Detour: Capturing the Unknown

We chat to Detour competition winner James Robertson about the parallels between photography and adventure, and the appeal of the unknown, which he’ll be exploring at the Japanese Odyssey.

Reading time: 3 min

Detour is a collaboration between Apidura, 7mesh and Ritchey to send one person to document The Japanese Odyssey, a 2,600 km ride around Japan this October.

After first whittling applicants down to a shortlist, the Detour judges decided upon a winning entry: Unnamed Finishers by James Robertson, a photographer well known for his work documenting the Transcontinental Race.

We spoke to James about the inspiration behind his application, and his plans for the ride ahead.

Images courtesy of The Japanese Odyssey
The Japanese Odyssey Mountain. Detour | Apidura

Images courtesy of The Japanese Odyssey

To travel by bike is to accept risk. It is a choice to move through the world in a different way, one that requires greater interaction.

The judges really liked the parallels you drew between the unknowns of a bicycle journey, and that of photography, in your Detour submission. Where did this inspiration come from?

I think it’s from watching the riders during the Transcontinental, and comparing their experiences to my own. To travel by bike is to accept risk – the risk of adverse weather, mechanicals, or failures of the mind and body. It is a choice to move through the world in a different way, one that requires greater interaction. In both cycling and photography you spend a lot of time creating your own luck, trying to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right kit – but there’s always this huge element of chance.

Can you give us an outline of how you plan to document the 2018 Japanese Odyssey? 

The camera I want to shoot on is a very specific film camera that I’m going to buy in Tokyo before the start. This means that I’ll obviously be flying there without a camera, but I suppose this is part of the unknown that attracts me.

I really want to keep an open mind as I start, but I’m also hoping to have an epiphany early on in the ride. I want to get a sense of the places I’m moving through and the people I’m interacting with.

After I’ve found the camera and done the ride, I’ll return back to Tokyo and process the images in a darkroom there.

Japanese Odyssey Gate. Detour Competition | Apidura

Japanese Odyssey Rindo. Detour Competition | Apidura

James will be shooting the ride with a Fuji GW690 medium format film camera. "It has a bit of history within Japan and was used extensively to photograph tour groups in front of vistas," he says.

What are the uncertainties?

There’s going to be no point in just shooting typical ‘going for a ride’ shots, but on film instead of digital – that doesn’t make sense. I’ll be trying something new, and that’s where the uncertainty is. This is about making photography an integral part of the ride, and the fact that there is no benefit to playing it safe with the images is quite liberating. My worry will be finding time for photos whilst still riding 260 km per day.

The Japanese Odyssey Spirit of Riding. Detour Competition | Apidura

Did you feel that the spirit of the Japanese Odyssey resonates with you, and what you want to get out of the event?

Absolutely. The Japanese Odyssey is all about discovery and exploration, and in a literal sense, who wouldn’t want to explore Japan – especially in a way that’s as immersive as bicycle travel? For me, having documented long-distance rides before, there’s also a strong element of wanting to explore the other side of the camera too – which I hope will then feed back into, and help to grow, my photography.

Urban Bikepacking Race. Japanese Odyssey | Apidura

Sea Side Riding. The Japanese Odyssey | Apidura

What’s your setup looking like?

I’m going to be riding a Ritchey Outback bike and using 7mesh clothing, with an Apidura Expedition Series packing system. As for the camera itself, the one I want to get is quite large in size, and totally inappropriate for bikepacking. I’ve been working with the Apidura product development team to make a custom Pack for it, which should make it as accessible as possible for the ride. It’s still not exactly quick draw though, which will help me to slow down and think.

The Japanese Odyssey starts in Tokyo on 31st October. Go behind the scenes of Detour and follow James’ ride on Instagram.