Here at oopoomoo our logline is create, inspire and educate. We love to feature the work of photographers and artists who meet these ideals but we are really thrilled when a photographer’s work is not only creative but is captured ethically and does good in the world. We really believe photographers should be giving rather than just ‘taking’. To this end, we are proud to present the work of Edmonton based photographer, Larry Louie, humanitarian documentary photographer.
Larry leads a dual career. By day he runs an optometry clinic enhancing the vision of his patients. On his self-funded travels he explores the life of indigenous people and social issues around the world and seeks to influence people’s view of the world. He also works closely with NGOs such as First Light Photography School in Bangladesh, Seva Canada whose mission is to end preventable and treatable blindness, and Oxfam whose mission is to create lasting solutions to the injustice of poverty. Larry also opened the Louie Photography Gallery on 124 in Edmonton to highlight the work of local and emerging photographers of all genres. And best of all, even with all of his awards and accolades Larry remains grounded, humble and has a great sense of humour. We are pleased to present our in-depth interview with Larry below:
oopoomoo – Larry you have a successful optometry practice. How do you carve out time for your photographic endeavours?
Larry – Well, my photography is something I do on the side and that’s good and bad in a lot of ways. I don’t have the time and the luxury in terms of going away for a long time and so I’ve got to be very time efficient with my trips. At the same time photography is not a big money maker and I want to shoot things that really mean a lot to me and those kinds of images are not very salable or even things that people want to buy or even look at and so for me it’s more important that I do photography for me rather than for the monetary aspects of it. I use my optometry practice as the breadwinner and the way to pay for my photography and I use my photography as my artistic outlet. For me, being able to travel and experience the world fills me with cherished memories. My wife and I do not have an extravagant lifestyle and we chose to save and use that money for our travel and photography.
oopoomoo – When did you get into photography and when did you know you would pursue photography as a more serious venture?
Larry – It first started in high school. I got a camera as a gift and started photographing the area that I knew which is around Edmonton. I started photographing street scenes and landscapes and so on but what really interested me was one year I went to a boarding house in a derelict part of Edmonton and I met a lot of homeless people and people who were down and out. What I learned from that experience was that these people had a voice, they’re human beings, not inanimate objects and I felt I wanted to tell their story. I found their stories of why they were on the fringes of society really interested my curiosity. I ended up spending a lot of time with them and made a series of pictures of these people. I have always wanted to travel and see the world and experience different cultures. As a kid I was influenced by National Geographic and dreamed about visiting those remote areas. Later, as my practice became more established I had the money to go to these areas. I also had the photographic experience I gained from photographing people in Edmonton and so I could put the two together. One year, about 10 years ago, I went to Nepal and instead of just making the typical tourist pictures I was taken by a guide down to the river where I met similar people as those I photographed in Edmonton, those living on the fringes. I went and visited them several times and that was the catalyst for me to start my major project of celebrating humanity, the people on the fringes of society, people living with hardship and working in rough environments. I just wanted to tell their intriguing stories. I love meeting the people and sharing their stories through my photography.
oopoomoo – Larry, one thing we love about your work is that as a viewer we feel like we are right there and having that connection with the people. There is an intimacy in your work that is poignant.
Larry – That’s deliberate. I want to be physically close to these people and spend time with them to make them feel at ease with me. This closeness and the time I spend to know them, that could be 10 minutes or 5 hours, gives me a small connection that makes them relaxed and accepting of my presence, so the pictures don’t look composed, staged or artificial. To make connections I don’t bring the camera out right away, I meet the people first. Sometimes there are communication barriers but a smiling face, a warm handshake and a few words of their language goes a long way to put people at ease. Also being at ease yourself is the most important thing. And asking permission is key. A lot of times I am really close because I just use a 24mm lens and so I am not sneaking around taking pictures unawares. I am connected with the people first and then close with the camera which makes images that feel that you are there.
oopoomoo – How would you describe your photographic style?
Larry – My work is environmental portraiture. The main focus is the people and the connection. I shoot a lot with my wide angle lens because I want to share a contextual story of the person in their environment. As a viewer you not only see the person but also the story of their life. I chose black and white because it takes away the emotional colour and I want to use the content of the image to provide the emotion. Also lighting is the essence of photography and with black and white that essence comes across stronger. A lot of my work has dramatic lighting and black and white accentuates that more than colour photography.
oopoomoo – You seem to get to some spots off the beaten path, things most tourists never see. How do you find these places?
Larry – We work a lot with NGOs and many of the places I go to are out of bounds for tourists and photographers and also can be dangerous. To get to these places requires background work and, by working with NGOs active in the area, we can get introductions and access that would be hard to get otherwise. In giving back, we don’t give money to people to photograph them. Instead, we pull our resources together through the sale of prints or through the fees I get for my talks and give the money back to the organizations we work with to support local projects. It’s full circle. I photograph for the love of it and hopefully giving back to the people I took some time away from.
oopoomoo – How would you define the term ‘humanitarian photographer’
Larry – Humanitarian photographer is respect, respecting the people your are photographing, respecting the story to be told and not to exploit the situation but to make viewers aware of the situation so that possibly positive change can happen. And then to pool your funds to help an organization to help the group of people in the area you photographed.
oopoomoo – Do you think that humanitarian photographers are becoming a rarer breed?
Larry – I think so because now it is all about the mighty dollar. Newspapers, magazines and so on are asking for the most sensational photographs. Instead of trying to tell the story they want to sell the story which means the more unusual or shocking, the better. Those stories then tend to be heard by the public and so sometimes the stories are distorted both factually and visually. Some news agencies like Reuters are now asking for unaltered images, like the Raw files or in-camera JPEGS so that there is no manipulation of the image so that it has been altered or exaggerated to sell the photograph.
oopoomoo – Because you fund your own trips why do your prefer to go abroad when you could do humanitarian photography right here in Alberta?
Larry – You’re absolutely right, many people ask me why I don’t photograph here. The truth is I love to travel and I have an attraction to the far east, the culture, the crowds, the chaos, the energy… it just gets me going. I thrive artistically on the chaos of these busy, crazy places. And you rarely make great images on your initial visit. You need to go back again and again to develop relationships and make connections. That requires time and so I want to go back to these places like Kathmandu and Manila many times. Each time I go back I see something new and different and expand on the story I am trying to tell.
oopoomoo – Speaking of the Alberta connection, you have opened up the Louie Photography Gallery on 124 in Edmonton to highlight the work of local and emerging photographers. As we know, photo galleries are not really for-profit ventures, so we think that is a noble, local thing to do. But it’s something that also eats into your time and money. Why bother?
Larry – A lot of galleries are displaying work that will sell, like beautiful landscapes and not images that tell stories and so I had some space in my building and I wanted a place to showcase work from local photographers who do the kind of work that might not be represented in more mainstream galleries. I started this three or four years ago and have had several shows and the focus is mostly documentary work because that is not really shown anywhere in Alberta. Last year and this year in February our gallery is part of Exposure Photo Festival and we are happy to be part of that Alberta initiative.
oopoomoo – Your images have a timelessness to them, almost a throwback to film in their purity. Can you comment on that?
Larry – Well, I am old school even though I use a digital camera I see things in black and white. I love vintage black-n-white photography. I don’t want my images to look too modified. In documentary work, if there is garbage on the ground, garbage should stay there. I don’t want to beautify the place or change the look just because it might be distracting to the viewer; it has to be true to the story and I think this reality comes out in my photos. Technique wise you still need appropriate lighting, proper exposure and good composition that fits within 35mm proportions. I don’t crop anything; everything is full frame. To me, that’s important. My ability is in connecting with someone and then being able to compose something quickly that cannot be reproduced again. I find I have to be able to anticipate when something will happen and then be quick to respond. My goal is to capture in the camera and not in post production. I am very bad at Photoshop, and so this is why my photos might look like film.
oopoomoo – Many people might be surprised that you use prime lenses, a 24mm and an 85mm instead of zooms. Why give up the flexibility of zooms?
Larry – I don’t carry a lot of gear, I do a lot of walking, there is the possibility of being robbed. I want to blend in so I dress down and bring minimal gear. I often just bring one body and one lens, often the 24mm. To me it’s all about the interaction with the subject; the camera is just a recording device and I don’t want it to be too big, bulky and imposing for my subjects. When people ask me about gear, I always say it does not really matter, it is all about seeing, expecting and responding. I like prime lenses because they are smaller, more compact, sharper and faster which is especially good for interior work.
oopoomoo – How important have your numerous awards being in boosting your photography career?
Larry – These are just little pats on your shoulder. It’s great to have people acknowledge your work and that’s great for the ego but the bottom line is it’s just icing on the cake. Regardless if I have those awards or not, I am still going to do the same thing. I am not going to change the way I shoot; I shoot the way I like to shoot. Having the recognition is nice, there is no doubt about it, and it allows me to tell my story to a wider audience.
oopoomoo – Some photographers after winning awards start making images catered towards winning more awards. There is an honesty to your pictures that suggests you are true to who you are. How do you keep humble after all the recognition?
Larry – I think my wife does it to me; she puts me down all the time! She says “You’re not that good, just work harder!” (laughs). Interestingly, travel photography tends to do better in magazines and publications because it’s a way for people to sell travel. And so these magazines and contests promote travel and things that allow them to make money. Some of my past wins were more about travel but my humanitarian work is not so publication friendly. And so now my platform to show work through magazines and contests is more limited because my images don’t fit that niche anymore. And my stuff is not ‘sensational’ for newspaper work. But even if my outlets are more limited, I am not going to change my humanitarian work to travel photography because it’s not what I like. The accolades are great but the biggest gift I get is the connection with the people I photograph; those memories are priceless.
oopoomoo – How do you maintain a passionate eye in situations where your heart pours out compassion?
Larry – To me, I do have a purpose when I go to these places. I have a goal in mind and so I am focused that way. And so when I photograph these people, even in very bad situations, I do try to remain objective. I connect with the people but I am there to do a job. After I am done, that’s when the emotions come out. When I am shooting I am focused on that. Afterwards, even hours later when looking at the photos or revisiting the people then the emotions surface. I am removed emotionally while shooting, I am analytical and concentrating on the moment, the light, the composition. At the end of the day it’s hopefully your compassion and connection that allows the image to come through. For instance, when I was in Nepal I saw a scene with a young boy and his mother and a collapsed building behind them. The boy looked up to the sky and I responded immediately to that moment. Afterwards, when looking at the photo my heart was pulled hard and so there is a separation between the shooting process and the emotional processing of the moment.
oopoomoo – After years of doing your humanitarian photography work has your sense of hope for humanity increased or decreased over the years?
Larry – Decreased! Working with NGOs the last several years and helping people one at a time here and there does make a slight small difference. I have to say it’s a little bit of a helpless situation. The situation in Nepal for example. The earthquake was natural, but when all of this aid comes in and none of it goes to the people; when there is an embargo from India and no gas or fuel goes to the country… it’s political. So, no matter how good you are as an NGO worker, volunteer, or organization, until the people are willing to make a change themselves, until the government is willing to be less corrupt and support the people, it’s not going to change. Corruption and greed is the root of all these problems. Until that changes progress can’t be made. Humanitarian photographers and volunteers do help because it is the best thing we think we can do on a small scale but we can’t change the government. Our support might be concrete to provide eye care or to support an educational facility that helps a small portion of people. One step at a time. But all in all, looking at the global picture, I have to say I am a little bit pessimistic, seeing it from the inside and the outside at the same time.
oopoomoo – Has your pessimism reduced your desire to continue?
Larry – Oh no, definitely not – it increases my desire to continue! If you are a photographer or artist of any sort, you have to push the boundaries a little bit. If you are not willing to push boundaries, you are not going to get far. You can’t use the same comfort zone to get to something better or different. The boundaries are political and economic: I am pushing against these. I am not going to make drastic changes but I must do my share.
Larry produced a 2016 calendar that had 100% of proceeds go to the efforts of Seva Canada for the elimination of avoidable blindness. The sale of the calendars raised $5500! To purchase any of Larry’s amazing prints please visit his website to find the photo(s) that you want and then contact Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks Larry for all you do!