The Photography Of Robert Leon; A Passion For People

If life is a series of experiences, then travel/documentary photographer Robert Leon is indeed living a very full and interesting one. As a young boy, Leon was mesmerized by the world depicted in his parents' National Geographic and LIFE magazines. "I would dream of going to these places and was fascinated by the different cultures," he says. Eventually, after stints as a corporate, advertising, and fashion photographer, Leon turned his passion for travel and people into a rewarding career.

Leon studied photography at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, Canada. While still in school he did a lot of commercial/advertising and annual report photography. Later, he moved to Italy where he lived for nine years and worked almost exclusively as a fashion photographer. "I was shooting pretty models wearing pretty clothes," Leon states. "After a while it wore really thin as far as content matter. It was very empty, superficial work."

The North American Legends images were a turning point in Robert Leon's career. The 24-page layout/assignment for Clin d'oeil, a stylish magazine in Montreal, combined fashion with a cultural story (in this case, Mohawk symbolism). The images, notes Leon, are more like portraits that tell stories about Mohawk culture and mythology rather than fashion shots. This project helped change and shape Leon's photographic direction.
All Photos © 2007, Robert Leon, All Rights Reserved

And so Leon decided to switch gears and revisit his passion for travel and native peoples. "I started doing travel photography while still living in Italy. I got assignments in Greece, Turkey, and Italy because I had contacts with magazine editors in these countries. I found travel photography to be less of a rat race than the commercial field. I would really dig in and find interesting people to talk to and photograph while on the road."

Although Leon admits the competition for work in the travel field can be as fierce as fashion, he says that "by sticking to what your heart wants to photograph, the competition factor balances out because you can offer a unique vision, style, or point of view of the same subject someone else shoots. There are different calibers of travel photographers and everyone has their niche. I love making portraits. I'm curious about people. I'm really driven by cultures, in particular, indigenous cultures, which is my main area of focus. I love costumes. I love rituals. I love trying different foods. But one of the most important things I love about photographing--and being around indigenous cultures--is their basic values about life.

In the mid-1990s, Robert Leon stayed with the Lacandon Mayas in Selva Lacandona, Chiapas, Mexico, on two occasions for 1-2 weeks. ("Before there were any tours or tourists," he notes.) "I arrived at one Lacandon village called Naha as it was being threatened by people encroaching on their land. The aggressors where cutting down trees in the Lacandon Selva Lacandona in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve--land that is partially protected by the Lacandon Mayas. The Lacandons were in a state of crisis because their lives--and ours--depend on the rain forest. The Lacandon told me the people cutting down the trees would kill anyone who tried to stop them." With two Lacandon guides, Leon hiked through the jungle. When they got close to the area--about 1 kilometer from where the trees were being cut--the Lacandon guides told him he was on his own. "While hiding behind bushes and trees, I crept along and photographed the cut trees. When I returned to the village, the people knew I wasn't there to exploit them; I was there to tell their story. The Lacandon then accepted me into their village and let me photograph their leader, Chan K'in Viejo, and rituals that few outsiders have seen."

"I wanted to learn about and experience different places. It's taken quite a few years, but I've paid my dues like every photographer has to. If I didn't have such a passion for it, I would've quit a long time ago."