Formula E photographer Lou Johnson in an interview: Every photo tells a story
As an integral part of the Formula E paddock, photographer Lou Johnson has accompanied all developments in the electric series for seven seasons. The Brit is fascinated by documenting personalities exclusively in pictures. In an interview with 'e-Formel.de', Johnson talks about her role in Formula E, the beginnings of her photography career and how an encounter with Frank Biela shaped her.
It all started in the spring of 2016. When we meet Lou Johnson for the video interview in her living room decorated with plants and photo frames, the first thing she does is bring up the Paris E-Prix that year. Back then, on her first assignment at the track, she was photographing the stars, starlets and guests of Formula E in the VIP Club for the Spacesuit Media agency. A short time later, Spacesuit called her to the track a second time: for the season finale in London.
At Battersea Park at the time, Sebastien Buemi (then: Renault e.dams) and Lucas di Grassi (then: ABT Sportsline) were fighting for the title of the second Formula E season. Johnson again watched large portions of the E-Prix from the VIP area. "At some point, though, my boss (Spacesuit founder Ross Ringham) called me and asked if I was done with the job. Because he really needed someone in the Renault garage," she says today. "So I was instantly hooked!"
In the garage, she witnessed Buemi crowned champion at the end of a real shoot-out for the bonus points for the fastest race lap. Johnson was in the thick of the action when the decision was made - and accompanied the action with her camera. "That was a real baptism of fire!"
Growing up with motorsports
She gained her first photography experience in a theater. That one day she was drawn to motorsport nevertheless does not surprise her in retrospect.
"It started with my father, who was in charge of hospitality for Audi at Brands Hatch. At some point, Frank Biela came into the room and showed me his trophy for second place. I was like, 'Oh nice, but that's not first place!' I was about five years old at the time. The day after, he came back and put the trophy for first place on the table and said, 'Is that better?" laughs Johnson.
Johnson discovered a passion for photography in her youth. Time and again, she visited race tracks in Great Britain and snapped the cars from the grandstand. She shared the pictures on social networks - and eventually she came to the attention of Spacesuit Media.
Video: Lou Johnson explains her work at the track
To become a freelance motorsports photographer, however, Johnson emphasizes, there is no classic path. She advises gaining a variety of experiences and remaining steadfast. "There's no right or wrong," the 31-year-old says. "It's about persevering and getting a little lucky at some point. With me, there was a lot of luck involved, however, I used that luck to create new opportunities. You shouldn't miss any opportunity - then it will work out!"
Various portfolio despite tight schedule at the track
At the Formula E tracks, Johnson has experienced a diverse schedule since her first E-Prix. During the third season, she landed a permanent spot on the Spacesuit track team, and later she was also entrusted to take photos for Mahindra - the Indian team has been supplied with images by Spacesuit since 2014, when it was the newly founded agency's first client. The company now has numerous clients in its portfolio, including Formula E itself.
From portrait shoots with the racers, moving cars and emotional engineer:s to podium ceremonies, Johnson's Formula E portfolio is peppered with diverse photography. "In motorsports, you have to be simultaneously forward-planning and spontaneous. Example: If I'm photographing a podium ceremony with Lucas di Grassi, I know he's pretty much going to jump. I then always choose a slightly wider shot, otherwise I only have his feet in the picture. On the other hand, sometimes you have to be spontaneous, for example, when photographing 'raw emotion' in the garages."
Photographer explains: This is how a Formula E weekend works behind the camera
Johnson names the tight schedule on a race weekend as one of the biggest challenges. "I plan to leave about an hour before the first free practice. A lot of times I'll chat up people on the way, so I like to have a little time buffer."
"At the track, it's then a matter of photographing as many different motifs as possible for my team. That's not so easy, because training now only lasts 30 minutes. Again, it's important to stay flexible, because maybe the light changes faster than expected, or there's a fence in the way that wasn't there the day before. Then I run back, edit as many images as I can, and the second training session begins," Johnson describes. This is also the case for her colleagues - Spacesuit has a diverse team of six photographers and videographers at every Formula E race.
The qualifying sessions are accompanied by a team of photographers and videographers.
Johnson enjoys qualifying from the garage, "because there's a bit more action than in practice. There are tires being changed, cars being repaired and so on." Only after qualifying does she decide how to accompany the actual race.
"When 'my' drivers start far in front, I absolutely have to photograph the first turn after the start," explains Johnson, who takes an estimated 10,000 photos during a race day, the best of which end up in the Spacesuit Collections for customers, partners and media. "And if they're fighting for the win, then I have to set up my route to make it to the podium in time. Then it's back to image editing, and around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., my day is over."
Documenting personalities in the garages
For Johnson, the fascination of motorsports photography is the human stories. "Since Corona, I've noticed that I like the people in Formula E the best. That's what has always fascinated me: The behind-the-scenes stories of motorsport and the ability to tell their stories with just pictures. I love documenting how everyone in the garage has their own personalities and a sense of humor!"
The next opportunity at the racetrack will come for Johnson, who holds shares in Spacesuit Media like every other team member herself, in less than a week's time at the 2023 season opener in Mexico City. The race starts on Jan. 14, and ProSieben will broadcast the E-Prix live on TV in Germany.
Editorial note: Spacesuit Media is photo partner of e-Formel.de.