In the late summer of 2021, Dominique Powers loaded up her hatchback with camera gear and camping equipment, attached her gravel bike to the rear rack and set off on a three week, 3000 mile road trip. Stopping off at parking lots, trail heads and open prairie, she set up a portable backdrop before awaiting the arrival of each next subject. The photographic series that resulted – The Leaders of Gravel – was subsequently published on The Radavist to great acclaim and set the pulses of commissioning editors and marketing directors racing.
Over a transatlantic call we discuss this breakthrough moment and Dominique’s passion for storytelling. How she fell in love with cycling during the pandemic and, with a life lived on the road, the simple joys of coming home.
Dominique is taking our call at the kitchen table of the house in Los Angeles she shares with her partner Ken. On the drainer sits a ceramic coffee dripper, sunlight is filtering through the windows and if I’m not mistaken I can hear the squawk of parrots. “Oh that’s just LA,” she confirms with a smile.
During the course of our conversation, Dominique mentions a time from her childhood when she left a library book out in the rain. The outcome of a meeting between her Mom and the librarian was deciding between paying for a replacement or volunteering in the library until she’d cancelled her debt. A voracious reader, Dominique chose the latter and it wasn’t until two years later that she found out her Mom had promptly paid the fine on her behalf.
An everyday story but one that illustrates how Dominique, even from an early age, understood the importance of owning the moment. An attitude she applied to her years as a digital technician working on high fashion and advertising campaigns.
“As with anything you do, your past experiences inform the way you approach new experiences. So all the time I was investing in being the best digital technician I could be, it taught me what working hard feels like.”
“But the longer I worked as a technician, the further away I felt from making that shift to being behind the camera. I was taking photographs the whole time but there were months on end when I wasn’t creating images with presence and purpose. And it took a sense of getting a little bit bored to prompt me to make the move.”
Continuing to work as a technician paid the bills and allowed Dominique the freedom to choose the stories she wanted to tell—in many cases the paycheck coming second as she set out to find her own voice and sense of authenticity. A process further guided by Dominique discovering cycling.
“I’m a very competitive person and grew up doing all these different endurance sports. And then during the pandemic, cycling quickly took over my life because what else do you do when you just want every day to pass? You spend hours and hours on the bike and it continues to provide motivation for the work I do now.”
These differing strands of interest and insight eventually coalesced in her Leaders of Gravel series—Dominique setting out from her home in Los Angeles on a circuitous route from one scouted location to the next. But before capturing a portrait with her medium format film camera, she took the time to converse with each subject to better understand their own experiences and stories.
“Trust takes time. You need to know, to a certain extent, the person holding the camera in order to feel comfortable lowering your guard. And I was very open about why I was doing the series and what I wanted from them. They didn’t necessarily need to smile or even be serious. It was all about who they were as a person so it was important to create a safe space where they could be a bit more vulnerable.”
With each subject’s eyes seemingly focusing through and beyond the camera to Dominique herself, she realised the profound impact the body of work had made on her own understanding of the creative process.
“On the road during the trip—even then, I knew this series would be with me forever. It was hard work – so many early mornings – but I felt this huge amount of gratitude that people agreed to do it and made the time. That they were willing to meet me at whatever deserted destination I had decided. And how this sense of magic found a place in the resulting portraits.”
“It came at a time when I really wanted – and needed – to reconnect with myself. An opportunity to explore my own sense of adventure and be present in the moment. I’d brought along my tent – fully expecting to be really roughing it – but the hospitality I experienced meant I only camped out the one time. People were so generous in opening up their homes to me that I just wanted to put that back out into the world. You can’t help but be changed by experiences like that.”
Hanging out at Sea Otter a few weeks after the story came out, every marketing director Dominique bumped into said they’d seen it—one notable outcome that followed involving another journey but one with a transatlantic flight.
“I’m very fortunate to be on a retainer with Giro and I’d mentioned this goal I had of shooting the Tour de France Femmes. They made a few phone calls and the project was given a green light. And then, knowing how establishing a relationship with my subjects is important to my work and that I’d never attended a World Tour race in Europe, we agreed that I’d spend a week with the Canyon-SRAM women’s team in the lead up to Paris-Roubaix.”
Landing in Paris, Dominique picked up her rental car and drove up to join the team on a course recon.
“It was such a blast and I’m so grateful – thank you, Mom – that I learnt to drive on a stick shift. And then once I was settled, every morning I’d show up an hour early to hang out with the soigneurs and mechanics so that on race day I really felt part of the team.”
Not having the same level of direction that she would usually enjoy shooting editorial content, Dominique quickly adapted to reacting to what was happening—building a level of trust with the riders such an integral part of the trip that Dominique was conscious of not getting in the way or asking too much.
“I went with the goal of meeting the athletes and team and to experience the culture of European World Tour racing. In effect, my pre-season training, so that when I return in the summer for the Le Tour Femme I can hit the ground running.”
Although a relative newcomer to cycling, Dominique is well placed to offer an opinion on how the sport is changing. And back home in the US, it’s gravel that is currently all the rage.
“Women want to exercise more and spend time outdoors. They want to create authentic experiences and cycling is the answer in so many ways. And because of the number of cars on the road, gravel is a perfect fit. That was how I discovered cycling and my own journey has taken me to the start line of Steamboat Gravel which was so much fun. Quite a challenge but I went into it wanting to test my metal. To see what I was made of.”
“I believe in ‘go big or go home’ so why not take a risk and roll the dice. I could have decided to line up some e-commerce photographic jobs and get well paid for my time. But I chose to do a photo series of the top women in gravel and then see what would happen.”
If Dominique does ‘go home’, right now that means LA and the house she shares with Ken. A place where she can feel emotionally open and where she disconnects from whatever outward pressures she might be feeling.
“I’m an early bird and generally wake up around 6:30am. I’ll have a cup of coffee with Ken and we’ll do the Wordle together before he starts his first morning meeting. Meanwhile I’ll have breakfast and write out a to-do list for the day. But even if I’m not working, having that early morning hour to greet the day and be reflective is really nice.”
As we wind up our conversation, I ask if she finds it easy to feel a sense of satisfaction in her work? Or whether, like some creatives, she’s always looking to the next project?
“You take the Leaders of Gravel series—that happened over a three week period and once I had all the images I needed and I’d written up the story, it was done. I don’t plan to ever go back and add to it. But I do feel this sense of forward momentum and there’s always something more that I want.”
And more stories to tell, I ask.
Dominique pauses for a second and smiles broadly before answering.
“That’s really what it’s all about.”
Feature image and video by Alex Colorito
All other imagery with kind permission of Dominique Powers / dominiquepowers.com