Photojournalist Roger Lemoyne

"I would like viewers to empathize with the people I photograph"

Interview: Nezih Tavlas / November 24, 2021

(Courtesy of Roger Lemoyne)

Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?

Roger LeMoyne: A hunger to understand the world. A hunger for experience. I wanted to see and know for myself what goes on, rather than take someone else’s word for it.

Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?

Roger LeMoyne: I use Canon gear because it was what I started with and it is still a great price-quality ratio. I just keep rolling my gear forward. I now have a 5D mark IV, 5D mark III, 7D mark II, and two 6Ds. Not to mention the earlier bodies that still work like a D60 (circa 2003) and the F1 Was using in the early 90’s. Haha. Is that too much? I have a whole mess of lenses including two 24-105’s. They have zero personality as a lens, but they are just such a great overall fit-any-situation workhorse, that I keep using them. The only Canon gear that ever broke down were those EOS film auto-focus cameras.

Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?

Roger LeMoyne: FB and Instagram. If you are disciplined about it, not wasting time scrolling, FB is a fantastic tool for keeping track of where people are, what they are working on etc. So anytime I have an assignment or am going somewhere, I check in with my network and get an up-to-the-minute situation report. But my website is where I direct people that express interest in my work. I have over 600 contacts in Linkedin but have never gotten an assignment through Linkedin

Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?

I have a kind of phobia about not “delivering the goods”. So I always have way more gear than I need. I bring 4 bodies, doubles of several lenses. If I get robbed or have an accident, I am still ready to shoot the next day. The longer I have been doing this work, the more I prepare and try to learn about where I am going, contact people that are there or near there and learn from them.

Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?

Roger LeMoyne: On a decent working day I will click about 1000 frames. in film I tried to shoot an average of 10 rolls a day on assignment. The length of any “story” varies from one day to a month. I rarely travel for more than a month as I have kids now. I used to spend 4-5 months a year on the road, but that’s when I was young.

Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?

Roger LeMoyne: I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?

Roger LeMoyne: The pandemic has closed quite a few doors. I am hoping to get back to the Congo at least once more time. I am beginning to work with Canada’s Indigenous people. The destruction of their way of life by colonialism is such a profoundly disturbing story. I have a book dummy on the city of Port-au-Prince, but the current crisis in Haiti makes me feel it is not the right time to pitch that. At the moment, I am freelancing in Montreal and that has been fine. It is a lot easier to go downtown and shoot a climate march or a press conference than travel around the world, that’s for sure..

Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?

Roger LeMoyne: That’s such a difficult question. The look in 5 year-old Sifa Havugimana’s eyes (see photo from DR Congo 2020 in this collection shared) and knowing that so many children are still hungry in world of almost obscene plenty just destroys me. It’s still a new picture to me and can cut me. I keep it on the wall in my office. On the other hand, I like the composition of the pangolin bushmeat shot from Vietnam, and the dark humour of it. Any of the shots I have submitted here for you are among my “favourites” but all for different reasons.

Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?

Roger LeMoyne: To me it is of absolute importance that the image be “found”. I don’t construct images in any way. I am a documentarian, a non-fiction photographer (This does not apply to a commissioned or planned portrait, but I make it very clear that the portrait is exactly that: a formal portrait). I tend to work and think in series of photos.

The other thing that permeates my ambition as a photographer is to have the form and the content in perfect balance. They must be so equal and complimentary that they flow in and out of each other like a yin-yang thing. That’s where the power comes from.

 Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?

Roger LeMoyne: More than anything, I would like viewers to empathize with the people I photograph, just to care, because we’re all in this together. The situation of humanity globally is so un-equal, so unfair, so full of exploitation and neglect, that it is an intolerable outrage. One of the first moral principles a child understands is “fair” and “not fair”. How can we accept such an unfair world?

 Something else I am looking for in my photographs is a kind of cross-current. I don’t want the photograph to be about just one thing, one mood, one idea. Rather, it should be a place where multiple, often contradictory, impressions overlap. I am trying to convey that the world is a complex, often confusing place. We are all hoping for simple answers, but simple answers don’t usually solve complex problems.

I guess that’s why I am not that into the classic news photography equation of a simple “quick-read” image.

(All images © Courtesy of Roger Lemoyne)

Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?

Roger LeMoyne: Well, the things I just described in what I am striving for. A great photo also needs to suggest so much more than what is simply portrayed within the frame.

Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?

There are many photographs being taken, it’s true, but not many of them are done with real purpose or a long view of what the photographer is trying to say. For a photograph to be memorable, it needs to have a through line from the photographer’s intention to the subjects experience to the viewers need to understand something.

Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?

Roger LeMoyne: I am motivated to continue because I feel I am still getting better as a photographer. I just want to see where I can go with this thing, the same as how I started. As Raymond Depardon said “the photographer is filled with doubt, nothing will soothe him”. You are born a searcher, you tend to remain a searcher. And because the world is so unfair.

Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

Roger LeMoyne: Probably the day in April 2003 that I left my embed with the US military in Iraq and made my way (with writer Kurt Pitzer) into Baghdad with a variety of ways and vehicles, ending up with an Iraqi in his old American car, a 70’s Oldsmobile or something, that he had just recovered outside one of Saddam’s palaces on the outskirts of Baghdad. We passed a lot of bodies and trigger-happy soldiers at checkpoints on the way in to the Palestine and then the Sheraton hotels on Memorial Square, and took some harsh pictures along the way.

Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?

Roger LeMoyne: One that has no time limit, no specific brief or text to illustrate, and involves travel to somewhere very different from the world I grew up in so I can try to connect with people that would appear different to me, but in my mind are not so different. That was the first serious thing I did in photography: backpack around Papua New Guinea for several months. I had no clients or anything, so complete freedom to shoot what I felt. Miraculously, I was able to publish that work and start a portfolio.

Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?

Roger LeMoyne: First and foremost you need a brain that can think in two-dimensional images. Then you need to be a self-starter, no one will ever give you valuable direction. Then you need resilience. The technical skill level isn’t that important now that the equipment can do everything. (Remember bracketing slide film?) But people skills, yes.

Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?

Roger LeMoyne: The less you do to your images the better, as far as I am concerned. What we want to get in photojournalism is a truth. A photo isn’t THE truth, but it can be A truth. So the closer to that first capture, the better. However, I do think that cropping is a natural part of the work. Sometimes I shoot a little wider, deferring the exact composition to a calmer moment. People: lay off with the “clarity” tool in photoshop.

Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?

Roger LeMoyne: Maybe it means caring more about the people in the photograph than the photograph itself. I suppose it means sticking to what we all say we are doing: documenting our world for the benefit of the people in it, particularly our subjects, rather than for our own benefit.

Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?

Roger LeMoyne: Definitely the number of pictures that people can see with the internet is numbing our reactions to images. But the still image has always occupied a particular place in the human psyche, and that will not change. From cave-painting to Vermeer, the still image is a kind of magical spell that can reach inside and quietly change you.

For this to happen, we must remain rigorous in the truthfulness of what we do and not let manipulation of content or imagery undermine the nucleus of photography’s power: the things you see really happened.

Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

Roger LeMoyne: Yes, it’s the same advice Dave Chappell gave to Barack Obama when he heard he was running for president: “stay low and run in a zig-zag pattern”. You might think I am joking but what I mean is this: keep your overhead low to survive financially, be low-profile or discreet when you are shooting, be humble before your subjects. Run in a zig-zag means don’t do the obvious things that everyone else is doing. Change your own direction and ideas when you can, to challenge and refresh yourself. Keep moving in every sense of that word.

On the other hand, you must have a straight line from your heart and what you really feel and care about through your subject. So much of what you do will not reward you on the surface. It has to be it’s own reward much of the time. The experiences that photojournalism can offer are just such a reward.

Roger Lemoyne

After graduating from University with a degree in filmmaking, Roger LeMoyne played in a band and worked on documentaries films. He has been photographing full-time since the early 1990’s, documenting issues in over fifty countries including the Former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Congo, Iraq and Haiti. UNICEF has been his most important client for over 20 years. He is the recipient of awards including the POYi World Understanding, multiple National Magazine Awards, a World Press Photo the Michener-Deacon fellowship, the Lange-Taylor Prize, the the Alexia Grant, a Prix Bayeux-Calvados, a Canada Council grant, two Quebec Arts council grants and others. His work is distributed globally by Redux Pictures.