The Life & Times of Louis Leeson
© Ted Mendez
Young documentary photographer and filmmaker Louis Leeson has already seen and done a lot – from the slums of Mumbai to the riots of South London he has set about capturing an honesty in spaces often murky with lies and injustice. He also recently helped host DOC-CON – an informal meetup for anyone interested in working in documentaries and journalism. His responses to the questions below reveal someone with a real sense of purpose who manages to accurately the importance of art in the documentation of the truth.
When did you get your first camera and what was it?
The first time I had a camera of my own was when I was 16, although I remember shooting on my father’s Nikon since I was a small boy. The camera was a Zenit EM. It was twice my own age and weighed a ton. It had ‘Made in the USSR’ stamped on the underside. I still have it.
When did you first become interested in documenting through film and photography?
When I was younger and still learning how to take a good photo, I would shoot anything. Wildlife, trees, trips with my family. As a teenager I was obsessed with photographing abandoned buildings. A friend and I broke into all kinds of places. I vividly remember creeping through a huge, vacated psychiatric hospital from the 50’s near where I grew up. It was exciting but I quickly grew tired of photographing inanimate objects and buildings. It was about then that I became more aware politically, and I would shoot protests and rallies that my friends or I were involved with. It was at about that time that I knew I wanted to photograph people, but not in a studio, in their own homes, in their own lives.
A photograph of a Galego man in northern Spain, from a recent holiday
As a photojournalist, what are the main things you think of before taking a picture?
It depends entirely on what you are shooting. Of course the subconscious part of your mind is thinking about aesthetic principals and what looks pleasing to you. That side of things is very personal and is hard to relate, as any photographer will tell you. A lot of the really important decisions are made in the edit, what photo to include or not. How images work sat next to each other can affect the whole story, like the Kuleshov effect, so it’s very important to take into account.
Who do you consider to be your major influences?
I am not sure who I might say my influences are. It might be easier for an outsider to look at my work and make comparisons, if there are any. But there are definitely people whose work I find inspirational. I love the surreality and humour of Tony Ray-Jones’ work, and I often try to space people in the frame as ingeniously as he does. Tim Heathrington’s work has always been a source of inspiration. I remember leafing through contact sheets in Save the Children’s photo archive as an intern and pausing to look at one in particular because it stood head and shoulders above the rest. The photos were of kids in Burkina-Faso, all shot on medium format. I looked at the name and it was Tim’s. Someone had turned the camera on him in one frame and there was a portrait of Tim with an awkward smile next to tall African man in sunglasses. It was less than a year after he was killed so it was pretty powerful to find it like that.
I read that you were commissioned by STA Travel to shoot for their Asia brochure – what was
that entire experience like?
I got the job just after paying for mine and my family’s tickets to my graduation, so whilst all the others on my course were at Royal Festival Hall I think I had just touched down in Hanoi, Vietnam. It was an incredible job to get before even leaving university, and there are a few photographs from that trip I do like very much, but I don’t think I really grew very much as a photographer on that project. But I did have a lot of fun.
A Vietnamese flower seller in the old quarter of Hanoi, shot for STA Travel in 2012
Your ‘Life in Mumbai’s Slums’ series is almost an opposite reflection of that work. Were you commissioned to do that or was it a personal project of yours? Did your approach differ in anyway (in comparison to when you were photographing for STA Travel’s Asia brochure)?
The approach differed massively. I was commissioned by a tiny NGO in Mumbai called Aangan to photograph five sites they operated around the city in the slum neighbourhoods. Aangan means shelter and the charity do amazing work getting kids out of organised crime and away from drugs, both of which are peddled by corrupt, local politicians who use the older kids to threaten and intimidate political rivals. In return they are locked away for decades without hope of appeal and their homes can be destroyed with 24 hours notice or none. I was still a very young photographer at the time and I felt a real weight of responsibility to document what I was only catching a glimpse of. I learned a lot from that time and it definitely informs how I act on tougher stories now. I think back to it a lot. It is a story I don’t think I did justice to. I want to return to explore it further.
Through your work you shed light on the stories of people like Mark Duggan. Tell us about the process of making your film ‘Mark Duggan: untold’
I began to collaborate on projects with a small media and social outreach company called RoadWorks Media which is run by two very inspirational and creative individuals: Julien Bernard-Grau and Quince Garcia. After they saw that I could handle a story well they said they had a project they were sitting on and would I be interested in directing it. When I learned it was to meet and interview Paulette Hall, Mark’s sister, I jumped at the project. I had been caught up in the riots when they reached Brixton. I was photographing the looting with another photographer who was using some of my gear, he was mugged in the street and had it stolen. So it felt like a chance to explore the reasons behind all that violence that I had witnessed, and I was keenly aware that I had never heard the family’s side of the story in the media. I also held reservations about the Metropolitan Police’s explanation of Mark’s death, so I said of course I would direct the project. Paulette is perhaps the strongest woman I have interviewed. She struck me as someone who had been through an awful lot, the violence on the estate she saw as a child coming full circle and happening again to her as an adult, and losing her brother too.
The tragic irony of it was very powerful. The film was well received by those who saw it, and it had a brief festival presence during which it was nominated for Best Film, so I was very happy for that.
A portrait of George Galloway MP whilst planning the first Kickstarter campaign video earlier in the year at his South London home in Streatham
How did you become involved with the documentary ‘The Killing of Tony Blair’?
A friend of mine, and fellow documentary maker, Greg Ward, was and is still involved with the production of the film. His first task was to direct the Kickstarter campaign film. He wanted a photographer there to take stills to help market the film and he asked me to come on board. It made about £21,000 on the first day and more than tripled the target in the 40 days it was live. I think it made in the region of £160,000 in the end, and it went on to become officially the most successful Kickstarter campaign for a documentary ever. The filming is now being planned and organised for early next year, so all I can and will say is keep an eye out for it.
Can you talk about why DOC-CON is being held and how it came about?
I run a small video production company with my friend and colleague Patrick Höelscher called Lightgeist Media. For some time we had both been toying with the idea of creating an event that would give space to young or independent film makers and photographers to show works in progress and to learn from others who had got their projects funded and on to screens. It was a very simple idea but we didn’t see anyone doing it regularly, or in a way that we felt was inclusive. We wanted DOC-CON to be very accessible, so that first time film makers could potentially show their work alongside more seasoned professionals and then give them the chance to talk. Too many events put film makers on a pedestal which tends to mystify the whole film making process. With DOC-CON we aim to demystify the documentary film making process so that more stories can be told by more people, it’s about democratising the form. We held our first DOC-CON on 27 November in the Ritzy Cinema in South London, which is a great venue, and we had a huge turnout. The next DOC-CON is going to be the 22 January 2014 at the Hackney Attic at the Hackney Picturehouse so I encourage anyone who wants to show their work, or just to come along, to get in touch via our Twitter [email protected]
Louis speaking at DOC CON #1 © Ted Mendez
What advice would you give to young documentary photographers and filmmakers?
To respect yourself and not to let other individuals or organisation take advantage of you. It can be tempting to a young film maker or photographer to work for little or no money with the promise of more work or your name on a credit. Of course there are some avenues that do genuinely offer the chance to progress after an unpaid period, such as some of the better internships. Instead I would advise creating your own opportunities and making your own work, then others will see what your doing and if you are doing it well they will ask you to do it for them. That was something I learned very quickly after graduating from my photojournalism degree into an industry that was among the most competitive in the world. The jobs simply were not there so I created my own chances for work. Whether that means going door to door at art galleries telling them what you can offer and what your rates are to shoot a private view, or finding a story and shooting it then taking it to publications and websites who might show it, you cannot wait for it to come to you, you have to make it happen yourself. It all comes down whether you really want it or not.
Where do you hope to be in the future and how will you get there?
I hope I am still taking photos and telling stories. I am certain I will only get there by myself.