People. Not Pages: Louis Leeson

With the “People. Not Pages” mini-interview series The Phooks invites you to learn more about people who stand behind the medium of self- & indie-published photobooks, and zines.

Louis Leeson is an independent documentary photographer and filmmaker based between London and The Gambia. His work focuses on human rights, migration, and the consequences of war. He has worked extensively in Africa and the Middle East, with editorial publications, news channels, NGOs, and brands to tell stories visually.

Louis also works as a speaker and educator with a focus on the ethics of photography and the representation of trauma: its effect on the image-maker, the viewer, and the person photographed.

A spread from “Give The Devil His Due” published by Louis Leeson & Your Local Newsstand

‘Give the Devil His Due’ is a series of portraits of Yahyha Jammeh loyalists and a reportage of a campaign to keep alive his legacy by people who claim that his eccentric, autocratic leadership made their country stronger and more prosperous.

How do you live and make your living?

I am a freelance photojournalist living in London but working internationally, for newspapers, NGOs and on my own projects.

How did you get into photography?

Both of my parents are artists and there were always cameras around as I was growing up. I studied art photography as a teenager but it never suited me. A little later I discovered the work of Magnum, VII, and other photojournalism agencies which gave me an insight into how to engage with the world politically and critically through the camera. I’ve done it ever since.

What do you value the most in the art of photography?

While there can be, and is, an art to photography I don’t consider myself an artist. For the real value comes in photography’s ability to record and say: “I saw this. This happened.” It is imperfect. It is not objective and it never has been. But without the photographic record, we would lose an incredibly important part of our collective history. We would lose its soul.

Is there something you hate about it?

Paid for photography competitions that exploit the ambitious and organizations that expect young photographers to work for free. It is depressingly prevalent and it has to stop.

How many books you have and what does your collection means to you?

I probably have about fifty or so photo books. They are important because they show you a photographer’s unique way of seeing the word in the most direct manner. Often the photographer will have almost complete control of how you view their images which, in photojournalism, you rarely do, so that is rare and valuable.

Is there a photobook you admire?

Russian Interiors by Andy Rocchelli. It’s a beautiful and personal work by an excellent photographer that, sadly, also serves as his epitaph because it was published after he was killed covering the Ukrainian invasion by Russia.

Russian Interiors by Andy Rocchelli

What should a book be to get into your collection?

I like books that are unusual and thoughtful. I want to see and feel something I won’t find on the pages of a newspaper. Depth. Lingering. Questions asked but not always answered.

What does it mean to you to turn your work into a sensible form of a book or a zine? Tell us based on your latest project.

I enjoyed the process of printing and editing and sequencing on paper, not digitally as one would normally in the course of my work. It is a tactile way of working that is often missing in the digital world. You edit with your eye but also with your body. When you make a decision, to keep something or cut something out, it feels right in your stomach.

A spread from “Give The Devil His Due” published by Louis Leeson & Your Local Newsstand

What you expect people should feel when opening your book?

I hope they feel an immediacy, strangeness, and a rawness. To come away with a sense not just of what these political rallies looked like but also how they felt. The darkness, the surreality, like an anxiety dream.

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