Photographer and film director Vincent Laforet has worked for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, National Geographic and more, and in 2002 he won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his coverage of post-9/11 events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Vincent lives in New York and Los Angeles, where he directs commercials for brands like Nike as well as short films. Born in 1975, he got his B.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1997.
You can’t be in the news business for as long as I have been without hearing about the “great ones,” the writers and photographers who shape the world we live in. Vincent Laforet is one of those guys — a news photographer par excellence whose photos for The New York Times have captivated the residents of the Big Apple. But he is so much more.
His work has also appeared in Vanity Fair and National Geographic, among many other places. He has won a Pulitzer Prize. He turned tilt-shift photography into an art form. I could go on, but then it would take too long. The short story: I ran into him sitting on a bench in South Park in San Francisco.
He had just put the first of his AIR Gotham photos on the Internet and the visual story had gone viral. For the first time someone had gone up over 7,500 feet in a helicopter, used high-end Canon cameras and snapped photos of Manhattan. The result? Something truly spectacular. These photos were initially taken for a magazine and had literally no impact. However, the internet is a whole different story. Vincent’s Storehouse story was picked up by many publications and blogs, and that initial set of photos has turned into Project AIR. Vincent has photographed Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and he wants to visit many more cities around the world and collect the resulting art in a photo exhibit and book.
Vincent likes to talk, and he has a lot of stories to tell. I like to listen and ask a lot of questions. We just started talking, and we didn’t stop for a long time. Sometime during the conversation, I turned on the voice recorder on my iPhone.
With a love for photography, the news business and the unknown, Vincent and I are kindred spirits. We both share a skepticism about current media entities in the face of the inevitability of the internet. Since that first conversation, Vincent has become my friend and photo professor. We have gone on many photo walks and even suit shopping, always talking, talking, and talking.
Here is a tiny slice from our first conversation, about changing media, the reality in the world of Instagram, the role of a news photographer in today’s age and what he’s thinking about next. I hope you find it worth your time to read this all the way through.
Om: How long were you at The New York Times?
Vincent: I was at The New York Times for about eight years. Some pretty incredible years working with some of the best reporters in the world. Covered events like Katrina, 9/11. Climbed the Empire State Building’s needle. It was pretty fantastic.
Om: When you were in the news business, did you imagine a time where news would happen pretty much every millisecond, thanks to somebody taking a picture with their smartphone?
Vincent: In 2008, I wrote an article called “The Cloud is Falling.” As a young man, I was seeing the publishing industry and the internet coming together, how the current model was not sustainable. Being a staff photographer with a comfortable job, a company car, company gear, a great salary, and seeing the internet rising and distribution based on cell phones or the internet — I knew something was going to fundamentally change.
I went from my entire career covering news on a live basis — there was always that time that we had to process the information, whether to write it down and disseminate it the next day or a few hours later or minutes later at least. As a photographer, that time got truncated more and more.
I knew the time was coming when it would be live. It was a no-brainer. You saw it in CNN. Being a teenager, seeing the first Gulf War disseminated live, we all knew it was changing. It sure has now. The biggest realization for me was that, as a photojournalist, I could always elevate my skill and my level as a photographer — the highest level that I could potentially achieve — and yet there’s nothing I could ever do to compete with someone who was there at the moment when it happened. There’s no substitute for being there with an iPhone, a GoPro, whatever it is, a security camera. If you can capture the actual real event happening, nothing you can do after the fact can compete.
Om: One of the great things about photography is how it shapes history, especially news photography. Time and time again we have come across photos which were essentially posed. Now everything is real and the pictures are real, and yet they’re not at times. How do you contextualize the magnitude of news right now?
Vincent: I think your question is really adept. Is there such a thing as a real event? The only real events that I know are the birth of a child, the death of someone that you love, the breaking of news as you’re there. That’s the value of having a citizen capturing an event in front of them: It’s unfiltered.
But what is real? Is a press conference real, is a press photo op real? People are told to show up here at this time and shake hands and do this and step here. It’s all fake, yet it represents something. When people take selfies, that’s not real either. That’s not a real relationship, when someone takes a photograph of themselves, with a celebrity or their friends. It is the moment [in] itself [that] is much more valuable.
[Photojournalists] did get to capture some real moments: Eddie Adams’ Viet Cong photo of the execution or Nick Ut’s photographs of the Napalm girl. Those are absolutely real moments in history that are hard to argue with, that changed the course of history, literally. Those two photos had a severe impact on the Vietnam War.
Since that time people have realized the power of photo journalism, and when people recognize the power of something, they want to control it. Ever since, we have seen more and more control of the image — or one’s image — to the point where it’s being curated by PR people and controlled. We are in an environment these days where everything is controlled, where as citizens we are trying to garner back our privacy from our Facebook pages and make sure we have control of what other people see.
Om: What is the role of news photography now? What does the professional news photographer represent now?
Vincent: The professional news photographer has enforcedly been severely diminished in terms of their impact because publications are dying. When I was a teenager in college, Time magazine carried an incredible amount of weight in determining who the next president could be. We would talk about what that columnist on Time or The New York Times used to write.
It seemed, at the time at least, to impact the way history unfolded. Now you’re reading a magazine and it’s thinner than five pieces of paper and doesn’t have the same relevance. Now somehow Twitter and a teenager could potentially have more of an impact than a 30-to 40-year veteran journalist.
Things have changed. Photojournalists are still extremely relevant. They still produce incredibly important work. The reality, though, is that everyone produces media these days. We all have iPhones, smartphones and cameras, and we’re documenting more than ever before. It’s getting harder and harder to rise above the fold.
Om: I am old from a journalism perspective: I remember typewriters and newspaper type being set. At that time, there was an ability to focus, because there wasn’t diffusion of so much media. My theory is that because attention is fractionalized, news becomes even less and less impactful.
Vincent: The attention span of the public has always been in the two-to-three-to-five-day region. No matter how big the story was, it rarely made it past a week. But now I generally say that we have the attention of rats on crack. We are looking to sources like Storehouse or Twitter or Facebook or whatever it may be, Instagram, to constantly feed us with new information [that we can] forward to others in a consumer-oriented way. That is the trend, but I think the next iteration will be more curated content.
But I always like to look at the other side of that coin. Back in those days it tended to be white, 60-to-70-year-old men telling you what to consume. Whereas now a 13-year-old kid from any background, any race, any culture can have a voice. As long as you tell good information on a consistent basis, you will build a following.
Photojournalism will find a new home over time. This latest piece I did, the aerials over New York at night, is an excellent example. I was a successful photojournalist for 15-plus years. I worked for every single outlet: The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, et cetera. Eventually I found that the photography business was not a sustainable model for my family. So I went into filmmaking and directing commercials.
Once in a while I would have someone call me to shoot a still assignment. After having shot this assignment for a magazine, I put [the photos] on a new outlet, Storehouse. And the next thing you know, this thing has gone viral. It’s been reported by well over a hundred media outlets from The New York Times to Al Jazeera to Esquire to Gizmodo to Flipboard, Yahoo News, you name it.
That’s what photojournalists need to do. People will always gravitate toward quality content, whether it’s visual, whether it’s a story that’s written well, whether it’s a combination of great storytelling, visuals, et cetera. Storytelling is as old as the cave drawings and the cavemen. That’s not going away.
Om: One of my early memories of magazines from America was LIFE magazine’s older issues that were not even published when I was a young man. When I saw those, I always used to think, “Wow! That is some clever photography.”
Vincent: We have this terrible tendency to idealize the past and to get nostalgic, myself included. Too many of us are waiting for a solution to be given to us, and too few of us are willing to actually try to invent a solution. Those that make their own solutions and harness technology and tools are generally the ones that seem to excel, because we’re the ones that are able to tell stories that are seen, for X, Y or Z reason.
Om: I find that most of my peers don’t think about photos for their stories. I think about the headlines, the photos. Can I add voice? Can I add picture? Can I add moving pictures? Mostly because I feel that if you are on a live platform, why not use it to its logical impact?
Vincent: That’s a modern way of thinking. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, you would have been called a heretic. That was multimedia, and most journalists are not visual people. It’s a different side of the brain. They don’t think visually. I’ve met some of the most brilliant journalists that are utterly visually inept. They saw the picture as a service that would make their stories look pretty and get them on the front page. The best journalists understood that the best photos would make people read their stories.
Om: When I was a young reporter in India, I had this one photographer friend, Anu Pushkarna. He would take the flattest pictures ever, but he was the bravest guy ever. If there was a riot or some other craziness going on, he was right in the middle of everything. It wasn’t art, but they were real. He would get hit on the head for taking a picture.The same event captured by some of the bigger-name photographers in India like Raghu Rai, the same perspective, it would be like, “Wow.” The pictures were what made the story better.
Vincent: It’s a perfect marriage. It’s like a movie, with film and sound and acting and directing and music. I wish there was more mutual respect between the different professions. I can tell you that the joke amongst war photographers has always been that most war correspondents work from their hotel rooms at the suite at the Ritz-Carlton, whereas the war photographer has to go where the bullets are flying.
Om: Speaking of which, you went up 7,500 feet. What did you learn from that perspective?
Vincent: I don’t know that I learned anything, necessarily. It reaffirmed to me that the power of image is still sacrosanct, that a series of images could impact millions of people across the world. Universally it’s powerful. People recognize the incredible beauty of New York City, the energy within it, the light screaming. On my end, I’d wanted to make that photograph for 25 years. I just didn’t have the technology that could do it. I didn’t have a camera that could capture dark or low, high images so well.
There is nothing intrinsically different about what I did on that series of images from what I’ve done in 15 years. It just struck at the right time, with the right camera, at the right angle.
Om: I always felt that looking at the world from above makes you think differently. My friend Chris Michel went up in one of the U-2 planes to get sense of what the world looks like from that high up. It seemed like it was almost a spiritual experience.
Vincent: Every time you take off in a helicopter, you realize. Or just look out the window on your plane when you are flying across the country or across the world, and you realize how much closer we are in terms of geography, how much smaller the globe is.
You can actually see the curvature of the earth from up there, and you start to realize that we are not that far apart. We’re not that different. We are all taught how there are these big oceans and these cultures divide us. But we’re not that separate from one another.
Om: I think I almost like feel [inhales dramatically], Where is the surprise?
Vincent: One of my biggest lessons in life was that I spent 20 years of my career as a photographer, chasing the best image. Making the deadline, often landing on the cover. Always pushing it to the limit. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy any of it, because I was so focused on the end result. When I left photography I made a promise to myself to actually enjoy the moment and the process.
There is an old saying: Enjoy the journey, not the destination. You’re like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” I can tell you, as a photographer, I did not enjoy the journey; I enjoyed the destination.
Now, since I’ve left photography, as I go back, I enjoy every single moment of the journey. Because you realize, it’s those visits at the restaurant with the owner, who is famous or not famous at all but who makes you laugh or has a story for you, who makes you the sauce by hand that you wanted. Those are the interactions you remember.
Photos courtesy of Tim Donnelly, Vincent Laforet, Pulitzer Foundation and G-Technology.