F8 Magazine Interview (January 2011)
Who is Robert Leon?
I’m originally from Montreal Canada and I’ve been a professional photographer for the past 30-years. I started in photography as an advertising and corporate photographer and in 1987 moved to Milan, Italy where I lived and worked for 9-years as a fashion and advertising photographer.
While in Italy I rediscovered my love of travel and documentary photography, which is what I’m now doing. I’m now based out of Vancouver which is a beautiful place to live, because it’s surrounded by mountains and the ocean.
I think that the National Geographic and LIFE magazines have had something to do with your decision to be a documentary photographer…
When I was a young child the world of images I saw in my parents’ collection of National Geographic and Life magazines fascinated me and I’d dream of going to those places because I was fascinated by the World’s cultures and exotic places.
How would you describe your photography?
I’m a travel and documentary photographer and photography is my way of contributing to other people’s appreciation and understanding of diverse cultures and their traditions. I photograph people in their environment, especially traditional and indigenous people or people with lots of character who have interesting stories.
You lived in Italy for nine years. You worked there as a fashion photographer. What are your personal opinions about that stage in your life?
Living and working in Italy was a great experience. Art is everywhere and living immersed in it evolved my photography’s aesthetic characteristics. Italy is a big creative center with historic and contemporary artistic environments for creative people, so the creative vibration of the arts gets absorbed into your being along with Italy’s passionate way-of-life.
At that time, fashion photography was a good creative outlet for me that expanded my abilities to work with people and convey moods or feelings that transcend photography’s flat 2D-plane so that images can go beyond the photograph’s flat physical dimension and express emotions or feelings of people and places.
In other words, getting the equipment and technique out of my way so my heart and soul come out to play visually and poetically without gimmickry so imagery can transcend photography’s flat 2D-plane and communicate a mood, or convey a sense of person and place so while looking at a 2d image they are transported to another World and get a sense the energy of the image whether it’s a person or a place.
After awhile, the context of fashion photography became very meaningless in terms of fulfilling my desire to photograph reality and places around the world. Since the content of the work wasn’t providing me with the satisfaction that my true calling as a photographer would give me – which is to show authentic people, places and nature around the world with a positive viewpoint.
I had the opportunity to shoot, travel and work on documentary assignments for Italian magazines and eventually left the fashion industry to work on what really interests me; experiencing life while seeing the world with interesting people and making a contribution for positive evolution by showing the beauty we have on Earth.
You are passionate about people, travel and indigenous cultures. Is photography your excuse for travelling and satisfying your curiosity?
No, it pays the bills. Just joking! It’s not an excuse, it’s a way-of-life I choose and make happen because I’m passionate about the World and my life in it. I love photography because it’s my way of creative expression – I’m a right-brained visually inclined person.
My way-of-being has evolved by learning many things in many places about people and myself. My curiosity about the Earth and people has progressed into a mission as a responsible observer showing truth and beauty around us. My passion for photography has evolved into being a visual voice for all cultures and making a contribution to society, while evolving myself as a person with the experiences I have and expanding out to others sharing and learning from their experiences.
The curiosity to see and go places evolved into enthusiasm to do something good, which gives me the energy to continue doing what I do. I consider us all indigenous people of Earth so we are all responsible for the Earth; my photography of indigenous cultures has no boundaries and includes everyone.
When you live with indigenous people for a period of time, how do you feel personally? How do you see the modern society in which we usually live?
I’ve felt connected in some profound ways, in terms of feeling at home with authentic people who have wisdom and good sense of values living harmoniously with Earth and each other. But in other ways I feel alienated from them because I’m from the Western World where a lot of people are very destructive to the Earth. It looks like Indigenous people have a very large amount of disdain towards “modern society” – they see the huge amount of damage being done to the Earth – who they (and I) consider Mother Earth – and so they take the raping of the Earth for Her resources very personally.
So bridging that gap between me, being a Westerner, and the indigenous people takes patience and gaining their trust. It’s a bridge with a huge gap between the two sides; on one side of the bridge is the “modern” world’s immense population with unsustainable consumerism and on the other side are people living and sustaining themselves in harmony with each other and Mother Earth.
But the side with most power – the “modern” world – has the most damaging effects in terms of the environment, nature and social well-being. The discrepancy seems really enormous, like a battle between David and Goliath. It seems the only way balance will be reestablished on Earth is by an enormous shift in people’s consciousness and evolving humanity – or a Divine phenomenon like an Avatar coming to Earth to reset the balance and restore harmony.
On two occasions in the mid-nineties you were with the Lacandones, a Mayan indigenous group, in the Lacandona Jungle, in Chiapas, Mexico. What can you tell us about this experience?
It’s one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was the only non-Lacandon person there and had an authentic immersion into their culture. It was a great opportunity to serve a greater cause doing my lifework and being a voice for Indigenous people and Earth, because when I arrived at the Lacandon village called Naha it was being threatened by people invading their land and illegally cutting trees.
The trees where being cut in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve which is part of the Selva Lacandona region, the Lacandon Maya home that is protected by the Lacandons. They where in a state of crisis and told me the people cutting down the trees would kill anyone getting near them and who tried to stop them.
With two Lacandon guides I hiked through the jungle and when we got close to the area – about 1 kilometer from where the trees were being cut – the Lacandon guides told me I was on my own. As I tried to be brave in front of them – as if I did this everyday – I tried to stop thinking I was insane and thought to myself… “Great, there’s no toilet around here to change my underwear!” So I continued into the jungle hiding behind bushes and trees as I crept along photographing the cut trees… and nobody saw me.
When I returned to Naha village the Lacandons knew I wasn’t there to exploit them – I was there to tell their story. They accepted me into their village and let me photograph their leader, Chan K’In Viejo, and rituals that few outsiders have ever seen at that time.
When you stay for long periods of time in places which lack certain infrastructures such as electricity, what photographic equipment do you tend to take with you?
I’m shooting digital now but still have my film cameras and could take those in a situation where there’s no electricity or I’ll use solar powered chargers for the digital cameras in that situation. I try not to be too reliant on infrastructure and like to travel with only essential gear so I’m basically self-reliant.
Cuba, Greece, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Israel… Which of these places would you go back to with your camera?
Right now, India’s vibrant culture draws me there to continue photographing more of the incredible culture that their country has to offer. It’s a country with so much going on and the stories are never ending. Plus, I really love Indian food!
And what new places would you like to visit? What new projects do you have in mind?
As I mentioned I’ll be going to new places in India and also Bali to photograph the culture and spirituality for a book project I’m working on.
In the series “North American Legends” you present a few mythological images of the Mohawk culture. How did this idea come about?
With The North American Legends assignment I had creative freedom to photograph a 24-page fashion editorial. I was in a transitional stage doing more travel/documentary photography and wanted to do something different rather than a typical fashion editorial.
So I combined fashion with the Mohawk’s cultural story and traditional symbolism. I researched their mythological and cultural symbolism, got input from the Mohawk people and then created images that reflected their culture. Rather than being just fashion photographs the images tell a story about Mohawk culture, their symbology and mythology.
I was fortunate to photograph a couple of great Mohawk elders; Kanentakeron or Mike Phillips who portrayed the Huron native elder named Sachem in The Last Of The Mohicans staring Daniel Day-Lewis; and Albert Stalk, the iron worker who climbed the Eiffel Tower on the outside without a safety rope. We had a great collaboration which helped keep the feeling of the Mohawk people and authentic meaning of the Mohawk symbology.
Do you recall any photograph which is particularly special for you and, if so, the moment in which you took it?
Yes, one of my favorite images is of a Sadhu in Rajasthan India. A disheveled man was putting symbols on people’s foreheads as a blessing. He comes to me and makes a symbol on my forehead, but seeing I’m a Westerner he blesses me saying cheerfully: “Merry Christmas!!!” …but Christmas is not near. We start laughing hysterically. When we straighten ourselves out he says his name is Sadhu Yogi Baba Ramaeshuranand and eagerly invites me to his temple.
In his eight-by-eight foot cinder block temple he did a spiritual practice and started raising his hands up in the air and laughed with joy. At that moment a beam of sunlight came through a doorway lighting-up his hand. I later asked him what he was doing and he said: “I’m sending joy and happiness up to the Universe so it falls back to Earth as a rain of joy and happiness onto people”.
I thought about what he said and realized that’s a summary of what I wanted my photography and life to be about. I want to show people around the world in a positive way by sending images into the World and hopefully it will have a positive effect. Sure, there’s a time to show hard World issues but I also like to show more positivity and beauty because I believe showing positivity will create positive change.
Do you think that photography helps us to get to know our roots better both as individuals and as a society?
I think photography helps gain insight onto our roots, but not just cultural roots. Documentary photography shows who we are and what we’re doing on Earth in an essential way.
It shows where we where, where we are and where we’re potentially going. It’s a track record showing our roots and our probable future direction.
Photography is a mirror reflecting humanity back at people to contemplate themselves. It raises our consciousness individually and societically by revealing our true nature and our relationship with Earth and inspires evolving in positive proactive ways. When needed, photography can show adversity on Earth to make a comparison between what we don’t want and what we want; showing choices between positive and negative, light and dark, good and bad … what we want or don’t want to have as our roots.
I hope photography will somehow foster greater compassion and love for people and the Earth, or maybe help people see and appreciate the beauty in all cultures and Earth. Photography has the ability to strip all of the facades away, the clothes, the environment and you see in the person’s eyes and the true essence of their soul is shown.
Images can speak beyond a two-dimensional plane into multidimensional planes where emotions are experienced and a person’s roots can be revealed in a very clear manner. Photography has a magical energy that can change many things for the better and I believe that understanding our roots can be very healing for our planet.
Seeing we all have souls we can look at each other very differently than just looking at another person as a material subject for personal gain … there’s too much of that going on now and people are sick of it.
Where would you like to see yourself in ten years’ time?
I’d like to see myself still in really good health with my lifework flowing smoothly doing what I love to do and have books or projects out that have a positive effect on people. I’d like to see my photography making a contribution to society and the Earth – this would be the most gratifying thing for me regarding my photography.
Thank you, Robert, for sharing your thoughts and your photos with us.
F8 Magazine Cover with Interview and Portfolio
Cover of F8 Magazine with Interview & Portfolio