Interview with Roger LeMoyne, 2004 Professional Winner

Mongbwalu, democratic Republic of Congo, October 2004. Congolese men prospect in ruins of the abandoned mine. Eastern Congo has been destabilized by war for the last five years. One of the reasons for the conflict has been the struggle to control the regions mineral wealth. The conflict has often taken the form of ethnic strife, but many feel that these are tribal struggles formented by outsiders that want to keep moving the mineral wealth across their borders. Large international mining companies have pulled out, leaving the work to be done by barefoot Congolese, some of them children, with shovels and buckets. Roger LeMoyne/Alexia Foundation

In 2004, Roger LeMoyne was awarded the Alexia Foundation professional grant to document the impact of war on children by focusing on the lives of those living in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today we have the opportunity to speak with him about his work and why he does it. The images in the interview are from the work he shot with his Alexia grant, but do not appear on his project page for reasons of concision. We are glad to speak with him and have an opportunity to feature more of his powerful work.

Alexia Foundation: Why are you a photographer?

Roger LeMoyne: Photography seems to lie at the junction of my natural inclinations and areas where I am able to discipline myself.

I tried a lot of different things before finding my path, and It is a near perfect fit for my personality. I am a visual thinker, restless and independent. You need that to be a shooter.

Growing up, I was convinced I would be a visual artist. In time, I realized that I wanted to be engaged, in a dialogue with the world, not creating in solitude or reflecting on my own state of being.

Alexia Foundation: What are you working on now? Why did you decide to take on this project?

Roger LeMoyne: I am continuing my documentation of Haiti, its people and their tortuous journey. It has become harder to get support for this, however, as the Haitian situation fades from the news. Also, I was in Tahrir Square last year, and hope to do more soon on the changes in the Arab World.

I am also learning to photograph my own world, both in work, shooting locally for Canadian magazines, and photographing my family life and people near me. When I was younger that all seemed too mundane, sort of amateurish. But of course, “amateur” is simply french for “one who loves” something. Diego Goldberg, a great South American photographer, was the first person to direct me toward the importance of photographing what you know. If one is seeking some truth through photography ( and that is what interests me in the medium) then it is important to have an understanding of what you shoot. Otherwise you can easily propagate stereotypes and misconceptions.

Alexia Foundation: Of what project are you most proud and why?

Roger LeMoyne: That is kind of a trick question: am I or do I have the right to be “proud ” of my work? When you are trying to create something, you tend look mainly at where you have failed, what you need to do in the future. I am certainly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I don’t know if people coming into the business now will have as much support as some people of my generation have had. There is less financing for those who want to travel for their work.

In the weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, I had the most immediate sense that my photography was contributing to a greater cause: I was on assignment for UNICEF and they were raising a lot of money for the victims of the quake.

When you are awarded a grant, there is always the question of whether you can do something that justifies receiving it. So it was gratifying, maybe a relief, to win the World Understanding Award from POYi with the work I had done with my Alexia grant. It is very interesting to see that the ICC has just sentenced Thomas Lubanga for the use of child soldiers in the Congo in 2003. That is right on topic with my Alexia project.

A mother breast feeds her child while getting her hair done in the refugee camp in Bunia. August 25th, 2003 Roger LeMoyne/Alexia Foundation

Alexia Foundation: How has the Alexia grant influenced your career?

Roger LeMoyne: One of the most valuable aspects of it was to help me have faith in what I am doing. There are so many reasons to doubt oneself, to want to give up and do something else. To be part of a group of photographers that one respects is psychologically supportive. It’s nice because you feel like you kind of know the photographers before you even meet them. I have remained friends with Jan Dago, Teru Kuwuyama and a few others.

Alexia Foundation: How did your Alexia Foundation project lead to greater exposure or solutions for your issue of focus?

Roger LeMoyne: There was reasonably good publication both in magazines and books and other media. I wish there had been more, of course, but at least there is an audience that was more informed by the work. The images of child soldiers that I produced at the time have also been used by many humanitarian agencies. Has any of this helped the Congolese? The question haunts me, but I don’t have an answer.

Alexia Foundation: Which of all your projects was the most difficult and why?

Roger LeMoyne: I would say that covering the Congo in the 1990’s and early 00’s, the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010 were probably the most challenging experiences for me. They were all punishing physically and mentally.

Alexia Foundation: How do you select your topics or the places you will go?

Roger LeMoyne: I am constantly watching for the right subject while weighing the pros and cons of investing myself in a story. I am looking for subjects that will have some lasting value or meaning, generally related to human rights issues. There are photos I really want to make and ones that I can make well, which are not always the same thing.

I am also evaluating stories that I can get financed. Larry Towell once said to me ” you don’t take a lot of good pictures once you are dead”. He was reflecting on the question of how much risk a photographer should take in the pursuit of an image. But I would paraphrase that and add that you don’t cover a lot of stories when you are broke. When I can get all of these disparate factors to align, hopefully, I get to the story before it is too late. I see the process as lying somewhere between a puzzle to solve and playing dice.

Alexia Foundation: What is the overarching theme of your work? Is there an element that runs through all of your stories/work?

Roger LeMoyne: When I first began photographing I was really interested in what seemed to be the exotic, in getting as far away as possible from my origins. It took me some time to realize that by looking at different peoples, I was in search of what unites us across language and culture and and race. The more distant or extreme or savage the division, the clearer the message can be. It is through empathy for others that we finally find ourselves, and when this is legible in a photograph, it becomes a good picture.

It is through empathy for others that we finally find ourselves, and when this is legible in a photograph, it becomes a good picture

On my first trip to Papua, I was riding in the back of a truck in the rain under a tarpaulin sitting on a pile of coconuts being shipped to the mountains from the coast. I was sharing the tarp and the coconut pile with an elderly tribesman and his granddaughter. He was like a leathery skeleton and she was like a fawn. We could not speak to each other, but we smiled at each other and we knew it was wonderful to be dry and headed to the highlands and how magical it was that we – seemingly so different – were sharing this ride together.

Alexia Foundation: What would you like people to know about yourself?

Roger LeMoyne: I am a joker. I can’t quite figure out myself why I am drawn to rather dark, difficult subjects to photograph, when I am not really a downer person in life. However, working in difficult places has taught me to appreciate life and see my way through my own difficult periods. I owe people in the developing world a lot.

Alexia Foundation: What didn’t I ask but should have?

Roger LeMoyne: I can add that I am proud of some of the younger photographers that have worked with me. (In some cases I would go so far as to say I played some mentorship role.) Jennifer Osborne, Natasha Fillion, Charla Jones, Aaron Elkaim, Colin O’Connor, among others, have all assisted me, for differing period of time. They’ve all gone on to do really beautiful, powerful work, and it is really exciting to watch them grow as photographers and build a career in a time when all the odds seem to be stacked against them.

Also, I am a pretty good musician, or at least I am kind of addicted to playing different instruments and writing songs. I have observed that a lot of photographers play music, so any of you out there that want to trade tunes, drop me a line.

You can see more examples of LeMoyne’s work on his website, which contains a portfolio of his work in Haiti, or in Walrus Magazine, which has published his work on gold mining in Brazil.