Vincent Laforet has always been in pursuit of a good story. There were times when this passion took him to a flooded New Orleans where the stench of death and despair were almost overwhelming. Sometimes, he found himself surrounded by the near-deafening cheers of spectators at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. Then there were moments when the search for the story met resistance in the form of an automatic weapon in the hands of an angry and agitated Pakistani soldier. These situations and many others like them were inspired by his desire to tell a story with a camera.
Though Laforet has garnered awards and accolades in his career, including a Pulitzer Prize as a member of The New York Times staff covering the events following 9/11, it’s his latest incarnation as a filmmaker that has not only increased his profile, but also has led him on a completely different path as a storyteller.
"The end of 2008 is one of the single biggest moments for me," Laforet says, referring to the release of his short film Reverie, which was the first video produced using the video capability of the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. "People talk a lot about how it changed HDSLRs and video, and the impact it has had, but I generally focus on how it changed my life. I had always wanted to be a filmmaker and wanted to make the transition, but I never knew when or how. I was so established in the still photography world that the idea of making a career jump, especially in this economy, seemed a little suicidal. I had a life created behind 18 years of work and contacts, and now I was entering a completely different field, where I didn’t know anyone. I knew the risks, but at that point in my life, I just didn’t care."
The world of a career photojournalist was rapidly changing in ways that didn’t favor the photographer. The shuttering of magazines, reductions in staff and loss of advertising revenue were creating an environment where a working photographer faced greater difficulty in making a living, even photographers with an established and lauded career like Laforet.
"Three big things were happening for me around that time," he says. "The first was that I was having my second child, and the cost of staying and living in New York was a big factor. The other was that the economy was having a big downturn, and the editorial market was being severely impacted. The third thing was getting the use of the 5D Mark II."
The prerelease camera wasn’t meant for him and was intended for another photographer to evaluate and use. Laforet coincidentally had been at the Canon offices, and it was only through a tenacious persistence that he was permitted the use of the camera for less than 48 hours. Reverie was the result, and it changed everything.
"Reverie became the best calling card that you could ask for in that it was seen two million times in the first week," Laforet says. "At that time, everyone was talking about the camera and associating my name with it. You can send years of promo cards and never get that kind of response. It opened doors that otherwise would have been very difficult for me to open. If I was going to ever take the risk as a filmmaker, this was the time to do it."
A midcareer change doesn’t come easy for anyone. There’s a certain level of comfort and security that comes with success. And while such experience can be difficult to let go of, Laforet explains that it provided him with a valuable perspective that helped his transition.
"It’s one thing when you’re starting your first career," he says. "You don’t have much of a barometer by which to compare it to. But when you have 18 years in another career in which you achieved success and accolades, you realize the importance of those things that you’ve accumulated. It’s not the awards; it’s the quality of the work that you’ve produced."
Adds Laforet, "I never made claims as a filmmaker that I couldn’t back up. I never claimed to have 18 years experience as a filmmaker. I also didn’t necessarily bring those things to light either, but I didn’t try to hide it. I did, however, highlight those things that I thought were my qualities and strengths. Having traveled the world for 18 years is an asset as a filmmaker that not everyone has. I had developed a visual pedigree that I knew was valuable."
"There is one thing I deeply believe in when it comes to documentary photography," Laforet writes in his book, Visual Stories: Behind the Lens with Vincent Laforet. "It’s not about you; it’s about the stories of the people you are photographing."
"Reverie became the best calling card that you could ask for in that it was seen two million times in the first week, Laforet says."
It’s this belief that has informed much of his work as a former staff photographer for The New York Times and an assignment photographer for Newsweek, Vanity Fair and National Geographic magazines. And it’s his personal journey as a photographer that’s chronicled in Visual Stories. In it he shares the tales behind the photographs he created as a photojournalist and documentary photographer. For Laforet, the book is more than just a memoir or a technical how-to book. It’s a book that has allowed him to gain a sense of perspective on his life and his career thus far.
"When I was first asked to do this book, I felt it was very premature to do a book on my career, especially since I was in my early 30s," he says. "I felt like the Monty Python character saying, ‘I’m not dead yet!’ But as I transitioned from a photojournalist into a filmmaker, I realized that it would be good to write down a lot of these ideas and thoughts and stories before I forgot them. I’ve really come to cherish this book because it’s allowed me a perspective on my life."
The book provides a frank discussion of the technical and logistical challenges in making these photographs, as well as the personal obstacles of ego and fear that can often hamper a photographer’s ability to perform the job consistently and reliably. Being witness to such moments is no doubt thrilling, but it comes with a deep sense of responsibility. It’s an idea that was never lost to Laforet.
"As a photojournalist, you try to do your job with honor and you try to stay as objective as you can," he says. "You come to the table with the purest of intentions. But, ultimately, you’re on your own as a journalist; you’re no different than the people you’re covering, and not only can you become endangered as easy and as quickly as your subject, but also you can, in
fact, become a burden to others by becoming yet another victim, especially if you’re irresponsible."
The stories that Laforet strives to tell now don’t revolve around spot news, sports events or feature stories, but he believes it’s his years of experience telling such stories that have prepared him in his new role as filmmaker and director.
It’s the spirit of collaboration that helps inspire Laforet with each new project.
"I’ve never found anything that I’ve ever done in my life or my career which is as intellectually interesting and stimulating as directing," Laforet explains. "I can honestly say that regardless of the level of success I ever obtain, I would rather be making movies because I love the challenge of working with other talented individuals and creating something where the sum is greater than its individual parts."
It’s the spirit of collaboration that helps inspire Laforet with each new project. Though his portfolio of images was born from maintaining complete control over the technical aspects of his camera, it’s his willingness to let others do their jobs, including making the shot, that’s making him a better storyteller.
"In the beginning, I was so focused on making these cameras work and building new rigs and putting them in helicopters that I completely didn’t have time to think about story or the heart of the film," he says. "There were many films where I would arrive on set mentally exhausted from figuring out how to make these cameras work and reconfigure them on some rig, that by the time I was on set, I had no juice left to be director."
Surrendering control of the camera to the director of photography and other duties to members of the crew was an important lesson for Laforet, the filmmaker. His career as a photojournalist had sometimes revolved around problem-solving, especially resolving technical challenges involving the use of a tilt-shift lens or shooting from the open door of a helicopter. Now, he was discovering that his ability to tell the story would involve using his experience and skills in completely new ways.
"The biggest lesson that I’ve learned over the last three years is about taking care of preproduction," he says. "You always see directors sitting in that director’s chair in front of a monitor with headphones on and not doing much of anything except nodding or saying no or occasionally walking up to an actor. It would seem to be the easiest job in the world. But then you realize the reason the director is sitting there is that they have done everything that they needed to do before anyone else set a foot on set. That’s the biggest lesson."
Adds Laforet, "As a photographer, you can be reactive. You can put your camera around your shoulder and walk out and find that light and that unpredictable moment. As a director, you have to make the ray of light fall just where you want it. You have to have your character dressed a certain way and walking in a specific direction. Everything has to be prepared and only then can you allow chance to happen. My job is to prepare for everything and then be ready for the magic to happen."
Leaving The Race Behind
This change in Laforet’s career also has resulted in him leaving his beloved city of New York and raising his two children in Southern California. It has meant a change of scenery, as well as a way of life that satisfies him both as a director and his role as a father.
"It has changed my life in that it has brought a lot of peace into it. I was the type A personality during most of my life in New York," he says. "I was always in a rush. I was so often stressed out of my mind between the pressure and the deadlines that I regret not taking the time to enjoy it more. I was so focused on the end results at all costs. I felt like I could never let my guard down. I felt like I was racing my whole life as a photographer toward a goal that was being erased as I was racing toward it."
Adds Laforet, "After writing this book, I realized the importance of slowing down and savoring the moments a little bit more. For the first time, I’m more focused on enjoying the process.
You can see more of Vincent Laforet’s still photography and motion projects at www.laforetvisuals.com. Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, writer and educator. He’s the host and producer of The Candid Frame podcast, www.thecandidframe.com.