Thursday, May 15, 2008

Shooting at high speed

In his 20-year career, George Francis has photographed more than 1100 motorsport rallies in every part of the country

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the last stage of the Himalayan Car rally in 2004, it started snowing heavily. The rally got cancelled and photographer George Francis was at Pang, 28,000 feet above sea level. With driver, Manvinder Singh, George set out for Manali in a Toyota Qualis.

“The road was blanketed with snow,” says George. “At 11 a.m., it was dark and the visibility was poor. I was scared. Manvinder kept tapping the Qualis against the mountain, so that it would not go to the other side.”

The other side had a drop of 15,000 ft. and instantaneous death. “Throughout that journey, Manvinder would say, ‘Are you scared?’” says George. “I would reply, ‘I am not scared because you are driving.’” After several hours of traveling at 10 km/h, they finally made it to safety.

This is one of the many memorable experiences that George, originally from Pulincunnu, near Changanacherry, has experienced in his 20-year career as a Chennai-based photographer of car and bike rallies. He has covered more than 1100 rallies, races, motocross, autocross and dirt track events in every nook and corner of the country.

So, what is it about motorsport that has made him focus on it for so long? “I love speed and I like the excitement of seeing new places,” he says. “You are working for several hours at a stretch, but all the time you are in a place where the scenery is spectacular.”

As to the techniques needed to cover a rally, he says the most important aspect is to develop the right timing to shoot, since the vehicles are traveling so fast.

“This comes from experience,” he says. “I keenly observe the style of the driver. For a particular turn, some drivers will do it stylishly, while others will slide across.”

Expectedly, in trying to get these high quality photographs, George, 47, had several close shaves. He remembers once, in 1994, when he was shooting during a rally near Chennai, the Gypsy car, driven by Asian Rally champion Hari Singh, seemed exceptionally close when he looked through the lens. When he looked up, he saw the car go over his head.

But he has not suffered any major injuries. So, it was an irony that when he was vacationing at Mulavukad island, Kochi, recently, one night, while traveling with his brother-in-law, Sabu Xavier, an auto-rickshaw suddenly appeared in the path of the car. Sabu swerved, the car hit a tree and George received a deep gash on his face.

“That’s life,” he says, with a laugh, as he points at the stitches on his face.

George, who graduated with a literature degree from Loyola College, Chennai, worked briefly as a journalist before he started his own agency, Scorp News on September 1, 1985. “Since I belong to the star sign, Scorpio, I decided to give it the name, Scorp,” he says. Today, he is regarded as the doyen among photographers in the motorsport fraternity.

Says Hormazd Sorabjee, editor, Autocar India: “George always gets the right shot. There is no one else who will get the picture we wanted. He is the only major photographer in motorsport.”

Rally driver Lohit Urs, ranked No 2 in India, says, “George takes fantastic photographs. It is difficult to take good shots because the cars are moving at such high speed, but he has the skill. Whatever photographs I have in my collection, they have all been taken by him.”

George says his success has been in creating a market for motorsport pictures. “I was the first to take photographs of rallies in an organised manner,” he says.

Earlier, during the time of analog cameras, he would shoot around 250 pictures for a rally. But now, thanks to the digital revolution and a team of 3 photographers, around 4000 photographs are taken of a single rally.

“People have realised that motorsport has a good market,” he says. At present, there are more than a dozen automobile magazines in India.

Asked how long he would carry on in this physically demanding profession, George says, “Till I die. This is a passion for me.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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