Les Stone Claryville, USA
Les Stone’s work straddles the worlds of photojournalism and fine art photography. His images are powerful not only because they bring to our attention important and often overlooked people and events but because they do so in a visually arresting way. Many of his photographs seem so improbable that they could be mistaken for either set-ups or manipulated images. The Iraq food drop photograph doesn’t seem as though it can possibly be real—the scale of the military helicopter, the painterly mountains in the background, the expressions on the people’s faces. In Stone’s photograph of a Vodou ritual in Haiti two figures partially immersed in a mud pool and completely covered in the deep brown mud appear to be figures cast in bronze, a statue resembling the Pietà.
Les Stone was chosen by photographer Patrice Dougé
Laatikkomo’s interview with Les Stone June 3rd, 2014
L: Where are you from? What cities, and/or countries have you lived in – or what places/cultures have influenced you?
LS: I have lived in New York City, Brooklyn and, for the last 15 years, I have lived in the Catskill Mountains, north of NYC. For peace of mind, moving out of a big city was the best thing I ever did. I’ve never lived overseas for more than half a year at a time and it was always because of an assignment. I never had the desire to become an expat, there’s something comforting about being “home”, where I can say I understand a little of the world amid such chaos.
L: What is your earliest memory of photography?
LS: My father was fascinated with cameras. When I was a boy he always had a camera stuck in my face. At that time, the Polaroid land camera was invented and my father went mad with it. When he died, I was 18 and I found thousands and thousands of photographs he took of the family. These made a great impression on me, and when I went to college I was lost at what to do, and the first day I met a fellow student who had a camera, and a big light bulb went off above my head… I can take pictures and do photography in school? Wow… OK. And that was it.
L: In an article about you, it is said that your photographs fit in somewhere between fine art and photojournalism. How would you describe the kind of photography you take?
LS: When I photograph for news, documentary or even corporate jobs, I’m always looking for images that I feel are painterly, photographing Vodou gave me an even better long term opportunity. Haiti is unique, and I’m hoping that I do justice to the culture by documenting it with sensitivity. But any subject I take on is unique in it’s own way, and I treat every story as an opportunity to create a beautiful photograph when possible. It does not matter if it’s a factory, a coalmine, a power plant, all of them “ugly” places; I see the possibilities of beauty everywhere.
L: As a photojournalist what assignment has made the biggest impression on you?
LS: This is hard to answer, as a photojournalist all the stories I’ve done over the past 30 years have made an impression. Many of the stories I did were conflict stories, Somalia, Ethiopia for example, amazing places, tragic conflicts. Africa has always made the biggest impression on me. The fact is I am my stories, I am the people I’ve met, I am the places I’ve visited. They are part of me. Really, no one story is more important than another, I’m constantly meeting new people and having new experiences, growing and evolving as a human being through photography. With that said, I love Vietnam, where I went many times in the 1990’s. Beautiful country and people, Haiti of course, but most of all America, my own back yard I think is the most photographable country in the world.
L: From your website it seems you have also worked for a number of private corporations including some in the oil industry. How do you bridge your promotional work for oil corporations and the journalistic work you have done on fracking, for example?
LS: It is not easy to be a photographer these days, no mater how many “POY” awards you have hanging on your wall. Working for corporations is a matter of survival. Better I do these stories and make money from these corporations so I can pursue my own agenda. These jobs pay well and allow me to travel; they help me pay my expenses for stories I care about. Also, there is a very interesting set of challenges in turning something as dry as a refinery or a port facility into attractive, artistic subjects.
L: Some of your subjects are very heavy and difficult. Are there any photography jobs you have refused to take?
LS: For my own self-respect and for financial reasons, I don’t take jobs I feel I’m being paid less than I’m worth. Many companies and magazines treat photographers rather badly these days, offering them way less than a respectful rate, considering their talent. For me it’s not about how “heavy” the subject is, I’m used to that and have come to terms with dealing with human misery and frailty a long time ago. The older I get and the closer I get to facing my own mortality the better I’m able to relate to the suffering of others. I also feel now I’m in a hurry to do as many things as possible before I can’t no more.
L: Photography holds a lot of power, especially when dealing with documentary photography. What are your thoughts on deliberate manipulation of documentary images?
LS: Manipulating documentary images is just plain lying although that depends on how much we are talking about. Are we saying that a slight amount of aesthetic enhancement on Photoshop is ok or not? I would say that’s ok, for the purpose of improving the picture. But a wholesale change in the image is lying to suit your own agenda, and a lie to the veracity of the medium I feel we are sworn to uphold. For me it’s like the Hippocratic oath of a doctor, “first do no harm”. And lying in photography is a betrayal of that oath of truth.
L: How do you see the future of photojournalism?
LS: I don’t know the future of anything, but especially with photojournalism, especially if you need to make money to live and survive. I am pessimistic, and some don’t agree, but that’s my opinion. If I was a young photographer, I would have to think twice about pursuing a career in photojournalism, unless that fire burns really hot and you have no other choice, it’s an unforgiving world. Not only is it unforgiving in it’s rewards, but also inside your mind, a roller coaster of emotion, many people have not survived both physically and psychologically.
L: Could you list a few words that you were thinking about when you made this work?
LS: Much of my work on Vodou from Haiti has been done over the past 24 years while doing other work in Haiti. I began my career as a photojournalist in Haiti in 1987 and Haiti has had a profound effect on me. Photographing Vodou, the people and the religion moves me. The passion moves me, the respect for the “gods” move me. I’m an atheist and I’m attracted to the pre Judeo Christian religions, they are closer to the environment we have lived in for thousands of years. But especially Vodou, of all the experiences I’ve had in Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, etc. Vodou is the most beautiful, when I photograph I’m almost in their zone sometimes, the music takes me almost as much as it does the practitioners. Photography is a job for me much of the time, but I’m always excited to be in Haiti, to work on my own ideas, to still make pictures that I love. But beyond the photography, I really like the people; I’m excited to be there. I would do it with or without the camera, but the camera helps me make sense or my world and theirs.
Thank you so much Les Stone!