Top cycling snapper at home in NZ

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 06/01/2011
Graham Watson
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RECOGNISABLE NAME: Graham Watson is one of the most recognisable names in world cycling.

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It's probably no surprise that someone who lives to capture the perfect image would pick Nelson as his refuge.

A world away from the glamour and grit of professional cycling, world-famous photographer Graham Watson has found a second home at the top of the South Island.

Several years ago the Englishman was touring New Zealand with his Kiwi girlfriend, Jo. They had been travelling up the West Coast and planned to use Nelson as a stopover on the way to Picton and the North Island.

"We came down here about 2003-ish," Watson recalls.

"Just on a trip around the South Island and decided to call on Nelson on the way back. We decided to drive up the West Coast, which Jo hadn't seen, and then Nelson was the most obvious point of call on the way back to Picton but we stopped there and didn't go any further," he said.

"We fell in love with the place. It's really English, it's on the ocean, there's mountains; everything is gorgeous."

Watson has been returning to Nelson for several years during the short off-season between the end of the European cycling season the first event of the new year, the Tour Downunder in Adelaide in mid-January.

"It's great to get away and you can't get further away than New Zealand, it's the opposite side of the world. I do work, I do quite a lot of work setting up things for the next season, I'm never out of touch with people, these days you can take your work with you, which is good," he says.

"I've a very low profile. Most photographers, you don't know who they are and that's the way we like to be, just hiding behind the camera.

"One or two local cyclists know I'm around and some guys from BikeNZ live in Nelson, we socialise with them. The thing with New Zealand is you can be anybody and nobody really cares."

Watson is considered one of the best cycling photographers on the planet. He came to his trade during the 1970s when he was cycling 20km each day into London where he was working as a photographer and has spent more than three decades shooting the sport from the middle of the peloton.

He shoots for newspapers, magazines, websites and for many of the world's major cycling teams and bike brands.

Few people get the intimate view of professional cycling that is Watson's workplace.

"I love it, it's the best job in the world, I promise you. You are doing something you love very much and it's a great way of life. There aren't many jobs I can think of that would give me that much satisfaction.

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"You do get wound up in it. You get emotionally involved, which is not always good. Perhaps I've seen so many races now that I don't get as involved emotionally.

"It's a way of life, you either love it or you don't. It's not like a normal job, it's an adventure."

As a specialist cycling photographer, Watson lives his job.

He follows the Grand Tours and the one-day classics, travelling throughout Europe, and increasingly around the world, in search of the perfect photograph.

Advances in technology have meant major changes to the photographer's trade.

Where once Watson would spend weeks with his pockets filled with rolls of film, working out how and when he would be able to get them processed and sent out to news organisations, now a host of media want their images the same day.

"With digital photography, it's more competitive but you do finish the job before you go to bed each night," he said.

"In Europe it's pretty competitive. In the Tour de France there's about 200 photographers on the race and about 15 or 16 on motorbikes.

"Most of the agencies have photographers on the big tours in Europe, so you are up against the big ones – that's kind of fun as well.

"As a specialist photographer you do get more recognition than an agency guy. People are a bit more interested in you because you are more interested in the work. You can thrive on the competition."

Watson says he does not deliberately go out to foster relationships with the professional riders, although friendships naturally occur.

"Only if it happens. I don't try to be friendly with them, although I am friendly with all of them. At the end of the day you are doing a job and it's not good to be too friendly with some of them because cycling is kind of a dangerous sport – they do crash. There's a chance one day you will be photographing one of your mates on the ground, so I try and keep a distance a little bit.

"You are with them all the time, 99.9 per cent of them are great guys to deal with. Some of them see you as a colleague because you are doing them a service, others see you as a nuisance because you are getting in the way sometimes. The majority of them are great guys. I have a hell of a laugh with Greg Henderson and Julian Dean as well, they are just such good guys to deal with.

"I try and treat every single cyclist as equal, no matter if they are the champions or the guys that finish last. They are all subjects for my camera.

"Naturally you get on with the English-speaking guys better. I'm quite chummy with Lance Armstrong, but I'm also quite chummy with some of the guys from the little teams who never win anything.

"Over the years I've got close with only about four or five cyclists at the most. Mostly it's cyclists who become team managers in their 30s, because the pressure is off and they have a different job to do. You can actually socialise, have a beer with them, have a laugh with them. "Watson said the growing New Zealand presence in the pro peloton had been pleasing to see.

"I certainly notice them. There are the three or four main guys and now there's Sam Bewley and especially Jesse Sergent, maybe Clinton Avery if he gets his act together, it's fantastic. Unfortunately for them they probably get regarded as Australians along the way, but we know who they are.

They are making it – you guys have done some great stuff on the track the last three or four years and most of those guys have gone on to the road and are growing their reputations."

Watson says he's lucky to have discovered a passion he has developed a career out of.

"We've all ridden a bike at some stage. I was particularly useless at it. Luckily when I realised how bad I was as a cyclist I'd already become a professional photographer, way back in the late seventies and I just put the two together."

- The Southland Times

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