Once a year, I usually go back to Germany to visit Mama, bond with old friends, and make sure that nothing crazy happened while I was gone. I also try to work on some personal or stock projects when I’m there, since I like working outside of New York in general, for the obvious reasons like cheaper, easier, nicer, and with parking. So, when a friend told me about a kid near my hometown, who was supposed to be a crack BMX’er, I thought this could make for a nice little Getty shoot.
The rider’s name was Johannes Burg (which would’ve been funny in South Africa) and he was just a hint over 18. We talked about the shoot and he was totally into it, so we decided to meet at his local BMX track, a dirt loop with plenty of built-in jumps that was pretty much abandoned when we got there. Ideal circumstances. We started off with an easy shot to warm up.
Johannes had to go full speed into a bank, pop the front wheel a bit and then avoid the lights and the camera. We had this shot after a few tries and moved on to the next and more difficult scenario.
For the next shot he had to fly off a jump and I had to catch him in mid air. We picked the jump with the nice tree details in the background and set up lights from the 4 corners. We had one Profoto 7B with 2 heads and regular reflectors on one side and and a borrowed Hensel Porty with 2 heads and regular reflectors on the other side. We did a few trial runs to see where I could set up the camera and to get the timing down since I couldn’t see him (and he couldn’t see me) until he was in the air. We nailed it pretty much straight away. This was the second frame we shot:
And we should have moved on, but we didn’t. Why, you ask? Because we were stupid, that’s why.
Johannes and I looked at the good frame and we felt that if we can get that on the second jump, we can get something even better if we keep trying. During the next few jumps I kept inching in with the camera for something a bit more straight on and Johannes kept trying to get more height out of the jump. Finally between my moving the camera closer to the landing spot and Johannes changing the line of his approach we created this situation:
Johannes came over the hill and he was pointing fairly straight at me. I let out a mighty gulp, clicked the shutter way too early and tried to hustle out of the way with a tethered Mamiya RZ and a tripod. Johannes tried to change his trajectory in mid flight, which is never a good idea, though I’m still grateful he did. He was way too high anyway and came down hard in the flat part after the jump right next to me. He fell and slammed into the next bump, breaking his hand and his bike in the process.
There was a pretty depressed drive to the hospital, that didn’t get any better when he realized that he would miss two major championships he was training for. Johannes got his x-rays and his cast without any trouble thanks to the German healthcare system and the most positive take on the situation was, that it could have been worse.
I had a miserable, sleepless night after this disaster and felt out of sorts for a few more days. Mostly because looking back I couldn’t believe we kept repeating a dangerous stunt for no good reason and getting sloppier and sloppier as the shoot went on. I felt like an amateur and a moron.
I saw Johannes again a few days later and he was back in good spirits ( I guess, if you’re a serious BMX’er, you can’t dwell on spills and injuries ) and that in turn made me feel better. He was not pressing charges against me (yeah) and I reimbursed him for his smashed up bike parts. The lessons of that shoot are still with me of course: Don’t push your or other people’s luck, stop when you have the shot, be in control, don’t egg each other on, work precisely and carry insurance.
The most interesting part of that last shot, is an extreme crop, because this is the face of someone, who knows he’s in trouble.
There is also a curious little aside to the story: I promised Johannes to get him some bike parts from the famous S&M Bikes in California. All the parts he wanted had names like Beringer Fork, Beringer Stem, Beringer Bar, etc. , I didn’t think anything of it until I met Matt Beringer himself last year on another BMX shoot. And there you have it, it is a small world.