English teacher, photographer, frame builder, magazine editor? Trying to pin a label on Brad Hammonds isn’t at all straightforward but goes some way to illustrating a creative journey that mirrors a decade of travel. Reflecting on these interconnected professional pathways, Brad discusses his passion for working by hand, the joy of adventure cycling with Far Ride magazine and why he struggles with our tendency to seek more possessions.
It’s breakfast time in Texas and Brad Hammonds has just got in from walking his rescue greyhound, George. Casually dressed [Brad, not George], he’s tall – rangy in US parlance – and sporting a dark moustache and neatly trimmed beard. Moving to San Antonio with his wife Cary a little over six months ago, he mentions how they’re only just getting round to buying their first items of furniture; for many young couples a fairly commonplace task but perhaps more significant considering Brad has spent the past ten years travelling and working in a variety of different countries.
‘I’ve wanted to move to Japan since I was in 4th Grade. I’d made friends with a Japanese boy in my class and we’d go to his house after school and learn origami from his Mom. But the visa process was super hard if you didn’t have experience or certain qualifications – of which I had none [smiles] – but South Korea was a little more relaxed and only an hour’s flying time from Tokyo.’
‘So I accepted a position teaching English at an after-school programme in Changwon; a small city in the south of the country. Looking back, in some ways a surprising decision because I really hate the act of packing everything up and the disruption it causes. But since graduating I’ve moved on average every two years to a different city or country and I’m actually starting to quite like it.’
A self-confessed creature of habit, I’m wondering if establishing a routine is an important aspect of assimilating a new location and culture? Whether he needs the familiarity of his belongings in order to relax and feel comfortable?
‘Having a sense of home is definitely not about possessions. I have the things that I like and I like them very much but those are pretty minimal. Cary and I have been travelling together for over seven years so having her with me is the constant I need with regard to my perception of belonging somewhere.’
Alongside his teaching, photography has been another element in his portmanteau of professional roles. A camera bought with his first paycheck following the move to South Korea providing Brad with a creative outlet after graduating with a double major in communications and art.
‘At college I had my sculpture and I also did some metal smithing but neither of these were easy to bring with me when I was travelling. And it helped that my brother moved to Korea around the same time and also got a camera. I can remember as kids we’d go out into the woods with one of us dressed up as Big Foot and take grainy pictures that we’d try to pass off as real. So both of us getting into photography at the same time kind of fuelled my passion.’
‘Fortunately or unfortunately – but probably the latter [smiles] – when I first got into photography, precision was super important. At college I’d work with wood, plexiglass, stone – lots of different materials – but a narrative was almost secondary to getting things to be super exact. So when I started taking photographs, I wanted to nail the exposure and get the edit just perfect. Not a speck of grain with everything just so. But over the past few years I’ve been trying to break away from that and focusing more on the subject and the story I’m trying to tell.’
With part-time teaching allowing Brad to develop his photography on a professional basis, a move back to South Korea after a couple of years working in the Czech Republic and Spain resulted in another, unexpected, opportunity after he contacted a local frame builder to arrange to take some photographs of his workshop.
‘Somehow my request got a little mixed up because when I showed up, he pointed to one corner of his workshop and explained that this would be my space. I assumed he wanted me to stand there and take the photos [laughs] but when he started discussing ordering materials it kind of dawned on me that I was actually going to be building something. So everyday I’d go to work in the morning for three hours at my school before riding 15 km across the city to the workshop where I’d stay until 9 o’clock in the evening. I’d then ride home, have dinner and go to bed ready to start all over again in the morning.’
With this peripatetic life continuing for close to three years, Brad made a series of frames for himself and friends; the images of these builds depicting a flawless finish that reflects his love of detail. But after moving back to the States he’s now come to accept that although he will at some point return to frame building, it might never be as a sole profession.
‘Frame building – and by that I mean good frame building – has to be incredibly precise which takes years of getting right. And I began to realise that although I can be super dedicated to something, I’m not the sort of person to be dedicated to just one something. I always have too many interests going at one time and if you want to be a respectable frame builder that has to be your life. I would love to be able to do that and who knows how I’ll feel in a week or a year. But, for now, it’s an interest I want to pursue as a hobby and as I don’t have a road bike at the moment, at some point it will be time to build myself one’.
Describing himself as a one bike guy, being constantly on the move has compounded the difficulties of multiple bike ownership. But situations change and he’s tempted to convert the Surly Cross-Check he’s currently using as a reliable run around into a single speed when his road bike is ready.
‘I think I like the idea of multiple bikes or I might have the same issue I have with my jeans. I tend to buy a new pair every two to three years but it still stresses me out that I’m neglecting the older ones. They’ve got a couple of holes in them but they’re still good. So maybe I’d have similar thoughts if I had more than one bike?’
The fact that he’s putting so much consideration into bike ownership might have come as a surprise to a teenage Brad. At that time a regular but not overly accomplished mountain biker, it took the move to South Korea for him to first discover the sense of adventure exploring a locality by bike can offer.
‘I was getting tired of using the Changwon public transport so, together with a friend, we bought a pair of cheap mountain bikes. Riding them all around the city and really having a blast. And then later in the Czech Republic, Cary and I met this guy who was reconditioning old Soviet-era steel road bikes that seemed to weigh about 75 lbs. On our first ride Cary got her front wheel caught in some tram tracks and went right over the bars and then on our second ride both my brake cables snapped. A pretty interesting introduction to road cycling [laughs] but it allowed us to leave the city and explore the countryside surrounding Prague and that joy of discovering new places hasn’t left me since.’
With this newfound love of cycling now firmly established, a message over Instagram following his return to South Korea led to an invitation to ride from Hyunki Kim who at that time was working for Far Ride.
‘I had no idea who this guy was or what he did but we set something up and very early the next morning we met outside the temporary Far Ride office. I’d never heard of the magazine, didn’t know anything about it, but I went upstairs and met the magazine’s founder, Sogon Yoon, who immediately sat me down and started showing me a couple of issues. And I remember just being completely blown away.’
Riding together every week, it was six months into their friendship when Brad was booked to shoot a Far Ride feature in Busan. Coincidently they were looking for someone to help out with distribution and Brad accepted an offer to join the team; working for the magazine in the morning before teaching for a few hours and then riding over to the frame building workshop in the late afternoon.
‘It was all fairly intense but great fun and I’ve been with the magazine ever since. My official job title is Managing Editor & Distribution Wizard; the latter involving waving an email wand at every bike or magazine shop I can find. But now that we’ve established a really good network I’m focusing a lot more on writing, editing and taking photos.’
With two issues published each year, Brad views this commitment to print in the context of a journey by bike. You could take the car and arrive quicker but the experience wouldn’t quite be the same. And although he acknowledges that digital journalism needn’t be compromised in terms of quality, he feels the physicality of the magazine enables the reader to slow down a little and really appreciate the details.
‘It also places demands on us [smiles]. By committing to this format, it’s not like you can take a story down to make a few changes. But we really enjoy the process of pulling each issue together; appreciating that the journey is as important as the destination.’
Conscious that this might be a somewhat clichéd question, the mention of journeys prompts me to ask whether he has a favourite from the many he’s enjoyed with the magazine. Brad confirming that the ride across Mongolia featured in Issue 8 is the trip that stands out the most.
‘Setting out on the first day we honestly thought it was going to be a piece of cake [smiles]. We were riding this super smooth gravel and just flying on the 3T Exploro bikes we were testing. We’d allowed seven days for the trip and we were seriously predicting we’d get there in three and were worried about what to do with the other days. But literally within the first kilometre of the second day everything just turned upside down. The wind picked up into our faces and the road just fell apart with the following days nothing but potholes and washboarding. In the end we had broken blood vessels in our hands and I was wearing two pairs of bib shorts. But when we finally crested the last climb and saw the Gobi Desert stretching out in front of us we got so excited that we started sprinting. As it turned out, with no reference points we were still 30 km away and had to slow down [laughs].’
‘In some ways having to struggle is a good thing because if it’s too easy it can be enjoyable but not necessarily fun. And there have been times when I’ve not been 100% sure that I’ll finish a particular day’s ride. But, so far, it’s always been more of a slow down than a stop. And by overcoming difficulties we can address the level of comfort we want in our lives. Before my involvement with Far Ride I can’t remember ever taking a camera with me on a bike ride. I’ve never had a particularly outgoing personality – especially when it comes to strangers – and even though I really enjoy focusing on people in my travel photography, it can be terrifying to get the shot. So the bike was an escape from that and I always left the camera behind. I didn’t want that extra physical or mental weight. But now? I see it as more of a treasure hunt; out riding trying to find that perfect viewpoint.’
With a Far Ride trip to Scotland delayed due to the international travel restrictions and all his photography work temporarily on hold, for the moment life is focused around the couple’s San Antonio home. Cary joining Brad in working at home with the day structured around walking George. A state of affairs that Brad is taking in his stride.
‘We’re busy pulling together the next issue of the magazine and although we can’t travel at present, hopefully once this current situation begins to sort itself out we can start to make some plans. But in terms of where I’m going? I’m really not that picky. I guess it’s more about just going somewhere new and diving in.’
All images with kind permission of Brad Hammonds