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Interview with Vincent Laforet: On his Career, Influences, The Key (or Lack Thereof) To Success & Zodiac Signs

I had the pleasure of interviewing Vincent Laforet last Monday before his presentation at Yale for CT ASMP. I was thrilled to be able to ask him all about his career, influences, advice for photographers & videographers today as well as his Zodiac sign.


Liz: Alright, so let’s start from the very beginning. When did you initially know that you wanted to do photography and then how did you get into videography?


Vincent: Sure, my father’s a photographer. And when I was 15 I really thought it was silly that I did not know how to take pictures so I asked him to teach me. He leant me his old Nikon F3 and a 50 and gave me 2 rolls of TRI-X. Prior to that I’d done a lot of different arts; drawing, painting, I’d done life drawing, calligraphy, oil paintings, watercolors. I was always an artist but I was very impatient. Even with acrylic, it wouldn’t dry fast enough. I’d get very frustrated and I’d never have the perfect colors because the colors would get all mixed up, I just wasn’t patient enough.


Liz: Oh, I know it. That was me too…


Vincent: You been there?


Liz: Oh yeah. So impatient.


Vincent: So you know, when he handed me the camera, it was instant. I was like ‘oh I can do this’. He processed my first two contact sheets and the guy at the lab said, “oh who’s is this?” And my father said, “that’s my son’s.’ And the guy said “how many years has he been shooting?” And my father said, “These are actually his first two rolls”. And you know all that was just based on my artistic background. Be it geometry and what not. And I begged him to borrow his camera -- because my dad’s in France -- to bring it back to New York, and he acquiesced. He came back with his camera and a brick of like 20 rolls of TRI-X. That was when I was 15 and since then it hasn’t stopped.


Liz: That’s great your father was able to expose you so young. What did your father shoot?


Vincent: He was a photojournalist so he worked for a magazine called Gamma and he went around the world, covered a few wars, but that wasn’t really his thing. He was a great skier; he grew up on the Alps, so he became a ski instructor for officers as his military duty. He ended up photographing all the stars at the Avignon Film Festival; which is in the Alps, and eventually he went to do more of that. Then he went to Premiere magazine, which is a movie magazine. He would go on film sets and became a set photographer. So when I was a young kid I would go on Bertolucci films, it was pretty amazing. My first memory is of being on a film set and seeing a Mercedes being shot at with fake machine guns and driving into another car. I mean it’s pretty spectacular when you see it live and that was my career for a majority of my life.


Before that, I knew I wanted to be a photojournalist. I started in high school doing Bar Mitzvahs and weddings so I could afford to buy one lens to the next. Then, eventually I had an internship at Reuters after being rejected 13 times in a row. I filled out the fall application deadlines and one of the placement counselors said “hey there’s an internship at Reuters, it’s meant to be a desk position… You know why don’t you apply?” And I was like I’m so tired of rejection, what ever, so I literally put that days paper in with my resume and I got it. I talked my way actually into getting a shooting gig. So I worked half time, during the day at my desk and at night I would go to baseball games or what ever I could go to and on weekends. Eventually towards the end I got sent out on the road to shoot. For a 19 year old that was a pretty big deal. I got to go to the White House you know stuff like that because it was in DC. After that I believe it was the Miami Herald, LA Times and I was freelancing while I was going to college for a wired source called the AFP.


Then my career started with my first job out of college, I freelanced for 2 years and then I got a job for a company called Allsport that later became Getty. As soon as they became Getty I kind of ran out of there and I got hired for New York Times on the web by the sports photo editor. I worked there for 4 days a week and as a freelancer for 3 days a week. I did that for 6 months and then someone left and I got hired as the youngest staff photographer they’d ever hired. I didn’t know until I left, they don’t tell you that. They went “by the way, you know, you’re the youngest guy we’ve ever hired.”


Liz: And you were like, “why didn’t you tell me sooner?!”


Vincent: Yeah, I was like “whaat?!” They don’t want it to go to your head.


Liz: Exactly.


Vincent: And then about 5 years ago the 5D Mark II came out and that again changed my career. I’d always loved filmmaking, growing up on film sets; I’d always wanted to make the transition. Here I was I got to meet George Lucas and show a terrible little short I did to 500 people on a 50 foot screen. I moved to LA and so far so good. It’s hard to make a career that’s pretty established as a photographer and then say okay let me go switch media but it’s been great.


Liz: That’s really neat that your father did photojournalism and worked on film sets, I think that’s really interesting. Would you say that he has been one of your inspirations and influences?


Vincent: Yeah, always. I mean he was always my dad. It wasn’t like oh I want to be a photographer like my dad, he was always my father first and he’s been more of an inspiration as a man than a photographer. Even as photographers, I never had just one person I would look up to, I had several.


Liz: Who are some photographer’s work you admire?


Vincent: Well early was Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey, Christopher Morris, David Burnett; kind of the top photojournalists out there working for Time and Newsweek and really setting the bar. Then it evolved, especially after I left photography; to other artists such as Gregory Crewdson; someone who’s work I really like. It’s funny, when I was a photographer I was so intimated, like he was using a gaffer and 18 k’s and all these people for photography -- when now for me that would be a walk in a ballpark. I really love his work.


Liz: I know, his set ups are really great. I like them too. So would you say you are primarily doing mostly video work now?


Vincent: Yeah, almost 95%. I was shooting 1 to 2 jobs a year for still and then it’s personal work when I have time, but it’s not regular at all.


Liz: Do you have a favorite camera or equipment you want to try out? Does it vary per job?


Vincent: It’s not so much about the cameras but lenses. I love my little Leica, I always have. The more you do it the less you care about your camera, unless you become attached to one. I think in the film world you become a little more attached to your camera, it becomes part of the process. For some reason digitally it feels like it’s a bit more of a machine to me. Whereas with film cameras, for whatever reason, I’ve felt more attached to the camera itself. It’s like digital camera’s feel like computers you can just dispose of because they become antiqued so very quickly. You know Leica film cameras or Hasselblad’s never become antiqued, it works the same way today as it did 100 years ago if you take good care of it.


Liz: That makes sense, I can relate. In terms of shoots you’ve done, what has been one or a few of your most memorable assignments?


Vincent: Most vulnerable?


Liz: No, sorry, I’m mumbling…memorable but I like vulnerable too. We could go there, tell me both.


Vincent: Well, one will cross over; the most memorable are the Olympics, the Empire State Building and Katrina. The Olympics have always been some of the most amazing things I’ve been able to witness. When you see someone break a record, especially if there is a story behind it, the whole crowd goes wild.  That’s 700 – 100 thousand people screaming at the top of their lungs and the whole place vibrates. You get goose bumps. I’ve covered several 1000 sporting events over the span of my career, so when you feel something like that it’s pretty incredible. Being on top of the Empire State Building was pretty memorable, on the needle; I’ll show that tonight. Katrina was very memorable as well and one of the most difficult ones. You go overseas and see stuff and you are like that doesn’t happen at home, but when you see it here it has a whole different effect.


Liz: It hits you a bit harder I bet.


Vincent: Yeah it does, it really does. Yes, those would have to be my most memorable assignments.


Liz: Okay. Is there a specific Olympic moment that stands out in particular?


Vincent: There was one moment where this Egyptian guy had been tripped in I believe a 1000 meter/kilometer race once or twice already and it was his last chance because you know its every 4 years, and he got tripped again and the entire stadium was like -- oh you’ve got be kidding me! -- so he got up and caught up won and entire place went absolutely wild. It was like watching a movie, it was just too much.


Liz: Wow! That is so dramatic, that is incredible! I just have a few more questions. When did you start doing your fine art work and how has that evolved?


Vincent: Well I never did fine art work per say, my work kind of became fine art despite itself. I was always a photojournalist then a magazine photographer. I started doing a lot of aerial work that was distinguished because aesthetics and aerial photography have not always gone hand in hand.


Liz: Did you start doing aerial photography for clients at first?


Vincent: For the New York Times and first, yes. And that kind of took a life of it’s own and people started buying prints. I never went the gallery route because I could never stand the nepotism and the favoritism of the art world; good luck.


Liz: Oh, thanks…So you’d say you sort of feel into it along your career?


Vincent: I was a photojournalist, I feel into it and you know people would buy my work. I did really well selling it for almost a decade but I would never call myself a fine art photographer. I think that is someone who dedicates a life to doing that. Mine was dedicated to telling stories and working for editorial magazines, newspapers, and eventually commercial. And while some of the work I am doing is definitely fine art, it is not fine art per say. There is something to be said about someone who pursues that.


Liz: Alright, I will try to wrap this up. One last question. Do you have any advice on balancing your business, career, family or any just advice in general for photographers and videographers out there?


Vincent: (Laughs) Balance is the single most important things in life and the single hardest thing in life. And there is no one answer. That being said, always try to find some sort of balance in a relationship, a profession and a career vs. a personal life. I am a father so some of my work is as Dad. Too much equipment vs. none, too complex vs. too simple, working too hard vs. too little. There is no right formula other than trying to find some sort of balance and the irony is some of the best work is done when people are completely out of balance and at times the some of best work is done when people find great balance. There is no one real solution. But if I had to describe one of the number one things to seek out in life, it is balance and it is also one of the hardest things to find I think. That is why we all admire those Buddhist monks and Zen masters because they have seemed to have found that at least. I think that is why we look up to them, are envious or curious. Running around in a orange robe does not appeal to me too much but at the same time who knows?


Liz: (Laughs) You never know…. What’s your Zodiac Sign?


Vincent: I’m an Aquarius.


Liz: Oh, I was wondering if you were a Libra, because you’re talking so much about balance. But I could see that, you being an Aquarius. Very appropriate.


Vincent: What are you?


Liz: Libra.


Vincent: When’s Libra? What are the personality traits?


Liz: Around mid September to October. We’re the Scales…balance. Diplomatic but indecisive, peaceful, charming and laid back.


Vincent: Are you a balanced person?


Liz: I like to think so for the most part…but when I’m off balance, oh man I totally off balance.


Vincent: Okay so you feel it. That’s good as long as you are aware, most people aren’t.


Liz: That’s a good way to look at it, I’ll keep that in mind next time I’m out of whack. Well thank you very much for this interview.


Vincent: You’re very welcome!