Asian Photography Magazine Pro-Profile: Robert Leon “The Colour of Magic“
By Karina Aggarwal
As a kid Robert Leon would help his father make black and white prints, mesmerized by the images that would magically materialise. To him it was the best magic show and he was able to create it. Even today it doesn’t cease to amaze him how photography evolves. It is this fascination that has kept him going in his photography career spanning over 30 years and his transition from a fashion to advertising and corporate to adventure-travel and documentary photography.
When I saw Robert Leon’s gallery online, I spent hours browsing through the albums of Cuba, Italy, Santorini, Guatemala, Istanbul, Israel and other nations. At the end of each I remember feeling that I had just had a lesson in history. And the more I thought about it, I realised that a great travel photographer captures so much more than just a pretty picture. He makes you privy to the lives, cultures and traditions of people halfway around the world. He introduces you to people you will never actually meet, but still share with them a snippet of their lives.
Leon’s online profile pegs him as an adventure travel photographer and documentary photojournalist, and while the individual terms are simple enough to understand, I wondered what it really entailed. Here’s what he said, “I think the best way to describe what some of my work involves is to tell you about one my experiences. It was with the Lacandon Mayas in Chiapas Mexico. They are the last surviving link and direct descendants of the Mayan Empire. It was incredible to be living with them in the Lacandon Jungle where they run in the rainforest barefooted and are the guardians of the rainforest called the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve.
When I arrived at the Lacandon village called Naha it was being threatened by people invading their land and illegally cutting trees. They where in a state of crisis and told me that the people cutting down the trees would kill anyone who came near or who tried to stop them. With two Lacandon guides I hiked through the jungle. When we got close to the area – about 1 kilometre from where the trees were being cut – the Lacandon guides told me I was on my own. I tried to be brave in front of them – as if I did this everyday – I tried to stop thinking I was insane … so I continued into the jungle hiding behind the bushes and trees as I crept along photographing the cut trees. Fortunately nobody saw me and 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 had ever seen at that time. 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 of the Earth.
(Inset box) “I began shooting with some of my father’s old cameras. I still have the old Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex f/2.8 and occasionally I’ll shoot some film with it. It’s my organic roots in photography – using film with a camera you manually focus and expose. There’s a very real organic tactile beauty in that process for me and it has helped me translate that organic quality into digital photography.”
Documentary photography for me is about being a mirror to things happening to the people and the Earth. It shows where we were, where we are and where we are 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 collectively by revealing our true nature and our relationship with Earth. 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.”
Originally from Montreal, Leon now lives in Vancouver, Canada. He graduated with a major in photographic arts from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Canada. In 1987 he moved to Milan, Italy for nine-years, working in fashion and advertising photography. He says that Italy’s creative dynamism helped evolve the aesthetic quality of his photography. “In this cultural and artistic mecca creativity is everywhere, and it creates vibrancy and a passionate way-of-life where the dynamic artistic environment inspires creative people and one can get absorbed very deeply.”
Eventually he left the fashion industry to work on what really interests him; experiencing life while seeing the world with interesting people and making a contribution for positive evolution by showing the beauty we have on Earth. From there the travel and documentary work expanded. He still does commercial work as well, but he only shoots for companies that are conscious about the environment and people.
Leon has now been a professional photographer for 30 years and apart from the transitions in subject, he’s also heralded the progress of digital photography. “I began shooting using some of my father’s old cameras; I still have the old Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex f/2.8 and occasionally I’ll shoot some film with it. It’s my organic roots in photography – using film with a camera you manually focus and expose. There’s a very real organic tactile beauty in that process for me and it has helped me translate that organic quality into digital photography,” he explains.
(Inset box) Equipment: “I use Canon equipment, shooting mostly with prime lenses, and LowePro camera backpacks with a small tripod strapped underneath. On trips I bring only the essential gear so I don’t let equipment change the way I photograph something. I don’t need or want a lot of camera gear because the subject/location/story is what’s interesting, and I like to show it as it is.” (note: now using Fujifilm)
As a travel and culture photographer, Leon sees a profound beauty in life itself which is constantly changing, always exciting and never ending. While shooting, he leads with his gut-feeling, knowledge, experience and an awareness about his surroundings. The creative flow is not held-back by preconceived expectations of what the results are going to be. Instead he trusts that what will be created in an image, or not, was meant to be. There’s infinite potential to create photographs going beyond the mundane, he says. Amazing images are always happening around us – they just need to be seen.
“I was hiking in the Lacandon Rainforest with Pancho, a nine-year old Lacandon Maya boy. Running barefoot in the rainforest like a jaguar, he passed under a huge fallen tree and then hid behind thick vegetation. I was wobbling around the rugged terrain like I was intoxicated by the rainforest’s oxygen and was unable to pass under the fallen tree as he did. I struggled over it, slipped and fell. He started laughing at me intensely with wild spirit. Having been beaten in this game by a nine-year old, I started laughing my head-off too! We laughed the full laugh of unlimited freedom and joy… the laugh that seems so lost in big city life’s chaos. After we had come to our senses we continued through the rainforest and crossed over rushing rivers on nature’s improvised tree-bridges. We trudged waist deep through the hot rain swamped jungle before we finally arrived at the Cascadas Lacanja waterfall where we quickly dove into the cooling pool of water. Sitting in the waterfall’s pools we were so relieved from the jungle’s thick humidity and heat. Mother Earth’s pure and wild rainforest that embraces the Lacandon’s serene souls embraced mine too – I felt that I’m an integral part of Mother Earth. I’ll always remember my experience there.”
Asian Photography Magazine Interview with cover photograph and portfolio published
Asian Photography Magazine (Mumbai, India) cover photograph and portfolio published in May 2011 issue