Wednesday, June 25, 2014

So you want to be a Motojournalist


Have bike. Will travel.
A motorbike provides advantages that other forms of getting around do not. Although walking around is always a photographer's preferred mode of observing and capturing the world, getting to places worth walking can be a challenge.

A motorbike is a good intersection of speed and access. Quick to get off and on, it can be parked anywhere a bicycle can, and it can traverse narrow passages, obstacles, grass, and other impediments a car can't. A motorbike can go very slowly while still allowing traffic to pass by, but it can still hit highway speeds when it's time for significant relocation.

The main advantage of a motorbike, however, is the journalist's contact with the world. The view is unlimited, including vertical views which provide context to a scene as well as possibilities for other angles. Moreover, taking in the aromas of a place and feeling the transition of blocks of air blends the senses in ways incomparable to other forms of mobility. 

The basics of motojournalism are a motorbike and a camera. (Or, for those who think a thousand words is better than a picture, a notebook and a pencil.)
Packed and ready to go.
The challenge is transporting and accessing the gear on the go. Riding a motorbike requires both hands and both feet, so there's no way to have a camera in hand. Exposure to the elements dictates protection for the gear. So a bag of some sort is a must. Courier bags tend to slide around during each turn and are a poor choice on a motorbike. Panniers or boxes permanently mounted to a motorbike are a great solution for moving long distances, but they don't provide very much immediate access when one is jumping off and on the bike.

The packed pack. Scarf on top,
layer shirt on the bottom.
The best answer is a backpack. Although there are backpacks designed for cameras, these are inadequate for the motojournalist. Instead, look for a mountain biking backpack. Because they're designed for two-wheeled travel, mountain biking backpacks have the right kind of straps: angled to stay on your shoulders, with a center strap to cinch it up and keep it from moving around at speed. Cycling backpacks are weather resistant, if not waterproof, and also have pouches for water bladders that work quite well to hold an iPad. They also have zippers that go down fully on both sides, allowing quick access no matter which shoulder the backpack is carried on once you're off the motorbike, making it as close to a courier bag as one can get in a backpack. I have a Novara, but this Osprey looks pretty good, too (though preferably in a different color). Anything in the category will do.

Making gear accessible is still an issue. Cameras and lenses loose in a backpack just won't do. The best solution I've found is to use an insert from a Domke camera bag. It sits vertically, and holds plenty. I carry four lenses and two cameras. Because the insert is only about half the height of the bag, however, I'll put a layering shirt in the bottom of the bag to give it some height as well as some padding. I usually put a scarf on top of the cameras to keep them from moving too much. A layer and a scarf are necessary for motorcycle travel, and they can quickly be repositioned once I'm off the bike.

The final consideration is what kind of motorbike you'll be riding. The goal of motojournalism is to explore and access places that are too difficult by foot or car, so the choice is important. Ideally, a head up, body up position is best to facilitate easy looking around and slow-speed stability. Racing bikes made for the superslabs are useless because their center of gravity doesn't respond well at slow speeds, and their low clearances limit the curbs and other obstacles the bike can conquer. And slick road tires don't lend themselves to the gravel roads and grass you'll be exploring.
Two Fujis, four lenses.
Similarly, cruisers are no good. Made for long rides, they are built for sitting comfort and not for easy off and ons. They also tend to be unnecessarily loud, which is never good for journalism.

Dual-sport or dirt bikes are a possibility, but they are limited in their highway ability. Many are not street-legal, and because of their high clearances, they tend to be top heavy, which affects quick turns at low speeds in alleyways.

The better solution is a motorbike made for short trips around cities. Usually under 650cc's these bikes have sufficient power for highway rides, but are light enough for easy handling. Sitting lower to the ground, but with a fair bit of clearance, they can be navigated over curbs and rough roads. With an upright riding position, they'll keep your head on a swivel and looking for good pictures.

New bikes fitting the criteria are the Yamaha SR400 or any Royal Enfield. The Kawasaki W800 has the right ergonomics, but has excessive power, which means excessive size and weight. For used bikes, any of the 1960-1970 Honda CB series would work, as would Triumphs from that era. Also, don't underestimate the conversation starting power of a classic motorcycle. It can be a great ice breaker leading to conversations and access to pictures. Be careful, though: the goal is to have a working mode of transportation to support your journalistic efforts, and not to have a project that you wind up documenting in the garage.
Motojournalism put into practice. Cigarettes recommended, but optional.