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Keeping focus when the horizon is blurry – Here’s what professional photographer Sean Hardy has to say about life in lockdown

Sean Hardy has been a friend of Breakaway for a while. A friendship that started with a cup of coffee and some advice on photographing bike races that has continued to grow. Like our friendship Sean has quickly become a household name in the professional peloton working for teams such as Katusha Alpecin and Team Ineos. We caught up with him to see what someone so full of creative energy gets up to during lockdown.

Sean hardy

Can you introduce yourself a little, who you are, what you do and why you’re passionate about it?

My name is Sean Hardy, I go under HARDYCC on Instagram and all that stuff. Fun fact, the CC on the tag has nothing to do with cycling. It started with the initials of my first two children, Chloe and Charlie. 

When I first started all this photography stuff it wasn’t cycling. It was crap sunsets and probably some cliche photo of a sunrise of Dover cliffs, we have all been there. I only got a camera when Chloe was a few years old, around 2013. It was just to take photos that weren’t blurry! I quickly learnt you have to learn a bit about the camera to be able to take anything that is in focus. This quickly became an obsession. I started getting into cheesy YouTube videos on how to shoot RAW and all that.

I began with weddings. I was still working in an office but shooting weddings at the weekend. I enjoyed street photography but found it hard to get pictures of people without feeling odd. Weddings lend themselves to that area nicely, you get paid to shoot people and emotion. I still get that moment where it is easier to justify your image when you are working, there is a power that comes with knowing you have to produce something…your awkwardness quickly goes out the window. 

Cycling…where do I start?!? I grew up with a Dad that lived and breathed everything about it. Hearing cleats on the garden path at 5am and seeing him return home in the afternoon only to eat everything in the kitchen. I got into it. We went to the same races and I got the bug. Growing up I soon got sick to death of mates taking the piss out of me wearing oversized Lycra. I soon pursued my love of music. I learnt the flute when I was about 7 or 8 and then progressed to clarinet, which was boring, then saxophone…until secondary school where these instruments failed to get me the girls! I ditched them all and learnt guitar! Nothing changed with the girls but I couldn’t get enough of the thing. This led onto bass, singing, drums, piano etc… touring the country with a band called Springtide Cavalry – I didn’t see a bike in years!

It must have been about six years ago when the bike came back into my life. I went through a divorce and my little brother took me on a bike ride to stop me drinking wine and take my mind off all of life’s wonderful hurdles. 

I took the camera to a local CX race, purely to take pics to see how they did it. I posted the images of Facebook and within a week I was shooting the front cover for an independent magazine called Simpson. I had no idea what the hell I was doing… I seemed to remember getting stopped by the police on that shoot and refusing to hand over my SD cards…they took my sandwich instead…for reasons I will never understand!

The rest just unfolded. I quit my office job three years ago and haven’t looked back. I have been luckily enough to work with amazing brands and magazines and love every second of what I do. I am lucky. I know that and never take it for granted, I am always waiting for it to end. 

As an artist who in many ways relies on travel and social contact for their work, how have you kept busy during lockdown and what do you miss most about your daily routine?

I miss it more than I thought I would. When you start out as a photographer you sit on a plane with your camera in your lap thinking, “Wow man. This black box is letting me travel the world…” After hundreds of flights you are spending more time praying no one sits next to you or the weather is ok and the flight is smooth. 

Lockdown. I don’t know where to start. It has been scary. I haven’t processed it really. I want to be positive and believe everything will just pick up where it left off but I think that is naive and irresponsible of me. I have to adapt. I have to learn from this and ways that can support me better.

I have been shooting a lot at home, not necessarily to show people what I am doing but purely because I don’t know anything else. I take a picture because I have to. A moment or light just presents itself and I would rather just take the shot than sit there and wish I had pressed the shutter. I have been trying to learn new skills. Spending hours on photoshop and exploring ways to push myself. I have been spending time with my youngest, painting, playing piano and teaching him real music. He loves ACDC Thunderstruck at the moment, good lad!! 

I don’t have routines. Hate them. I miss the chaos. If anything there are more routines at home and it drives me mad and just being at home more is driving the better half insane. I am sure she can’t wait for me to jet off to another country.

We know you’re no stranger to catching a flight or living out of a suitcase when shooting the biggest bike races in the world, but when was the last time you were in the UK for this long without travel? 

I suppose three or four years ago when I was working the office job. This is the longest time I have spent at home in a long time. It has been nice to reset. I am still working, so I haven’t had a lot of free days. I am still sitting at my Mac until 2 am editing something. I am shooting more and more studio based stuff with products at the moment, which has been amazing. I have a cupboard full of bits I need to shoot and I am stressing about how to make wheels look sexy at home! 

Assuming there is pro bike racing at the end of the year how do you think the atmosphere at the races will change? How much harder will it be to convey the passion of a bike race if fans must stay 2 metres apart?

If they do happen. I can’t see which way it is going at the moment. Part of me thinks they will go ahead but that doesn’t mean there will be work for me. Some teams are struggling so that means money is a struggle too. The last thing they are going to think about is which photographer to take with them. They are a business at the end of the day and staff comes first. I hope something happens, not just for my career but for the sport…but only if it is safe. If it isn’t possible to do with clear guidelines then it shouldn’t happen. 

If we are lucky enough to see the back of all this by the time a race is due and social distancing is still in place then I think that makes it easy to shoot. I mean they will be instantly historic. Imagine looking back on those images in 10, 20 or even 30 years time. I would love to capture that! 

Shooting fans is easy. There are so many you can’t really go wrong. You spend half your time missing something rather than capturing everything you wanted, it is impossible to get it all. I like the idea of having the 2 metres apart images – I would prefer it to be back to normal but we shall see.

The rise in popularity of e-sports such as Zwift with its virtual races has undoubtedly accelerated during lockdown. How does this form of racing affect you as a photographer?

It doesn’t. Yeah you could shoot the riders on turbos and all that but there isn’t much you can do with that. It has been good to watch online races but it only works if pro riders can race for real. I am interested to see what direction this takes after lockdown, will they still exist and will riders use that platform or has it been a reflection of the lockdown? I would love to document the other side of e-sports. It is hard. You see pro’s tweeting about how hard it is. I would like to explore that side or the work that goes into it rather than the actual effort. It takes a certain character to dedicate themselves to e-sports and I would like to capture that.

With many people turning to long lost creative hobbies such as photography during lockdown, as a professional photographer what tips and tricks do you have for someone picking up their camera for the first time in years?

Shoot shoot shoot. Do not get bogged down with the technicals. There are a million YouTube videos out there telling you the rules of photography and it is all crap…to an extent. There are no rules. If anything they are there to be broken. Photography is about what you see or what you make of a moment. The person that helped me learn used to get me to lock myself in the bathroom and take 35 shots. Never look at them on the screen, just take them and look afterwards. I would do that twice a week and after a few weeks it is hard to take a photo you haven’t already taken, so you work to find new ways to make something. Mirrors, lines, shadows, water; use anything and everything. A photo is a frozen moment of what you see, this is what makes it so unique. What I see might be completely different to you, so that means no photo is useless…you just work on how you see things.

What would be your dream assignment?

Ummmmmm. That is a really hard question. I like to take photos of places or people I know nothing about. I don’t like knowing the background of someone or somewhere. I like to experience it or them with the camera. So my dream assignment is freedom. To shoot what I want to shoot. Generally I get to do that, so I am super lucky! 

Do you find it easy moving between cycling and other subjects, for instance bands? Do you think they require their own style or do you find you can share ideas between them?

It’s all about the people. That is the way I see it. Each subject projects something or an emotion. I see no difference in shooting a bike race or a gig. They are all moments happening and you just have to make sure you capture that and tell the story. I don’t share ideas or styles across different subjects, I just press the shutter.

Best pro team canteen?

Team Ineos so far has had the best meals. We tend to not eat the same as the riders, they mostly have their own cook and you don’t touch that food! Team camps are always good food, I think this is because sponsors rock up and you can’t serve plain rice and chicken to the bill payers. 

Best race radio banter?

To be honest I don’t listen. It is mainly information from the race and rarely a rider talking. Even if they do it is about what is happening up front. You get some chat when they come back to the car for bottles or food but that all depends what race it is. They are at work so the mindset is very professional.

Biggest ‘damn I missed it’ moment behind the lens?

It happens every single race. I get the shots I want but there is always a blink of an eye where you think, ah no I missed that or I didn’t see that happening. Half the time you are positioning yourself to capture the most of a moment, you cannot get everything so you hit your markers and go from there. A lot of my damn moments come when I try to take a shot of my kids, they are too aware of the camera so know when I am going to take a shot and always do their best to make sure I don’t get it, they are my hardest subject.

That’s all from Sean but make sure you check out his lockdown project ‘isolation’ which is a collaboration with Daughter Studio. They are collating images from as many photographers as possible, showcasing the work they’ve produced during lockdown. The culmination of the project will be a publication that captures what this moment in time means. All proceeds will go to charities helping vulnerable individuals and families. Click here to check out isolation!

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