Mountain bike photography legend JB Liautard grew up south of Lyon in France. He enjoyed a lengthy creative career at Commencal, where he was the staff photographer from 2016 until 2023. He is no stranger to the Red Bull Illume
photo competition, taking home a category win in 2019 with not one, but two photos in the finals that year. He has been a semifinalist on numerous other occasions. This year, JB took the win in the Playground Category with an amazing image shot in the sand dunes of Peru with Kilian Bron. Christie caught up with JB in Solden
, Austria, to get the scoop on how that shot came to be.
Hey JB, tell me about your incredible photo here. It was taken with a drone, right?
Yeah, it was taken in Peru. We were with Kilian (Bron). It’s an interesting story, I’d told Kilian that I wasn’t available before a certain date, but I told him if he was gong to do something amazing then he should tell me and I’d have to make myself available. And he didn’t mention anything when he went to this location with the skier that you see in the video. So, I showed up there, and they had already left. I was pretty pissed as a shot like that is basically what I came to Peru for. But we’d planned the whole trip on a strict schedule. But the whole week I keep saying to him “hey, you know, we’re going back to that spot at the end of the week”. And then close to the end of the trip I was like “dude, we’re going to make this happen”. So, we changed our flights, and I waited in the hotel for five days whilst waiting for him to finish the Inca Avalanche race. On the evening of the race, we left Cusco. We hired a driver to take us twelve hours from Cusco to Nazca.
Was it just yourself and Kilian?
Yes, and the driver. We left at 6pm and arrived at 6am. We didn’t really sleep as it was sketchy Peruvian mountain roads. I drove half the way and the driver drove the other half, because Kilian was, like, done after the race.
We had a quick nap at our next hotel and went to the dune the same day. I had this knee injury at the time, it was really swollen so I couldn’t really bend my knee. We drove there, kind of rutting in the deep sand as we didn’t want to get stuck. We had one night there only. We had to climb up the dune which was about 400 metres high.
That’s pretty high to climb… on sand.
Yeah, especially with a camera backpack or a bike. It’s such a mission. But I saw the images from the video guys before so I knew what I wanted to do. Once I was up there I got my drone out. But it was hard, as it all looks the same. Amazing and surreal, but it’s the same pattern, all the little lines going for kilometers.
I imagine it was tough to even to see where Kilian was?
Yeah, it was really hard to know which line he was going to ride. We spent like ten minutes figuring out exactly where he would need to be in the frame. And the drone isn’t as reliable as a DSLR, you don’t have that same burst mode. There is a bit of a lag sometimes, and sometimes not, so it’s hard to know when exactly to press the shutter. So, I only had one shot, as we would have seen the tire marks in the same if we’d had to shoot it again. Kind of like skiing, you have one try.
So, I was thinking let’s make this happen. I couldn’t tell him even where I was taking the picture, it’s abstract, it’s just sand. When you’re there you can just see the slope but you can’t say like “oh do a big turn by the second tree”, it’s just sand. There’s no reference points. So it was kind of a gamble, I was just like okay, just go down, do your thing, I’m going to try and make it happen.
First time, we got it, as you can see by no other tire marks.
So you got it the first time, you didn’t have to try another spot?
No, it was the first photo, and okay we were done. We did some other shots with the drone, some landscapes and stuff, but I knew this one was a strong one. We slept in a tent down the dune, came back up for sunrise, which was hard when you can only bend one knee. We went at like 3 or 4am, and shot in the morning at sunrise. And then, we just packed our stuff, took the luggage and drove on to Lima, and boom in the plane, back to France. It was a super last minute, one morning and one evening trip.
That’s so sick. So when you first started shooting, were you always a mountain bike photographer?
Yeah, I started by riding bikes when I was around fourteen, and taking photos around eighteen. I got injured, I broke my collarbone when I was younger, and the first thing I was thinking about was hanging with my friends, so I just wanted to stay with them and keep shooting. I think I was shooting on a Gopro 1 at the time. But I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no idea. But when I was 18, I knew I wanted to do a bit more.
But before that you just wanted to hang out with your friends?
Yeah, pretty much.
So when did the career start off?
2016, I think. I was 21.
So three years after you got your first professional camera?
Yeah. Before that, I was working with magazines a little bit on the side of my studies. I did two years of photo school. My parents were really into studying, so I thought I would make everyone happy and do that as well and meet people and gain experience. It’s a bit hard to make it your full time job like right away, when you’ve just started. It’s a bit ambitious. So I was doing bits on the side, free for magazines and stuff. And then in 2016 I started working for Commencal until last June, so 7 years.
And what do you do now?
Same thing, but freelance. And I’m trying to shoot some other sports as well. I love biking, but I’ve kind of reached a point where I’m on the edge of my creativity I would say. So I feel like when shooting something else, I have more to play with. More to progress. You cannot feel you’re limited by your own ideas. I’ve traveled for seven years around the world - what’s next? Even when I look at this photo, it’s probably one of my favorites, but I’m like, am I really going to do something better?
What about ski photography?
No, first I need to learn how to ski. I like fly fishing, I want to do more of that, any adventure sport outside. Camping, hiking, I just like being out there and shooting in nature.
And the classic question, what advice would you give to up and coming bike photographers?
It’s a tough question. I guess you really have to be passionate about what you’re doing. Because if there’s no passion, you’re going to get tired of it when you’re not passionate. So that’s why sometimes with biking I feel like I’m a bit limited, because I’ve done it so much, and I still have the passion, but I feel like maybe I need to step back to have more passion. So, you really have to know what you want, because it’s easy to imagine what life as a full time freelance photographer is. But it’s a real job. It’s not just hanging out with your friends, you have to spend countless hours editing, scouting, in the cold, high altitude, whatever. Sometimes from 8am-2am, it’s long days. If you’re not motivated or passionate enough, for me it doesn’t work.
Just go out and shoot. Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you. If you want to do something, just do it. If you can, just pay for the trip yourself, take the photos, and have something to show. Because, for me at the beginning if I wasn’t getting paid I wasn’t shooting. And then I had nothing to show anyone. So at first, you’ve just got to find a rider to shoot together and build eachother up.
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