"In the late 80's the youth of Ireland had a narrow escape when Stephen Davison gave up his plans to become a school teacher. "I would have been a crap school teacher- I was only interested in the steady money "
Meet Stephen Davison the legendary Northern Ireland motorsport photographer
The photographer documenting the Ulster edges...
The ragged swagger of Irish road racing has been defined through the lens of Stephen Davison. But the 59 year old Antrim-based photographer, who started shooting pictures in the 1980s, has documented more than the hedge cutting, kerb scraping action that happens every year all over the Island of Ireland. He has captured the spirit of a passionately committed coterie of heroic nutcases most of us have never heard of.
For insiders of the Irish road racing scene, the people in Stephen’s pictures carry a warrior-like mantle. But what makes Stephen’s work different from that of the countless shutterbugs that litter the paddock? “It comes down to instinct”, he says. I’m looking over Stephen’s shoulder, in his studio, at a selection of images of mostly Irish men, captured mostly existing at the absolute limit of what it is possible to do on public roads on a superbike. “When you’ve been doing it for a certain amount of time, you know the kit you’re using, you know where to put yourself to capture a particular piece of action, and it’s just a question of pressing the shutter at the right moment.”
Photography is, of course, all about capturing precisely the particular fraction of a second where form, light and movement coalesce to create an image worthy of publishing — but when you’re talking about the stacked up moments of peril that exist in your average Irish road race — then those moments are taught, elusive and precious. “For me, road racers exist in this place where they are living completely on the edge, completely at the limits of what is possible on a motorcycle,” he explains. “There’s a parallel there to what was, and continues to be going on politically in Ireland.”
At the start of his career as a photographer, Stephen was at the front line of the troubles, the civil conflict in which Northern Irish communities fought for space and identity along broadly sectarian lines. It was a tough time to live in Northern Ireland – but a fruitful time for photojournalism. Documenting both the day to day life of the community for local newspapers and the madness of races like the Ulster Grand Prix, which happens on Stephen’s doorstep in Dundrod, and the Northwest 200 in Portrush, were radically different, but ultimately intertwined elements of the life he documented.
Northern Ireland’s back roads – byzantine lanes and lines of demarcation between communities and cultures – are also madly suited to racing motorcycles very quickly. “The whole of Ireland is mostly a really rural place, Stephen says. “The roads are not very wide, and they follow the contours of the landscape. If you look at North Antrim, County Down, where most of the top Irish road racers come from, and where the Dunlops come from – this is where they cut their teeth and learned their craft, and often on open roads. That’s what honed their skills, that’s what made them the racers they are.”
When you think of Northern Irish sports stars there are two names you think of: George Best got the airport named after him. But late road race legend Joey Dunlop is carried in the hearts of at least as many Irish sports fans. “Joey Dunlop once said that all you needed to know about road racing was that there are grey bits and green bits, ” he says. “And you just had to keep the bike on the grey bits.” Amongst the definitive body of work that Stephen has created, some of the most loved images are of Dunlop. But surprisingly, Stephen’s relationship with him was one of a classic photojournalistic fly on the wall. “Even though I photographed him a lot”, he says, “I never had a conversation with him. It was that kind of distance that allowed me to get so close.”
That journalistic distance, you feel, was that of a hero and an acolyte as well as a reporter and his subject. “Joey Dunlop was in the field of the first road race I ever saw,” he says. And as I began to pick up a camera I just always photographed him. And if you’re photographing something or someone week
in week out, you follow it, and you grow with it.” Racing for over 30 years, Joey Dunlop became a household name, winning world championships and putting Irish motorcycle sport on the global map. “What made him such a hero to us was that he came from the same stock. And to see one of your own go out there and take on the world, we were so proud of that.”
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