Emily Maye: A Picture Can Say More

“And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free?”
--Khalil Gibran

Emily Maye isn’t a cyclist, her background is in ballet. She didn’t grow up riding or racing. Yet, Emily has been embedded in Europe with the WorldTour teams for the last five years, part of the movement that created a genre of cycling photography that looks at the human elements, the behind the scenes, the real grit that surrounds cycling. 

After graduating from Columbia University focusing on screenwriting, Emily labored day after day, trying to write. It wasn't unsuccessful and she had work. Yet, there was something else, there had to be another way to tell stories and her focus shifted. Dabbling in photography had piqued her interest, initially.

But how do you break out of pursuing a career you thought was your calling? Well, you have to let go.

Photography: Emily Maye

This is an interview with somebody constrained by an idea about what she thought she wanted, stuck in ideas about what she was supposed to do.

Meet one of cycling's most sought after photographers, former writer,Emily Maye.

Danny: We often say that one of the elements of true expression is simply putting it all out there. So, what about photography connects all your passions into one?

Emily: When I was in junior high, I fell in love with movies, I knew I wanted to make movies. I also really wanted to be a ballet dancer at the time. My mom had been a professional ballet dancer and I grew up in her school. And ballet was about the physical perfection of trying to make something perfect and proportional and all these things that lend themselves to aesthetics. In the corps de ballet you want to be in the line with other people. It’s very much about this balance and aesthetic and I think this lends itself to photography quite well. A lot of ballet is about storytelling and using yourself as a vehicle to tell stories. And then falling in love with cinema I saw the similarities, the storytelling aspect of it, as it was visually translated, was really, really, really powerful.

Danny: I think there's a myth that a path to a passion is linear. You just know. But that's probably not how most people find their careers and passions. Your path to photography sounds very non-linear. So, what were the steps? I know you have a propensity to storytelling but it sounds like story telling is in your blood, sort of.

Emily: At a certain point I started to realize how much fun I was having with photography and how much potential there was to tell really incredible stories often in a single image instead of a collection of images. I started to shift towards that interest mentally, and I think because I allowed myself to get better at it without holding onto it so tightly. If I could go back to my younger self, I would say 'Just write. Don’t analyze it, and you’ll get better.' But I would labor over every word along the way. 

So…that was kind of how I got started. And about five years ago, I made the shift completely and haven’t looked back.

It was after that first sort of year of doing a lot of photography I was still writing at the same time.

I never feel like I avoid photography and I like all parts of the process. I like the conceptualizing and the shooting and the editing and putting it out into the world. I feel fortunate to have a positive relationship to all parts of the process. But then I think, there was something so beautiful in that writing angst that makes it unfinished business for me.

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Danny: What was the transition like, from ballet to cycling and sports photography? How did you get to where you are?

Emily: Ballet’s been part of my whole life, I can’t imagine my life without it. I was three when I started, it’s funny when I think about people going to the ballet, what do they see when they don’t know anything about it. For me, I’m evaluating everything a dancer’s doing. My family watched cycling when I was a kid. We watched the Tour de France. I had these memories of Ulrich falling in the rain in the TT, the Lance musette, the Beloki crash, and the T.V. being on at five in the morning.

When I started to learn about the Classics, the sport came alive for me.  The lesser heroes are more interesting than the guys who win the Tour most of the times. I was really fascinated by it.

I was working on a couple of scripts at the time, I wanted to do an early Tour de France history film, I researched everything I mostly liked writing because I like doing research, so I learned as much as I could about it.

One of the main differences between some of the other photographers who are photographing cycling, is how we got there, or why we’re there. Some are there because they love riding their bikes, or they love the activity of cycling. My interest is in the history of the sport of cycling, I would say.

I decided I was going to write that film, I was still photographing a lot, but I was still writing, so I decided to take some pictures for a mood board as a procrastination technique, so I went to Tour of California in 2011. When I started looking at the pictures, there was something in them that got at the heart of the tone of what I liked about the sport. So I made a 40 picture selection, I think. I sent them out to a couple blogs and things, I got offered a job after that.

I’ve been inside of teams for four years since.

You have to think about how to put yourself in the right position to get the images you want or to be there when something happens, so I do have a game plan for that and then I just try to be alert.

Danny: Bike races are fluid, you never know what’s going to happen to a degree? Do you create a game plan?

Emily: Not a lot, because I do mostly documentary photography, and that’s absolutely where my heart is in photography. I love being able to steal moments that actually exist.

So, I really love the aspect of stealing moments for that…there’s no plan that you can make. But I like conceptualizing in the sense being in those moments when they happen, what sort of scenario you want to put yourself into or what kind of angle you would like to capture.

You have to think about how to put yourself in the right position to get the images you want or to be there when something happens, so I do have a game plan for that and then I just try to be alert.

Danny: Ballet is athletic and incredibly elegant. It also requires quite a lot of power. Yet, it’s controlled. That’s very different from sports, no?

Emily: I feel like, one of the things with sports, what’s always interested me, with having a theater and dance background, is that it is a theatrical event in a lot of ways. If you go to a football game, it’s very much a performance. They have the pressure to perform. The nooks and crannies of a stadium are like a theater, you would go down underneath and that’s where the locker rooms are and it has that aspect of it. I like showing people more of the stuff they don’t normally see as opposed to focusing just on the event.

What’s my angle? What do I want to show, what do I want to capture, or what interests me, more than anything? But you can’t plan somebody to win, or lose, or get hurt.

Danny: Speaking of delivering. Any sort of mental process with revision? That’s something that’s very difficult, especially when it comes to your own product.

Emily: When I go back and look through photos, I think the selection process is really important for what you put out there. There are different parts of the process.

It is important to select what you put out there. I’m able to make the selection process completely detached emotionally. If the picture’s not right I throw it away. 

I don’t hold onto it and wish it were a better photo than it is, you can’t fake it.