Traditions on the Brink of Change: Photographer Eric Lafforgue

Traditions on the Brink of Change: Photographer Eric Lafforgue

A mosaic of brightly hued squares flip to form a portrait of a face. A few seconds later, the cards lining North Korea’s May Day stadium bleachers blink into a mural of a flag. Next, a field of wheat. And a soldier’s face. The annual Mass Games is equal parts performance art and participatory sport for more than 100,000 event goers.

Eric Lafforgue lifts his camera and snaps the mosaic of human pixels, capturing a moment of stillness before the next image surfaces. The photo, shown above, is featured as the opener to the “See” section in the September, 2012 issue of AFAR.

Lafforgue is a self-taught photographer who shoots in some of the most remote places on earth: his photographs span more than 65 countries and five continents. Many of the diverse images that appeared in AFAR’s “Mix: Eyes” (May/June 2012) are sourced from his travels around the world, and his photos have been featured multiple times in our Postcards department. Amid vivid scenes from destinations like Easter Island and Papua New Guinea, Lafforgue’s passion for documenting traditions on the brink of change weaves a story of both resistance and loss.

Before jumping on a plane to Addis Ababa recently, the 47-year-old French traveler took a moment to share his own story.

You spent time in Africa when you were ten years old. Could you tell me more about how that experience influenced your later career path and passion for travel photography?
When I was ten, in 1974, I lived for two years in Djibouti, in the horn of Africa; my father was serving in the army. Djibouti was a French colony then. I met local tribes like the Afars, very impressive people with big hair and camels. I travelled in Yemen and Ethiopia with my parents—those countries were at the time untouched by tourism. As soon as I could, I came back.

What inspired you to pursue travel photography and shift into a more nomadic lifestyle?
I was working in the mobile industry, but the company was bought by a big Japanese company and I was fired. I didn’t know what to do, so I traveled a lot and made pictures because I didn’t want to just sit on the beach. I like working.

The more I travel, the more I understand that what I see will disappear, for good or bad reasons. I went to China in 2007, and it already looked like any other western city in the world. I would have loved to see Beijing with thousands of bikes, not millions of cars.

This is why I try to visit countries that will change in the next few years. In Papua New Guinea, tribes have access to the internet in the highlands, even if there are no roads leading to them! In North Korea, kids wear Nike caps and skateboard on Kim Il Sung place, science fiction just two years ago.

Is there one specific experience while shooting that made you feel like, “this is what travel is about?”
Last January, I received a letter from an Ethiopian guy who lives in Italy. He’s from the Karrayyu tribe, a clan famous for the hairstyle they wear and the beauty of the girls. He saw my photos of Karrayyu people on the web. He invited me to come to see the Gadda ceremony in Metahara, Ethiopia: every eight years the Karrayyu leader changes in a big celebration. He promised me I would be the only foreigner there and the first photographer to shoot this celebration. A few days later, I was surrounded by thousands of Karayyu people dancing and singing.

If you had to recommend a destination for aspiring travel photographers to visit and shoot, where would it be?
Photographers often ask me for tips about how to take portraits of people. Most of them are shy about asking potential subjects. I think the best country is Myanmar. People are the nicest in the world, they are beautiful, and always smiling at foreigners. In one trip you can take lots of portraits, great landscapes, and fantastic temples. India is similar.

What is the most challenging aspect of traveling around the world to shoot photographs?
I’m lucky to travel, to take pictures and be paid. And most of the time, I try my best to explain what’s behind a picture. Even in the most controlled countries, like North Korea, you can speak to people, even if you read in the newspaper that it is forbidden. There is always something to learn from the other. My challenge is to show that behind the headlines on the television are humans—not only economic struggles or dictators.

What’s the next story you would like to pursue?
In India, people cut their hair and sell it to foreign companies. I would like to shoot the people before and after. When they cut their hair in temples, they make a wish. I would like to ask them the wish they made, and follow the hair—to see the balance between the Indian people and how the hair is worn by fashionable people.

See more of Eric Lafforgue’s photography at his website.

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