Story text. NB: story was published December 2007, so much has changed since, especially the gear.
Robert Leon: A Passion for People
by Lorraine A. DarConte
If life is a series of experiences, then travel/documentary photographer Robert Leon is indeed living a very full and interesting one. As a young boy, Leon was mesmerized by the world depicted in his parents’ National Geographic and Life magazines. “I would dream of going to these places and was fascinated by the different cultures,” he says. Eventually, after stints as a corporate, advertising, and fashion photographer, Leon turned his passion for travel and people into a rewarding career.
Leon studied photography at The Alberta College of Art in Calgary, Canada. While still in school he did a lot of commercial/advertising and annual report photography. Later, he moved to Italy where he lived for nine years and worked almost exclusively as a fashion photographer. “I was shooting pretty models wearing pretty clothes,” states Leon. “After a while it wore really thin as far as content matter. It was very empty, superficial work.”
And so Leon decided to switch gears and revisit his passion for travel and native peoples. “I started doing travel photography while still living in Italy. I got assignments in Greece, Turkey, and Italy because I had contacts with magazine editors in these countries. I found travel photography to be less of a rat race than the commercial field. I would really dig in and find interesting people to talk to and photograph while on the road.”
Although Leon admits the competition for work in the travel field can be as fierce as fashion, “by sticking to what your heart wants to photograph, the competition factor balances out because you can offer a unique vision, style, or point of view of the same subject someone else shoots. There are different calibers of travel photographers and everyone has their niche. I love making portraits,” states Leon. “I’m curious about people. I’m really driven by cultures, in particular, indigenous cultures, which is my main area of focus. I love costumes. I love rituals. I love trying different foods. But one of the most important things I love about photographing—and being around indigenous cultures—is their basic values about life.”
For instance, Leon traveled to Rajasthan, India, by camel, because it was the only mode of transportation. “[The people] had no electricity and water was in a well a few miles away. The housing was extremely basic but nice and comfortable. I asked someone what it was like living there,” states Leon, “and I asked about crime. They didn’t know what crime was. Everybody knows everybody,” he continues. “It’s like one big family and they all get along. So many societies are falling apart because people are chasing money or fame or whatever, and they lose track of those fundamental elements of a good, healthy, sane life. It’s one of the biggest reasons I left the commercial field. I’m not knocking it,” states Leon. “It just wasn’t for me. There were too many big egos and too many people concerned about who they photographed or shot with. It had nothing to do with photography.
“I wanted to learn about and experience different places. It’s taken quite a few years, but I’ve paid my dues like every photographer has to. If I didn’t have such a passion for it, I would’ve quit a long time ago.” These days, Leon calls the shots. He chooses a place he’d like to visit, then contacts editors and/or clients to see if they need images or stories from that locale. “It works out really well,” says Leon. “I can work on my projects and work for clients simultaneously. When I travel, sometimes I don’t have any plans, while other times I have very detailed itineraries. I go and see what happens; and I have my camera with me to capture those moments.”
(NB: now shooting mostly digital with Fujifilm gear)
“I’m shooting a lot of digital now except if I go to a place where there is no electricity or Internet café.” Leon only brings the essential gear he’ll need so he can better concentrate on the situation at hand. “I don’t let equipment change the way I photograph something. I don’t need a lot of camera gear because the subject/location/story is what’s interesting, and I like to show it as it is.”
Leon carries a LowePro Orion AW camera backpack with a small tripod strapped underneath. He has a Nikon F3HP and a Nikomat FTN, “which I love because I can shoot in very difficult conditions without batteries. I always shoot manual exposure/focus with my Nikons. I’ve never had a problem in hot deserts or humid jungles. While on assignment for an Italian magazine in Istanbul, Turkey, I shot in a Hamam (steam bath) with my Nikon F3. Even totally drenched in moisture it worked!”
Leon also owns a bevy of lenses including, a Nikkor 20mm, Nikkor 24mm, Nikkor 35mm f/2, Nikkor 50mm, Nikkor 105mm Micro, and an Angenuiex 180mm f2.3. “I very rarely use the Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 because it’s too big and I like to be close to the people I photograph. I usually use 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm.” Leon also uses a Minolta Spotmeter F light meter and Minolta III Color Temperature Meter. When shooting film, he prefers Fujichrome Velvia, Fujichrome Provia 100F, Fujichrome Provia 400, Astia 100, Kodak Tri-X, Kodak Plus-X and Ilford XP2.
When shooting digitally, Leon uses his Canon 1DS Mark II and Canon 20D. His lenses include, a Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM, and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM, Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L USM, Canon Extender EF 2x II, and a Canon 580EX flash. “I shoot ninety percent of my images with prime lenses. I also have a Nikon-to-EOS adapter (from Cameraquest). I can adapt Nikkor lenses to the EOS body, but they are manual focus and manual stop-down only.”
A People Person
People often ask Leon how he manages to take such natural looking portraits—especially of people he barely knows. “It’s not something I think about or plan; I talk to people, ask them there name, where they’re from. I’m just curious.” But perhaps the real reason Leon takes such intimate portraits of strangers is, by the time he photographs them, they are no longer strangers. Leon’s secret for successful portraits is spending real time—often several days—with his subjects while he photographs them.
For example, while in Greece, Leon met Mickey, a tough-as-nails fisherman and former merchant marine who had sailed around the world. “He lived on Therassia, a small island near Santorini. I had taken a ferry with a motorbike that wouldn’t start after the boat docked. [Mickey] came up to me and asked if he could help fix the bike, which he did. By that time, it was too late to see the rest of the island, and so he let me stay at his place. He and his wife cooked me dinner and let me sleep in their bed (they slept in another room). They were so hospitable.
“[Mickey] took me on his fishing boat for the next two days and I learned how to drop the nets, pull up the nets, and clean the nets.” Throughout the fishing expedition, Leon would occasionally take some photographs. “It was a beautiful experience,” he states. “There are so many great people you can meet that makes it all worthwhile. I try to concentrate on the positive things of life and our world and show that [in my pictures]. I believe by exposing people to other places and cultures there will be less misunderstanding and racism in the world.”
In India, Leon photographed the Pushkar Camel Fair. Although this was a personal project, he photographed other areas of the country for a National Geographic Traveler guidebook. “[The Pushkar Camel Fair] has become so popular,” says Leon. “But instead of photographing the camels, I was more into the people; they’re so cool.” Down at Pushkar Lake, Leon met a rather disheveled looking man who appeared to be down on his luck. “I’m very open-minded about people; I don’t judge them by how they look,” states Leon. As it turns out, the “homeless man” was actually a well-known holy man—Sadhu Yogi Baba Ramaeshuranand.
“He was putting teacups—tikka(s) or bindi(s)—on people’s foreheads and saying blessings,” remembers Leon. “He put one on my forehead and said, ‘Merry Christmas.’ I was cracking up and so was he. We went for a walk and stopped by a shop for tea and sugar and then went back to his temple at the ghats—which was a small, sparse room about 10×10 feet. In the temple, he raised his arms and looked at the sky. I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘I’m sending my laughter, happiness, and joy to the universe so it will come back down to earth and rain on everybody.’
“You never really know who a person is,” adds Leon. “Each situation leads to another and it goes on and on, and there’s a story. You have to be super versatile and adaptable and go with the flow. I spent two days with him—off and on—and every once in a while I took a couple of shots. I’ve learned a lot on the road traveling,” concludes Leon. “It’s the best school. You learn about so many things—not just about other people—but also about yourself.”
Robert Leon is currently working on a book about Guatemala and is also planning to visit Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, among other places. For more information and to view additional images visit robertleon.com .
Photography Profiled in Shutterbug Magazine
Photography Work Profiled in Shutterbug Magazine USA (December 2007)