Off the Page is an exclusive new series produced by the NMAF that reaches out to former National Magazine Award winners to find out what their awards have meant to them and what they’re up to now. Off the Page will appear regularly on the NMA blog during the winter and spring of 2012. This week we catch up with National Magazine Award-winning photographer Roger LeMoyne.
NMAF: In 2008 Maisonneuve published your photo essay, “Serbia, the Sad South,” which ultimately won you your first Gold National Magazine Award. You’d spent time in the Balkans early in your career and for this assignment you went back to document your experiences in Serbia a decade or more after the Balkan wars. How did you make that return journey happen, and how did it get the attention of Maisonneuve?
Roger: That project was funded with the Lange-Taylor Prize from Duke University, which writer Kurt Pitzer and I shared for 2007. Kurt had also worked in the Balkans in the late 1990s. We first met and worked together in Iraq in 2003 covering the invasion. You really get to know someone fast in a situation like that, running around an open city.
I called him up a day before the deadline and we drew up a proposal to return to the Balkans and follow up where we had left off. So in 2008 we spent 5 weeks covering the Kosovo declaration of independence and southern Serbia.
Serbia is a fascinating place psychologically, and I have always been struck by the fatalism and complexity of its living history — the “why” of their tragic history and recent civil war. If there was ever a place with a “national psyche,” it is Serbia.
After the trip, Kurt got to writing a book about North Korea and wasn’t able to complete his [Balkans] piece. After a while, I started shopping the pictures around and Maisonneuve was first to pick it up. They asked me to write as well, which I was glad to do because I have a lot to say about the place.
NMAF: You’ve now been nominated for thirteen National Magazine Awards and won two since 1992 for your photojournalism in Maclean’s, Destinations, Saturday Night, Chatelaine, Report on Business, Canadian Geographic, Border Crossings and others, and no doubt we’ll see more of your work recognized in the future. What is the significance for a well-travelled freelance photographer to win a NMA and be recognized for all that hard work?
Roger: Personally, the significance of awards is that they’ve helped me overcome self doubt. When I began working I had no idea if I could survive, make a living, be any good as a photographer. Whenever I felt that I was hopelessly inept and dark voices inside were telling me to give up, I would defer to other people’s opinions (such as those giving out awards) and carry on. Of course the prize money is helpful in funding the next project, and it is good fun to go to the awards evenings. I don’t think anyone will deny that recognition from your peers is especially gratifying.
NMAF: A year ago at this time you were in Tahrir Square in Cairo, documenting the popular revolt unfolding in Egypt, and you’ve also worked in Kurdistan, Palestine and the Amazon, among others. As a veteran photographer what motivates you to document events and people in times of upheaval or transition?
Roger: The transition/upheaval question is an interesting one. With so many photographs being made around the world—and flying around the internet—there is a kind of existential dilemma of what to photograph and why.
I am constantly watching for the right subject, weighing the pros and the cons of investing myself in a story. I am looking for photos that will have some lasting value, that I can get financing for; photos I really want to make and ones that I can make well, which are not always the same thing.
Periods of transition meet the criteria in several ways: these are moments of change that won’t be repeated, ever, in the same way. They have news value at first, but then become part of a historical record. The moment may pass, but the changes have long-lasting repercussions that keep the photographs relevant.
On another level, these situations also reveal the fragility of society and the human enterprise. I see many of our social constructs as illusory and therefore the potential for chaos as ever present, be it physical, financial or in other forms that we are seeing even now.
Conversely, in times of upheaval, the individual regains some of his self-reliance (or perishes). There is something quite liberating about working in these zones of chaos, where your own actions determine your fate.
NMAF: What else have you been working on recently?
Roger: I have just been to Port-au-Prince again, looking at how the city is putting itself back together two years after the earthquake. Very few people who go to Haiti only go once. It is a fascinating place. I have also been working on a story for The Walrus here in Montreal about circus arts. They paid me to go to the Circus. Fun. In the last few years I have been shooting regularly for Maclean’s, which I usually enjoy, because they have to do all the thinking. Sometimes it is a relief to be told what to photograph and what the point is.
Roger LeMoyne is a Canadian photographer whose images have garnered more than 50 national and international awards. His website is rogerlemoyne.com. Find out more about Roger’s National Magazine Awards at our Awards Archive. Photograph of Tahrir Square courtesy Roger LeMoyne.