Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen
Photography by Jenkin Au
Please introduce yourself to our readers
I am Paul Labonte and I grew up in Montreal, Quebec.
Tell us how you first got into photography. What got you interested in it and what made you continue with it for so many years?
I started taking pictures when I was thirteen. The first things that I was really serious about photographing were sports and graffiti. I wasn’t photographing actual graffiti pieces though, just the act of graffiti. I was really serious about photographic motion. I see photography as a medium. All I want to do is tell stories and it is one way for me to express myself. I guess I am a failed filmmaker at heart because while I write and I take pictures, I don’t take moving pictures.
You have used many cameras throughout your career. What are some of the main cameras that you have relied on in your career?
I was a Nikon guy in the analog era and when I made the jump to digital I stayed with Nikon for a bit because I already had my lenses and my speed lights and stuff. I have a couple of medium format cameras and a couple of old range finder Leicas. I shoot a lot of digital nowadays. It was never about one machine. I will try everything once and it depends on what I am working on. I will say that my first camera was a Minolta camera, a fully manual Minolta camera from the mid ‘70s. It is arguably my favourite camera to use. It wasn’t a high profile piece but it worked really well and I got a lot of great images with it.
How do you join your two crafts, writing and photography, together?
I started shooting photographs and then started shooting photographs for clothing campaigns. That progressed to art directing and organizing art campaigns, which progressed into buying advertising for clothing companies. Through these experiences I began to build relationships with magazines and then I gradually started editing magazines. When I started editing magazines, I had the chance to write a fashion editorial but I also allowed myself time to shoot feature stories. I have had opportunities to work on both sides of the camera and on both sides of what is considered commercial.
What do you like more?
I am indifferent. It depends. If there is a shot or an anecdote or a story that allows me to get my message across, I will go with that. Ultimately, I am cool with either medium.
Where do you think you have the most creative freedom?
It’s equal for both mediums. I mean, it’s easier to tell stories with words sometimes because you have greater control over the mental image. I feel comfortable working in either medium though.
With technology growing at such a fast pace nowadays, there is much to be gained by switching from analog to digital. How has that changed you as a photographer?
There are people from the digital era who use Photoshop to trial and error their way through stuff that was previously learned through education. If anything, I feel that I am at an advantage because I understand the history of the techniques and I have a respect for how things sued to be done. At the same time, there is nothing cooler than a young guy getting a digital camera and trying to figure out how a cool magazine photo shoot is done. I am not an old bitter hater. It’s great. It’s the same with all technology. You can say that blogs have “ruined” actual journalism like digital cameras have “ruined” photography or you can say that technology just made photography more accessible to the masses.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your creative works?
It depends. Often, I start off with a specific idea or somebody will give me a mandate. For example, the series of photos inspired by the rap music that once inspired me that turned into a book was initially part of a gallery show that Red Bull did in Toronto. They had people who worked in the industry shoot stuff inspired by the music they listen to and I do a lot of stuff for record labels. I worked with a lot of electronic music labels and rock and roll type stuff and when you come into my house or my studio, I am listening to M’Geezy pretty much all the time. Anyways, it was kind of like a fun exercise to have five photos turned into thirty photos.
How do you differentiate yourself as an artist and a writer?
I think the artist label is funny. I express myself and I make things but I think you have to take yourself super seriously to label yourself an artist in that highbrow way. That’s not me. It’s a medium for me to express myself through. It is a tool. I respect it and I understand that there are people who become very passionate about it and it’s their main instrument for living life. However, I put in my work and I understand it but at the same time I think that the story told is the most important, whether that story is told through a pen or a camera. I always think that getting the story out is the most important thing for me.
You were recently in Vancouver for an art show and you were able to connect with your fans here. How do you feel about that and what does it mean to you to hold an art show?
It’s humbling. I’ve been very fortunate that people have bought the books that I wrote and have shown up to see me. I have been very supportive of the art and music movements in this country and I always go out to represent for other people so it’s nice to see that they reciprocate, even though I am all the way across the country and away from my hometown.
How do you approach assignments in your work?
Somebody will come at me with a product. My key to success is that I listen to what people say. I can take what you want and make it better. I can take your rough sketch idea and transform it into something material and accentuate what you want and make it better. I am good at communicating. I can be a mediocre photographer or writer but I am good at communicating and taking something from its inception to its finished state. I have been blessed with this skill.
You have reached high heights throughout your career. What else do you want to do?
I want to keep making things. I want to keep shooting photographs. I am working on more books. I would like to make a film at some point. It’s something that I feel, funnily, insecure about. It’s a medium that poses a challenge for me and I would like to take it on.
How do you usually theme your books? Each book or exhibition has a theme. How were you able to pinpoint your themes?
It’s funny. My photos and my writing are all very testosterone driven. I make stuff that I think guys would like. It’s not who I am at home. As much as I sit around and listen to M’Geezy, it’s not my life. Everything that I have had to make ends up being very hard and the themes based on specific issues that are close to my heart. If you look at my body of work, I chose not to make a book about art in general and chose instead to make a book about street bombing. Again, I chose not to make a book about hip-hop and chose instead to make a book about Pit Bulls. They have a bad reputation. On the surface they look like super aggressive, man-eating, bad media darlings but at the end of the day there is another story there. Spending two and a half years writing about that and unearthing the subject was very rewarding. If you take Pit Bulls at face value they super dangerous but they are really gentle and cool animals.
Many people, artists especially,, debate the importance of education in an artist’s career. In your own experience, how has education shaped your career?
I went to photo school and university and I dropped out early because I was getting a lot of work and I was young and arrogant. I don’t think it was the right decision for me. I really believe in the school system and education. People need time to explore, learn to be organized, and develop themselves. In my case, I love to read and I have been taking pictures since I was twelve and I was fortunate that I had people around me who knew how to shoot. On top of that, I am super into film and I am super into reading so I had a strong base going in. However, I suggest people to go through the schooling. It’s very important and helps to build a solid foundation.
You have been taking photos since you were thirteen. Obviously you started with film and progressed to digital. When digital first became popular, people were looking for that super clean picture quality but lately people have been trying to achieve that grainy look that was common in the analog days. Why do you think that is?
Everybody is trying to do 35mm, 1970’s point and shoot because that is surging in Vogue and certain scenes right now. And it’s back because of analog. If you look at hip-hop production in the 90’s, it was all about making stuff sound super dirty and taking it off the record, putting it in the bit sampler, neglecting to put it into the computer, looping it up, and just making it sound gross. It is the same with photography. People are just looking for that gritty analog feel again. It’s great.
What is HYPE?
Have you seen Friday Night Lights? Boobie Miles says, right before he blows out his knee, “What is HYPE? HYPE is not real. I am all real.” HYPE is something that is not necessarily real.