Photographer Eric Lafforgue prefers working where few tourists go. His vivid images have opened up many places to a global audience, capturing both people and culture. Eric explains how he gets the pictures many other photographers miss - and how he works in some of the world’s biggest conflict zones.
To say that Eric Lafforgue stumbled into professional photography would be something of an understatement. He never planned to be a photographer; he never trained to be a photographer and he never expected his photographs to be in such demand. What is more, Eric often works in places that many other photographers prefer to avoid - such as, Iran, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea.
Eric’s colourful, vibrant images have been exhibited in the US, Europe and Asia; graced various book covers; appeared in numerous advertisements, and been used in a wide range of publications including, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, The Times, BBC Online, La Monde, Wired and Mail Online. Photography is a career Eric enjoys, “Photographers are very lucky to be able to go to wonderful places and take pictures of beautiful people,” he says.
Eric was born in 1964 in Pau, south-west France. His father was in the military, and as a result, Eric lived in numerous places as a child, including, Djibouti, in The Horn of Africa, and French Guiana, in South America. “I think I started to like travelling after all these experiences,” he says.
When Eric was in his early twenties, he began working for a French mobile phone company - his job was to come up with ideas for mobile phone content. It was a very successful career that lasted almost twenty years. “Then the company got taken over and I got fired!” recalls Eric. A large redundancy cheque gave Eric - now aged 42 - the opportunity to travel. He also wanted to take photographs. “I had previously worked in TV, press, radio and music, and I thought, ‘I’ll try to do some photography,’” he says.
Eric knew little about cameras, but had a big budget, “I went into a camera shop and said to the proprietor, ‘What’s the best camera?’ I think he thought, ‘I’ve got a good customer here,’ because he sold me a Hasselblad H3D, which cost a fortune! It’s a great camera, but unsuitable for travelling - it’s a studio camera.”
With his trusty Hasselblad in tow, Eric set off on his travels, visiting, Yemen, Eritrea, North Korea and Papua New Guinea - not exactly tourist hot spots. “I don’t like places where there are lots of people and where the culture is created for tourists,” says Eric, “When I first visited North Korea, not many photographers went there. When you visit a place like Yemen or Somalia, people are very welcoming, and they are surprised to see you, so there’s a mutual curiosity.”
When he returned home, Eric had a large stock of photographs, but no idea what to do with them. “A friend of mine suggested I put them on Flickr,” said Eric, “and very soon, they were attracting a lot of interest from other photographers.” They also caught the eye of publications, “My first sale was to The Economist, and then the magazine GEO Germany paid me a big fee to use my photographs for a ten-page report on Papua New Guinea. Photography quickly became a real job and not a leisure activity.”
Eric’s photography captures the cultures, traditions and lifestyles of people around the world, “When I started photography, I quickly focused on people,” he says, “I didn’t like the idea of waiting two hours to get the right light or climbing up a volcano at 3am in the morning to get a shot. I like to say that you can talk to people, but you can’t talk to a cat or a tree.”
Another decision Eric made was to be proactive, “I soon understood that if I waited for commissions, I could be waiting a long time for the telephone call. I decided to travel and treat it like an investment. You have to take a risk because there are so many photographers in the world doing the same thing.”
To maximise his investment, Eric looks to place work with at least several publications and he’s also adapted his working practices, “Before, I was just taking pictures; now I like to make stories. On some trips, I’ll also make videos.” Eric now uses a Sony α7RII camera, and always has a 24-70mm lens for general shooting, and an 85mm lens for portraits.
Eric uses a shallow depth of field to create stunning portrait shots, a technique he discovered by accident, “I really didn’t know what I was doing with the camera when I started out. For example, when I first went to Syria, all my shots were at [f/]22! I was like a monkey with a camera! It was when I shooting a child in Oman, I found that by making some adjustments I could blur parts of the image. Now, I shoot at 1.8-2.2.” Eric also shoots in RAW format, “Shooting in JPEG is like driving a car in second gear. If you buy a camera, use the best features. Memory cards are not so expensive these days.”
When taking portraits, says Eric, “You should think about the person and not the photograph. Light is also important - if someone is standing in the sun, ask them to move into the shadow. Backgrounds are important - for me, they are fifty percent of the picture. So many people take good pictures with bad backgrounds.”
He also has firm views on post-production, “If you have good light, editing will be very quick. I use Lightroom just to balance the light and colour. In one week, I can edit a thousand images, because I don’t have to do anything special to them. If you have to spend an hour editing an image, it’s not a very good image.”
Eric stresses the amount of work that goes into being a professional photographer, “I’m working harder now than I ever did for the mobile phone company. It takes a lot of time prepare for a trip; take your pictures, tag them, write stories and so on. I tell young photographers, ‘if you think you can simply take pictures, get an agency and then make money, think again - it’s not that easy.’ You have to think about your clients, and sometimes, you have to take pictures you don’t like.”
Eric likes to shoot portraits quickly. “I pay my subjects and I always have a Polaroid with me, and leave a picture with them. Some photographers think that, because they are paying someone, they can take as long as they like to set-up the shot. But people in poor countries often spend a lot of their time working, so I don’t want to take up too much of it. My portraits usually take around 30 seconds.” Eric also thinks it’s vital to work with someone who speaks the local language, “It’s the only way you get to know the people and it can get you shots you would never have got without that communication.”
Working in some of the places Eric visits can be a challenge - he’s been banned from North Korea for taking shots the regime didn’t like. But Eric says he encountered little danger, “The only time was in Eritrea, when I was arrested by soldiers, because I was near a military base. Fortunately, I was only taking shots of monkeys.”
The key to staying out of danger, says Eric is, “To have a good fixer, who knows where you can go, and to follow the advice of the local people. The biggest problem is the drunk with a gun, so in some places; you leave before people start drinking.”
Eric hopes that his photography captures the essence of the places he visits - both good and bad. “In many places, people just see the beauty in them, but I like my photographs to also show the social side,” he says, “You might see a picture of two beautiful young girls, but those same girls might be forced to become child brides. North Korean people don’t have freedom, but they do read, learn music and play sports. There’s always a good side, even in the worst regime. And if you show something beautiful, there’s also something not so beautiful you can reveal.”www.ericlafforgue.com