My picture perfect job

A Cork woman who captures the real grit of professional cycling through her camera lens, tells Liz O’Brien about the highs and lows of the job, her love of the sport, and breaking down barriers in the male-dominated sphere
My picture perfect job

Karen Edwards, pictured with her moto pilot, Jan Van De Walle her colleague Makota from Japan, and his co pilot Frank Verschelde. Taken in Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Picture by Ronde Van Vlaanderen 

IMAGINE taking professional photographs while sitting at the back of a motorbike that’s riding at high speed.

It sounds like a scene from a Bond movie, but it’s actually how Mallow woman Karen Edwards earns a crust.

Karen is a professional photographer who travels the world to take pictures of major cycling competitions.

She photographs big names like Eddie Dunbar, Nicolas Roche, Dan Martin, and Sam Bennett, competing in events held along some of the world’s most famous routes: Moto, Volta a Catalunya, Criterium Dauphine, Tour de France and Vuelta Espana.

Her aim is to capture the atmosphere, the passion and intensity around her by being in the thick of the pack. To do that, she needs a driver she trusts implicitly, who can guide the bike she’s travelling on, over bumpy cobbles, in the middle of a pack of pro cyclists, at high speed.

While he navigates, she sits behind him, her back to his, facing the road they’ve left behind them.

“For me it’s the best seat in the race because you’re getting to see all the tactics and the race relaying out in front of you; it’s just special,” says Karen.

“There are some people that probably abuse the fact that they are on the back of a motorbike but me, I respect the race, the riders it’s definitely the best seat and you’re getting all the action, I just love it.”

Cyclist Chris Froome. Picture: Karen Edwards
Cyclist Chris Froome. Picture: Karen Edwards

When she’s on the back of the motorbike — with her back to her driver — she can’t use her hands to balance as she’s holding the camera, so she has to use her body to stabilise herself on every twist, turn and bump in the road.

It’s not the safest job in the world and one wrong move could see an accident, or be the cause of bringing down a cyclist, so having a highly qualified driver is vital.

“It’s really important for me that rider safety is number one because there has been accidents in the past that have involved a motorbike,” says Karen. “So for me the rider is number one, not the picture — I would prefer to be safe, for everybody to be safe. That would be the worst thing for me, to bring down one of the riders.

“It gets fairly fast and you’re travelling on the cobbles — which are not like the roads here — they are big cobbles as well, so it’s bumpy — and then I’ve done races where it’s raining and snowing as well — that was mad; actually, part of the race had to be neutralised that day, so it is dangerous, but for me that’s part of the race, it’s just part and parcel of the job.”

Cyclists ride fiercely around her, all striving to get ahead of the pack. Karen snaps what she sees — capturing the real grit of professional cycling; the highs and lows, the cheering crowds, the atmosphere, cyclists pushing through the pain and suffering as they try to to make it to the top of the pack. It’s about the pursuit.

Sometimes she’s allowed in the race and sometimes she’s not, so occasionally she has to push ahead of the peloton to get the best possible vantage point. Her work is all about creating a story through pictures. Karen has loved cycling since she can remember; she was a keen supporter of her uncle who raced and when she was small she used to pretend to be Sean Kelly, riding her bike up and down the road. In later years, she trained with a club.

But the job she does now, she accidently fell into. Before this she was a fashion designer, with a background in art and design; she won many awards for her designs.

Phil Gil on the Muur. Picture: Karen Edwards
Phil Gil on the Muur. Picture: Karen Edwards

“I got sick when I bought my first camera — just to keep in with the cycling I started to take photographs and they started to get noticed by professional photographers on the continent.

“They were trying to encourage me, but I wouldn’t believe them, I was so shy, totally lacking confidence and shrugging it off, thinking: ‘Oh, they’re just saying that’.

“There was one particular pro photographer who pushed me and said: “You really do have something a little bit different to the others, why not go for it?”

It took about two years for her to gain confidence and actually believe that she could do this for a living.

“I was a mother, a housewife, I had no experience doing that and there’s a long road as well actually getting the accreditation to get to those races and then gaining the respect out there.

“There’s an awful lot of shooters that arrive who are hobby shooters, but for me, I wanted to be respected for the job that I did; and being a woman that was going to be a bit harder as well, I felt, because it’s a male-dominated sport. But I’m still pushing doors.”

Her first pro race on the back of a motorbike was in 2015.

“I thought: ‘What am I doing? I don’t know these people’. I was trying to fit in, but I can honestly say by the time I finished I knew this was where I wanted to be and I absolutely loved it — you know when you get that feeling... ‘I love this job!’

Its dangerous nature is one of the reasons why people discouraged her from pursuing the job when she first started; another reason was her gender but she brushed that aside.

“I thought: If my work is good enough that should be good enough for anyone.

“And I wanted to do it for my girls as well — even my boys — I wanted to do it because I thought, this just shows anybody can do it!”

She self-published her first book of photographs, Chasing Races, to have a record of her work and when those sold she had the boost she needed to carry on doing what she loved.

She says social media accounts, particularly her Instagram (@karenm.edwards) have also been a key element in building her brand and profile.

Now, she’s the official photographer of the Emerald Fund, which was set up by Dan Martin of Quick Step to fund young riders on their journey to the pro scene.

She’s on an exciting journey and looking forward to seeing what the future brings, particularly now that Ireland has a professional cycling team, Aquablue.

“It’s history — there’s never been an Irish pro cycling team! Rick Delaney, originally from Cork, living now in Monaco, he actually envisaged this and brought it about and I really admire him. And they are based in Cork, which is amazing as well. I take a little pride as well that they’re from Cork; I suppose the Cork people are like that anyway!”

To see more of Karen’s work, go to: www.karenmedwardsphotography.com

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