubaix and the Tour de France, it was a women’s race that got Ballet hooked on the sport: “The first race I shot was La Flêche Wallone women in 2013,” she recalls. “I was working as an iconographer/editor for Amaury Sport Organisation. As I also was a photographer, my supervisor suggested I try to shoot sports. Then I arrived in that Mur de Huy in 2013, kind of love at first sight, and I immediately knew I wanted to come back to it.”
Ballet began shooting cycling, and working with Rouleur as one of her early clients, back in 2014. In her seven years of shooting cycling she has racked up five Tours de France and countless other races. “The Tour de France is very challenging, because it’s very long and I’m working on a motorbike,” she says. “It’s great. I love working with adrenaline, but everything is going super fast with an intense rhythm. We have the same routine in the organization but at the end each day is different, good or bad, playing with our emotions, frustration, joy and excitement.”
Photo credit: Justin Setterfield
Her images brilliantly capture the drama that makes up the iconography of the sport; from imposing mountain backdrops to close-ups of suffering riders in stunning detail. How did she develop her style?
“I don’t really know,” she admits. “I don’t feel I’m particularly working on it intentionally. But the fact I’ve studied photography in an art school or started with an analog camera has probably influenced my way of taking pictures. I’m passionate about art history, paint, photography books, I watch loads of films, read a lot of comics, books etc. We are always influenced by stuff unconsciously.”
Ballet developed her photography skills outside of the sport and attributes her lack of prior experience in cycling to her unique perspective at races, “I’m not coming from a sport world, I’ve come to cycling because of photography passion instead of cycling one, which came after,” she says. “So maybe my way of photographing this sport was not predictable, or directed by any preconceptions.”
Having multiple photographers at any given race can make trying to find a unique angle tricky business. Ballet has found herself shooting from “a helicopter up above the Nordkapp in Norway or inside an old grandma's very kitsch bedroom to shoot from the window in a little village,” to name a few places.
Being in the same spot, however, doesn’t always mean getting the same shot: “I think each photographer has their own way of watching the world and shooting,” she says. “I work following my intuition, my passion, not to try to be different or whatever. I really love the fact that we can be four or five photographers shooting in the same place, each picture will be different and original at the end.”
Photo credit: Pauline Ballet/SWPix.com
The next project in Ballet’s diary is The French Open (“the light on the clay is fantastic and every corner is a surprise. That's a gold mine for photographers”). The refined clay courts of Roland-Garros are a far cry from the travelling circus of cycling, however, it is the chaos which in part attracts her to the sport. “What I like the most in cycling compared to other sports is the effort intensity, the fact this is a travelling sport, the joy of fans, the proximity with athletes for anyone and all the collective stories of all a team around a victory or a defeat,” she says.
In the past eighteen months, the “travelling sport” has been thwarted by its very nature due to the pandemic, making racing -- and therefore Ballet’s job -- at times difficult to coordinate. How has the pandemic affected her work? “Masks are now the scourge,” she says. “They ruin all the expressions of athletes, people, before and after the race. Podiums for example are very hard.”
In terms of the practicalities of shooting in the time of Covid, that depends on who she is working with. “When I'm working with a team, I have to stay inside the "team bubble" as they call it. It means I have D-7 and D-3 PCR tests before the race and I can't go out or meet other people,” she says. “In this case, it didn't change my way of working as I am working with a team backstage anyway, so my access is the same.”
When it comes to working for a race organiser, however, “I have more restrictions than before. I can't shoot behind the podium anymore or close to the riders after the finish line which prevents backstages or original pictures which is very frustrating.”
After the French Open, Ballet will go on to cover her seventh Tour de France before heading to Tokyo for her first Olympic Games, something she describes as a dream commission. Having been to Japan before to shoot a personal project she is looking forward to returning, “I’m very excited about the Olympics but very nervous about this new adventure and territory."
Pauline Ballet takes us through two of her favourite shots:
I like this picture because it talks about cycling and its history. About the Monument of Paris-Roubaix. There is a good alchemy between fans, speed, dust, flag, enthusiasm. Cycling is also about what is around it, people, landscapes or symbols, and I tried to immortalise this by choosing this frame and way of taking it. Also mixed with a wink to Tour de France with Cochonou hats.
Tour de France 2020 - Stage 18 : Kwiato & Carapaz