I first met Actiongraphers Yana Stancheva and Anton Anestiev, a professional rally photography team from Bulgaria, at the Hellas Rally last year. When they heard I was from Lithuania, they didn’t just greet me with a “hello” in my native language (which would have been surprising enough, as ours is an entertainingly complex language); they said “Mike Pukuotukas” instead, which means “Winnie the Pooh” in Lithuanian. “It’s easy to learn how to say “hello” in multiple languages, but we decided that instead, we’d learn to say “Winnie the Pooh” in as many languages as we could, just for the fun of it”, Anton grinned. That certainly made an unforgettable impression, and each time I spotted them taking photos at the special stages or in the bivouac, I just couldn’t help but smile.
Yana and Anton’s work is truly spectacular: regardless of whether they’re shooting Erzberg Rodeo or Moroccan desert races, their rally photography stands out. And while during a rally, the focus is always on the competitors, I wanted to know what life was like behind the lens of a camera.
So without further ado, here’s what it’s like to photograph rally racing, and why the madness is so infectious:
-How did you guys get into rally photography?
Anton: I’ve always been passionate about photography and also very curious about the technical side of it – cameras, lenses, flashes, and so on. Back in the day, I remember switching analog SLR cameras quite often, experimenting with different films and genres, but never made a living out of it. It was always a hobby, while I was developing my graphic design business and also professionally retouching other photographers’ photos. After 15 years in the field of graphic design, I met Yana and rediscovered my passion for photography. She was already photographing some sports events from the local motorsport scene in Bulgaria and I started helping her by retouching her photos firstly and after 2-3 events I bought a camera and started shooting alongside her.
At the time we were mostly photographing drift, rally, and hard enduro. The local scene was small and we weren’t making much money, but it was a lot of fun, we were traveling together, and making lots of new friends. This was also the time when we decided we wanted to make it into the international scene. We didn’t have a clue how, but we loved what we were doing, enjoyed working and traveling together. So we took that time to practice, learn, get better, test different lenses, cameras, flashes, and techniques, that would later help us build a style that differentiates us from the rest of the photographers already working in the international motorsport scene. The following year we started with our first international events – Erzbergrodeo, Rally Albania, and Red Bull Romaniacs. The next year we added more events to the list, some bigger ones and we started getting noticed by some of the big players in the industry. The rest is a story that’s probably too long to be told right now.
– Why did you choose action sports photography in the first place? What is it about rally racing that fascinates you the most?
Yana: Being a petrolhead myself, I love riding bikes, the sound of a 4-stroke engine, and smell of burnt rubber, so naturally the only subject I was interested in shooting when I started with photography was motorsports. Anton was more into sports like snowboarding, kitesurfing, and biking, so we added a few of these events to our portfolio too. But after shooting action sports for a while, there was really not that much in other photography genres to attract our attention.
We soon discovered that rally racing is probably the sport that excites us the most and has all the right ingredients to keep us interested and entertained. Rally photography is all about speed, adrenaline, great landscapes, remote locations, traveling, and adventure – the perfect blend we wanted.
– Which were some of the most memorable rallies you’ve photographed, and why?
Anton: our first events were definitely the most memorable ones. Erzbergrodeo in 2014, when we first heard the roar of 1500 enduro bikes in the Iron Giant, or that same year when we discovered the beauty of Albania, traveling more than 2000km around the country with Rally Albania. Next year – our first Hellas Rally and the amazing mountains and beaches of South and Central Greece. A year later – Carta Rally, our first desert rally in Morocco. There is always something very special about being at a rally or in a country for the first time, so these first-time editions are arguably the most memorable ones.
– How has your photography and editing process changed over the years?
Anton: Our style has definitely changed over the years, as we are always trying different techniques and equipment, but since day one we have heavily relied on the use of flashes and speed lights. Nowadays, flashes are more powerful, so we don’t have to carry that many with us, but still, they remain a very essential part. Four years ago we introduced the drones in our workflow and we’ve been using them more and more with each event, not only to photograph the landscape and give viewers a better sense of the location but to capture the action too. There are some more things we’ve been working on these days, but let’s keep them a secret for now.
– I bet you’ve got some crazy stories to tell. What were some of the most insane rally moments for you?
Yana: Well, to properly answer this question we might need to do a separate interview, and let’s not forget these stories are best told by the bivouac’s campfire! If I have to briefly highlight a few, that would be some risky side-by-side shooting of a rally truck at over 160 km/h off-road, an overheating press car that just stopped in the middle of one of the busiest junctions in Tirana, catching a ferry boat 4 o’clock in the morning to reach the special stage or hitchhiking to get back to the bivouac, smuggling 1500 cans of beer into Morocco or losing an important lens while driving on the dunes, only to find it on the next day by some sort of miracle.
There have been quite a few of these moments. I wouldn’t call them crazy. It’s just how rally life is.
– What’s the hardest part about your job?
Anton: Interestingly, the hardest part of our job as rally photographers is not entirely related to photography. Actually, it is the planning and organization of our daily routine, so we can always be right on time, in the right place, and where the action happens. After a day of action, when we get back in the bivouac, we have to be able to organize the delivery of all the photos to the organizers, sponsors, teams, and riders, in a timely manner. The list of our tasks during a rally day can be really overwhelming. Let me give you a quick rundown of a typical rally day.
We usually get up and leave the bivouac 1-2 hours before the first riders, which often means 4-5 o’clock in the morning. That interval is required so we can get to the section of the track that we’ve chosen the night before and explore the area to find the point where we expect some action to happen. If we’re both in the same press car, that means 2 points that preferably look different, even though they’re located in the same area.
Then comes the fun part when the first and fastest competitors start to arrive. After the last riders, we are off to our next point, if we’re lucky to be able to catch the competitors twice that day.
On the road, while I’m driving, Yana is downloading the photos from the memory cards, charging the drone batteries, navigating, keeping an eye on the live tracking, and trying to get us to the next point, by the fastest and safest route possible.
Once we’re done with the shooting at the second point, we head to the bivouac and that often means a few more hours on the road. This time usually Yana is driving, while I start working on the photos and delivering the first ones to our clients.
Depending on the time when we arrive in the bivouac and the activities there, we will decide if we have time for a quick tour around to shoot some lifestyle photos, while competitors and mechanics are working on their vehicles.
If I am running out of time for the delivery of photos, I usually stay and work on the computer, while Yana takes the shots in the bivouac. She also attends the evening briefing for the competitors to take photos and notes of any important information that will help us do our job better the next day.
Around 10 o’clock I’ve usually gone through some 4000-5000 photos, delivered the ones for our clients, and posted some of the best photos on social media, so we can have a media briefing or sometimes just a quick chat with the organizer to get his thoughts about the next day.
A quick dinner follows and we start prepping for the next day – exploring the track if we have one, trying to locate the areas that will be interesting in terms of landscape, planning the route to these areas, making a Plan B if something goes wrong and if we’re lucky, we can get 3-4 hours of sleep before we hit the road the next day. Now multiply this by 7 days to get the whole picture.
– What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
Yana: For me, the most rewarding part of our job has always been the traveling, the adventure, and most of all, the interesting people we meet along the way. We cross paths every year with thousands of people – riders, drivers, mechanics, organizers, clients, local people, and colleagues from all over the world. Every single person brings something interesting from their own culture and background. This builds a very special atmosphere at rally events that we both appreciate very much.
– How are you doing now that so many events have been canceled, and what’s in store for you for the remainder of 2020?
Anton: Honestly, it hasn’t been so bad to have a little time off, slow down and catch up with all the things we normally don’t have time to do. It’s been important to keep a positive mindset, being in such a rare situation and staying at home with lots of spare time. We’ve tried to make the most of it – reading books we never had time to read, working on some projects we’ve been putting off for ages, and trying to improve our work in areas we thought needed improvement.
Unfortunately, the situation is still unpredictable and it’s very difficult to plan anything. We might be without work for another couple of months, or we might face a very busy second half of the year, if all the rallies that are scheduled for September, October and November actually do happen.
With regard to buying any photos from past events, usually, the best way is to make a request through the dedicated forms on our website www.actiongraphers.com, or by dropping us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.